Jane Yang offers a creative re-imagination of Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary within/alongside/vis-à-vis the pandemic.

A few years past the first recorded cases of COVID-19, it seems as though we are still in the eye of the storm. This forum features attempts to process how we understand this unfolding crisis that, like the virus itself, continues to mutate and transform.

In 1918 Lu Xun 魯迅 published his canonical short story “A Madman’s Diary” (“Kuangren riji” 狂人日記) in the journal New Youth (Xin qingnian 新青年). The story is often credited as helping to launch the vernacular movement in modern Chinese literature, but it is also important for its critical discourse on various aspects of Chinese culture, including Confucianism and traditional Chinese medicine. In October of 2020, just over a century later, Jane Yang revisited “A Madman’s Diary” through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yang’s parody, “A Sickman’s Diary,” is based on the English translation by Yang Xianyi 楊憲益 and Gladys Yang.[1]

– M.B. and B.G.





Mr. C, whose full name is not revealed here for his privacy, is a friend of mine, but we lost touch for months during the lockdown of his city. A few days ago I happened to hear that he was seriously ill, so I talked to him and he showed me his diary. I read and found that he had suffered from a so-called Covid-19-phobia. He appreciated my concerns about his health and said there is no harm in sharing it online now. Since he was under quarantine for two weeks, there are altogether fourteen entries; as for the title, it was chosen by the diarist himself.


Today the sun is very bright.

I have not seen it for over a month since the lockdown of my city, so today when I feel the warm temperature, I thought it is safe outside. I escaped to the street and began to realize that during the past weeks the virus has spread widely; so now I must be extremely careful. Otherwise why did Uncle X’s dog over 1.5 meters away (safe social distance) sneeze twice?

I have no reason not to be scared.


Today the sky is cloudy and I feel a little chilly. I know that this is bad weather for the coronavirus. But I have to get groceries so I went out cautiously, with an N95 mask and face shield, plus a protection suit. The cashier’s arms broke out in a rash and she looks ill.

I was not scared, however, but walked out of the store. A group of children without masks were playing around. I could not help screaming: “Put on your masks!” But then they laughed at me.

They saw my gear and wanted to spread the virus to me!


I can’t sleep day and night. Accept control, give up fantasy.

The most extraordinary thing is the QR code applied everywhere. As long as you enter a place like a restaurant, or you take any public transportation, you must make sure that your health QR code is green.

“Everything requires careful consideration if one is to understand it,” Lu Xun taught us. On the internet, every post consists of the same words: “Harmony” and “Wolf Dream.” Since I have nothing to do anyway, I read intently on my cell phone, until I began to see a word appearing between the lines, cyberspace is filled with the word “Surveillance.”

Facial recognition is everywhere; so I must put on my mask, even at home.

Accept control, give up fantasy!

DAY 4 

I felt very tired when I woke up in the morning, and the burger tasted like salty paper.

I called my boss for another week’s self-isolation, but he ordered me to take the vaccine as soon as possible and work from home.

My wife, a nurse in a public hospital, did a rapid antigen test for me and told me the result is negative. Then she said, “Thank God you are okay! Otherwise, it is troublesome. Don’t let your paranoia run away with you. Stay home, get vaccinated, and you’ll be fine.”

What did she mean by “troublesome”? How can I know if the test result is accurate? How can it be “fine” if I got vaccinated? The authorities are hiding the lethal side effects of the vaccine. They won’t tell us the truth, be it about the virus origin or the vaccine side-effects.

The liar is my wife!

I am the husband of a liar!

DAY 5 

Today I am suspicious again: suppose that the test done by my wife is negative, she would nonetheless be one who lies about the vaccine.

As for our government officials and medical experts, I have no reason not to suspect them. They announced that the pneumonia is preventable and controllable. There are rumours that the new virus comes from a local lavatory; others believe that it was brought by alien animals. I know that the government, be it local or foreign, likes to lie to people.


I don’t know whether it is day or night now. Uncle X’s dog sneezed again.

