Home/Rod Dreher/Camus, Church And China

Camus, Church And China

A woman in Wuhan walks past an Orthodox church in the city (Photo by Getty Images)

On February 8, I moved a comment by one of our readers who is a physician (I know his real name, and have been in touch with him) up to post status. Read it here. It’s about the COVID19 virus, and what his Chinese wife’s family back home are going through. He shared terrifying details that we have not seen much in the US media. He urged Americans to prepare themselves for severe shortages of medical goods manufactured in China.

A couple of weeks earlier, when the news was just starting to get bad out of Wuhan, the doctor shared with me (and I passed it on to you all, with his permission) some material from his wife’s Chinese social media accounts. He explained that even highly educated, extremely secular Chinese people like his wife believe in Chinese astrology and numerology. He sent me these screenshots dated November 2019:

He does not read Mandarin, but said that they were sent to the WeChat groupserv for alumni of her college. He said it’s significant that even very well educated people send this stuff around. He writes that his wife translated the text from these images for him:

One of them lists off all the previous Golden Rat years and lists off the disasters that occurred. It then gets to 2020 – and right off the bat warns that a plague will come early in the year. That healthy people will just drop dead – and exhorting people not to eat wild game meat – you cannot make this stuff up. The remainder of the year will be filled with flooding and great hardship. Then the rest of it is some kind of astronomical discussion that despite my wife’s best effort I just simply do not understand.

The doctor and I have stayed in touch via e-mail. Last week, he responded to one of my e-mails with a letter that included this:

How has humanity handled pestilence in the past? I would point you to two books: THE PLAGUE by Albert Camus, and AND THE BAND PLAYED ON by Randy Shilts.

I will leave you with this quote from THE PLAGUE – which I think is really appropriate for today:

“In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists; they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence is not a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it does not pass away, and from one bad dream to the other, it is men who pass away.”

This afternoon I received the following letter from him. I publish it with his permission. I have only very slightly edited it to protect his wife’s family. You take this for what it’s worth:

Rod – you asked me for an update this weekend – so here it goes.

I did send you an email back last week – I am not sure you received it. I discussed my wife’s concern with the creeping totalitarianism of the People’s Republic punishing her family and also discussed and quoted what Albert Camus described with great skill in his masterwork The Plague – the complete ignorance of the population with the danger of a true pestilence.

If you did not receive, please let me know, and I will re-send.

Things with my wife have become much worse in multiple ways.

Her mother is still in quarantine, in her little apartment, eating only the rice she has in her house. She refuses to eat anything being delivered. The streets are empty, and no one is doing any kind of work or business. Small businesses all over town are imploding one by one. She is feeling well — and seems to have gotten over her illness — not sure it was Wuhan virus or something else.

We still have not heard a word from her father in over three weeks now.  My wife is just despondent about this — there are no words. He was in Beijing.

Her brother and his family are still in their apartment in [a Chinese megalopolis]. We get small updates from them on WeChat — there is no phone service at this time. [The city] remains under martial law; no one is working, no one is on the streets. If they want food, they order it; it is brought to the apartment front desk and they go pick it up. No one is allowed out of the building. They have drones flying by the windows on the 18th floor three times daily — they are detecting fever. If anyone has fever, the hazmat suit guys show up and drag them and everyone in that apartment away. There is a strange resurgence of the Cultural Revolution, in that neighbors are being encouraged to spy on and turn in their fellow neighbors. [City] is the size of Dallas/Fort Worth, and it is completely quiet, with no work being done.

Again – just common sense – would the government be doing all this for a little flu?

I have not been able to comfort my wife in some time. I have never seen her like this. She is a profoundly educated and worldly-wise woman. However, she has now reverted to her people’s former religion of Zen Buddhism – in a way that I find beautiful and scary at the same time. Her grandmother made sure she and her siblings knew their old ways, even in the Maoist China in which she grew up.

She has made from scratch these beautiful garments for herself and our kids. She calls them “mercy garments” — I get the feeling it is something like our version of “sackcloth and ashes”. When this all started, she looked me right in the eye and said, “We Chinese have forgotten our old traditions and our blessed ancestors. They are now telling us that they have not forgotten us.” She has constructed a Buddhist shrine in our front room – pic enclosed – and every evening it is covered in votive candles – and she and the kids bow and perform rituals, and chant. It is like Gregorian chant – but a bit different.