DAY 7 

X’s dog sneezed several times! It is obviously another part of their plan; a conspiracy to make use of the pandemic to rule over the world, but that did not infect me.

Why didn’t X get infected, why is he plotting with my wife to cover it up?

DAY 8 

I messaged my high-school buddy, who is now an editor at the People’s Times.

“Is the number of newly confirmed cases correct?”

“What makes you ask such a thing? You really are … healthy. You feel good today, right?” He replied.

“Is the number accurate?”

“I refuse to discuss it with you. Anyway, you shouldn’t talk about it. It’s wrong for anyone to doubt the government’s reports.” He sounded nervous.

I realized at once he had joined the liars.

DAY 9 

Suspecting of being infected, they all lie to each other with the deepest suspicion….

How comfortable life would be for them if they could rid themselves of lies. They have all joined in this conspiracy called Covid-19, preventing each other from telling the truth.

DAY 10 

Early this morning I went to the SARS kitchen and told Mrs. L, the chef executive, that I thought I got infected.

At first she laughed crazily, then a fearful gleam appeared in her eyes, and when I spoke of their conspiracy she got very mad. Outside the SARS kitchen quite a crowd had gathered, among them Uncle X and his sneezing dog, all staring at me. I could see their faces as most of them refused to wear a mask. Some of them were masked, concealing their illness; others had rashes on their faces. I knew they were one gang, all liars.

Suddenly my wife appeared.

“Put on your masks, the whole lot of you!” she shouted. “What’s the point of looking at a sickman?”

I had to warn these people: “You must disinfect at once, first by washing your hands instead of your head, then use mouthwash and speak the truth. You must realize that there will be no place for liars in the post-coronarius world in the future.”

“If you don’t wash your hands and mouths because you have been brainwashed, you may all infect each other. However many billions of you there are, you will be wiped out by the virus, just as those foreigners killed by the bubonic plague!”

Mrs. L wanted to send her guards to grab hold of me, but I managed to escape with the 75% alcohol spray in my hand. On my way home, I sent a WeCheat message to all of them:

“You must wash your hands and mouths at once, then disinfect your hearts and minds! You must know that there’ll be no place for Covid-liars in the future….”

DAY 11 

The sun is hiding again today. Bars are still closed. Only one meal can be delivered each day.

I saw my friend Dr. Li posted on WeCheat that he got infected at his hospital, where my wife works, but just one minute later he deleted his posting. When I asked him whether it is true that people got infected from the hospital, he answered that there’s zero cases today. How ridiculous! I think my wife must have known the truth, but she didn’t say anything about it and reminded me to take a shot of the Lupine vaccine before my quarantine ends.

DAY 12

I can’t believe any more of the fake news on the internet. It is impossible to have zero cases on these extremely cold days.

It has only just dawned on me that in the twenty-first century I am still living in a country where over a billion people’s brains are infected.

And now I feel like I have a fever….

How can a man like myself, with billions of fellow countrymen—even though I knew nothing about it at first—ever hope to see a healthy society?

DAY 13

One day left and I still feel ill. I sneezed several times this morning so I can’t have the vaccine.

Bad news from WeCheat: Dr. Li died today at his hospital’s ICU.

DAY 14

Perhaps there are still people who haven’t been infected?

Save the world….

performed by Michael Berry


Jane Yang is a MSc student of Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

First drafted on 30 Oct. 2020

Revised on 4 June 2021[2]



[1] In The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, ed. Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006): 8-16.

[2] The author thanks Dr. Christopher Rosenmeier for his comments and Dr. Howard Y. F. Choy for recommending this story for publication.

If you are interested in submitting an essay, video, work of photography, or other creative work to the First Looks series, please contact Bishnupriya Ghosh and Michael Berry at: [email protected] and [email protected]  

first looks

A few years past the first recorded cases of COVID-19, it seems as though we are still in the eye of the storm. This forum features attempts to process how we understand this unfolding crisis that, like the virus itself, continues to mutate and transform.