 

The doctor continues:

This weekend, I saw the look from the abyss in her eyes once again. If you recall, when her fortune teller wrote her last fall, he stated that the plague would begin in the winter and that Lunar New Year would not be celebrated. The next thing he said would happen would be the complete destruction of the crops — and this would be accomplished with locusts.

You can only imagine the look in her eyes – and the gushing of tears – when Mandarin TV announced that the locust swarms from Africa had arrived in Xinjiang, were gathering strength, and had not been this bad in decades.

The locusts really are there. Here’s today’s agricultural news:

Agricultural futures listed on China’s main commodity exchanges moved decisively higher on Monday as the UN issued a threat warning over a huge swarm of locusts that is migrating across Southwest Asia, prompting fears of a potential crop losses.

The migration, which has already travelled across Africa, the Red Sea and a substantial part of the subcontinent, reached close to China’s Southwestern border over the weekend according to media reports.

Cotton, rice and wheat futures in China led the rally across the whole agricultural complex, with contracts for all three products surging to a trade-stop on Monday as traders put on speculative longs.

More from the doctor:

The Industrial Heartland is now on its knees. If this locust plague begins to spread from Xinjiang into Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Sichuan, that would put the Chinese breadbasket on its knees. That is where all the rice and wheat and other grains is grown. My wife’s fortuneteller by the way, stated that after the crops were ruined in the spring, the flooding would begin in the summer.

Again, my wife is a highly educated woman — a degree from their premier university — and up until now has been very secular in her life. I have this feeling that if my wife is behaving this way, it is probably going on all over China.

What is that going to mean for Xi Jinping and the People’s Republic? What would happen in America if large parts of the “Tribulation meme” inexplicably started to come true — what would that do to our cultural and civic life?

What the doctor is saying is how would it affect America psychologically and socially if the kinds of things people associate with Biblical End Times prophecy started to happen. More:

Now that China is the 2nd largest economy in the world – what effect will be had when things start to crater? What would the world be like with 1.5 billion Chinese in rebellion or even a Civil War? I have been thinking a lot about this lately – and do have a bad feeling that we will all be thinking about this a lot in the coming months.

As far as what we need to worry about here…

I still stand by my severe concerns about medication supplies. Generics especially are just not going to be produced effectively probably for the next 6-9 months at best. That means there will be very tight supplies – if there are any at all. Combine that with behaviour I am already witnessing, of patients getting 90 day supplies as fast as they can. We have both a severe supply problem, and now are having a run on the supplies we already have. This is going to be chaos in a few months.

However: I would urge you and your family members to get as much of their drugs as they can right now. DO NOT WAIT. I would also be buying a reasonable supply of things such as IBUPROFEN and MOTRIN (all made in China), cough syrups, stomach remedies, Band-Aids, gauze, and insulin needles, if they are needed.

This is not a joke.

There are entire industries in this country which are going to be severely affected – some already being affected. The cruise industry is already in deep trouble. The airlines are right behind them.

Hollywood is about to take a punch to the face. China is their second biggest customer — and who knows when the theaters will open again? And all over the American West – including my state – the tourism industry will be decimated. Great concern is already being expressed here in the local papers. The bookings from the Chinese are being cancelled right and left.

I am also concerned about the general ignorance that is being expressed in the commentariat all over the internet and social media. People are discussing issues like virology and epidemiology — and these people have not a clue what they are even talking about. I am a trained medical professional, and would not even dare to discuss and opine about things that people are talking about as if they are experts. Please, please read the quote from Albert Camus’ The Plague that I sent you last week. History is being repeated.

That quote again:

“In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists; they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence is not a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it does not pass away, and from one bad dream to the other, it is men who pass away.”

Note well: this is correspondence from an American physician who married into a Chinese family, and who stays in touch with people on the ground there. I am not telling you to believe or disbelieve this doctor — again, whose identity I know. Think about what he’s saying, and compare it to what else you’re hearing and reading.

One mystery I can’t figure out: with so much of China idle, why is the stock market not reacting negatively? The Camus quote might explain it: that they think this is a bad dream that will pass. I’m reminded of something a senior investment banker told me years ago about being at a meeting at a Swiss chalet for the elites in his bank. It was a bacchanal. He realized that great wealth had made all his colleagues into fools. It shook him up so bad that when he returned to the US, he went back to practicing his Jewish religion — and he left that firm, shifting his investments into safe harbor. He told me that he was the only one of his colleagues who got through the 2008 crash without being wiped out, or close to it.

They all saw what was coming, he said — but they all told themselves that they could play one more round at the table before cashing out and heading to safety.

Now, I know that I tend to be alarmist about this stuff. Longtime readers will bear that in mind. Along those lines, you might have caught the World Health Organization’s news today that COVID19 infections in China seem to be declining, and the whole thing is not as bad as SARS or MERS. These are based on numbers reported by Chinese health authorities. Not sure why anybody should believe anything Beijing says. Questions have been raised about WHO’s closeness to the Beijing regime.

The Doctor responds:

I am not at all sure what the real numbers are, but the numbers that are troubling now are the ones coming out everywhere but China — the rise is exponential.  But nothing will be known for sure until we have accurate lethality and R0 numbers — and they are just not available.

Since I started writing this post, I just received another e-mail from the Doctor:

My wife and I just got off the phone. I thought you would find this interesting. Remember the two hospitals in Hubei that the world breathlessly watched as the PLA put them each up in 10 days?

Well, they have official Communist Party names — but what have the PEOPLE OF CHINA begun to call them in the vernacular?

One is known as the Mountain of the Fire Gods.

The other is known as the Mountain of the Thunder Gods.

Why is this important?  First of all, the use of the word God is strictly forbidden in Communist China. This is extraordinary.

Secondly, Fire and Thunder are the only two things in their ancient religion that can defeat Metal — as in the Year of the Metal Rat.

This is more evidence to me that something is brewing in the hearts and minds of the Chinese.  This kind of thing would have been UNTHINKABLE to do just a few months ago — and the perpetrators would have been instantly punished.  Communists do not allow thinking about gods and ancient religions.

I continue to have a feeling this is going to be a fascinating ride.

According to the Wikipedia entries for these two hospitals (linked above), these names were, in fact, given by the state — which is still really interesting! In traditional Chinese medicine, metal is associated with the lungs; fire and thunder defeat metal in the Chinese hierarchy, so the names express the belief that the lung disease COVID19 will be defeated.

Whether the Doctor’s account is precisely correct, or the Wikipedia accounts are, the point is basically the same: it really is interesting that the Communist rulers would either assign these names, or simply permit them. I remind you that Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, is one of the places in China where the persecution of Christians by the Communist regime was most severe.

Two weeks ago, an unnamed Chinese pastor in Wuhan issued a public call for prayer. Excerpt:

“It is readily apparent that we are facing a test of our faith,” the pastor wrote. “The situation is so critical, yet [we are] trusting in the Lord’s promises, that his thoughts toward us are of peace, and not evil (Jeremiah. 29:11), and that he allows for a time of testing, not to destroy us, but to establish us.”

“Therefore, Christians are not only to suffer with the people of this city, but we have a responsibility to pray for those in this city who are fearful, and to bring to them the peace of Christ.”

The pastor emphasized that while Christ has “given us His peace,” that “peace is not to remove us from disaster and death, but rather to have peace in the midst of disaster and death, because Christ has already overcome these things.”

This could be a turning point in Chinese history. The early church gained respect and affection among the Romans in part because of the compassion its members showed the sick and dying during a plague time. In his early 4th century historical account, the bishop Eusebius wrote about how the Christians of Caesarea behaved when plague struck:

UPDATE: On an earlier coronavirus thread, this comment just appeared:

My wife is from Vietnam, and in 2015 we travelled there and I had the opportunity to meet some of her extended family, including a wonderful elderly aunt and some of my wife’s cousins with whom we stayed. Today my wife got word from her aunt that things in Vietnam are very bad right now because of the virus. They are completely swamped with Chinese citizens trying to get as far from China as they can run. None of the children are going to school in Saigon because they are all closed in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. Many people are getting sick, and many of them are dying, but nobody is allowed to speak about it, and they are arrested immediately if they do so. Her aunt and their family are lovely people, committed Catholics, and absolutely terrified.

I know nothing about Wyoming Doc, but I’m not prepared to write him off as a paranoid kook, because I trust the reports coming out of Vietnam from people I know. Things are far more dire over in the far east than are being officially reported.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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