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A Virus Named Totalitarianism

Updated: May 22, 2020

by Zhang Xinxin

COVID-19 tales from Atlanta, U.S.A.

A devastating piece of news hit me on the morning of April 9th. My friend Cheng Yingxiang had died of COVID-19 at a nursing home in Paris.

Yingxiang was born in 1929. Her father was Peng Shuzhi, an early leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Peng had been expelled from the Communist Party for supporting Trotskyism and fled to France with his family after the Communist victory in China. Yingxiang married Claude Cadart, a French sinologist. Together they compiled a great deal of research on the history of contemporary China.

My friendship with Yingxiang goes back to the 1980s when I was living in China. Yingxiang translated my short story “Orchid Mania” (originally written in Chinese in 1981) into French in 1988. When coronavirus began raging in Europe, I was worried about her health. Yingxiang had lived alone since her husband Claude died in 2019. She didn’t use cell phones or the internet. I called her at her home, but I was met with an answering machine message in French, which I couldn’t understand. I wrote to Manou, a translator and close colleague living in Paris. Manou called Yingxiang’s number, listened to the message, and learned that she had moved to a nursing home.

Manou visited her and reported back that Yingxiang was doing well. She showed signs of early Alzheimer’s, but when Manou told her that she was working with me on a project, and that her book on Chinese intellectuals of the 1980s, Dégel de l’intelligence en Chine, had been very helpful, Yingxiang cracked a smile. Manou also mentioned that Yingxiang kept her father’s memoir on her bedside table.

Since Yingxiang didn’t use apps like WhatsApp, Line or WeChat, her landline was the only way I could reach her. Manou gave me Yingxiang’s new number and I called her at the nursing home. She recognized my voice as soon as the call connected. I instantly felt relieved. This, coupled with Manou’s report, gave me the impression that Yingxiang was in good condition at 91.

I first asked about her routine. Was she eating a lot? Was she exercising? She answered clearly. She didn't need help walking, but she got quite tired after 15 minutes of doing so. “Awesome!” I exclaimed, “I can’t even walk for 15 minutes without getting tired!” (That part was true. I didn’t just say that to cheer her up. My lumbar spine was injured and has not fully recovered.)

When we talked about the past, she seemed to understand everything quite clearly. She gave me completely lucid accounts of our old friends and the things we did together. She even remembered what we’d talked about at the Centre Pompidou in 1988.

When it came to the present pandemic, she was a bit slow with the details. She asked me to repeat things. She asked me to start my stories over many times. After I rephrased a couple times, she seemed to finally have a faint idea what was going on.

My husband died last year, which was a heavy blow. I was living alone just like she was. During our conversation, she didn’t ask about Steve. I assumed she knew my pain and didn’t mention him on purpose. I was very grateful.

Our conversation lasted for 40 minutes and cost 140 dollars, but it was worth every penny. I had comforted a lonely soul, and I myself was comforted in turn.

The next day I received an email from Mary, a sinologist living in Paris. I only knew her by name and had never met her in person. It turned out that Mary had been right by Yingxiang’s side when I had talked with her on the phone.

Mary painted a completely different picture. According to Mary, Yingxiang couldn’t understand anything about the virus or what was going on in the world. She wasn’t as capable in her daily life as she asserted. She couldn’t walk at all and was confined to a wheelchair. What made it worse was that she thought she could walk. When she was living alone at home, she had fallen many times trying to climb from her bed or wheelchair. Now she was living in a nursing home with protective furniture. At least she wouldn’t get hurt if she fell.

Mary’s email was grim. “She was absolutely certain that Claude was alive somewhere but simply didn’t want to visit her,” she wrote. “She attended his funeral, but never accepted that he died. ‘Claude has so much endurance. He can climb out of that coffin!’ She would say. She’s very worried about your health. She wants to know if you are happy in America, if you have enough money, and if you’re alone. For some reason, she thinks that you have four children! I don’t want to tell her she’s wrong, so maybe you can tell her ...”

“When you talk to her again,” wrote Mary, “I suggest you use short sentences and pause often so she can process what you’ve said. Please don't be angry that I told you everything.”

How could I be angry? I was shocked and sad.

When I talked to Yingxiang, I sensed that despite the tremendous effort she spent trying to follow me, she didn’t actually understand what I was saying. I had also suspected that she wasn’t doing as well as she said, but I could never have guessed the truth.

Now I saw what had really happened. A lonely maniac in America thought she was having a conversation with a demented friend in Paris, but she was only speaking to a hole in a tree. I thought I had comforted her, but I hadn’t. Not only that, I might have tired her out completely. How ironic. I tried so hard to make conversation just to leave her exhausted.

Yingxiang didn’t believe that Claude was gone, just like I didn’t believe that Steve was gone. Which one of us was crazier? Me or Yingxiang?

My heart was bleeding, but I had to reply to Mary very calmly because I didn’t want her to worry. “Please tell Yingxiang that I’m well. I don’t lack for any essentials and I write every day. Please tell her that she’s rescued me from several crises in my life, and that I’m deeply grateful. I hope I have the chance to repay her kindness.” I wrote.

I only felt angry when I thought of Yingxiang’s parents. I’d read her father’s memoir. He went to the Soviet Union to study communism and brought what he had learned back to China. Later, he became involved in factional struggles within the party and was expelled to Vietnam, then France, where he lived the last half of his life as a vagrant. Yingxiang’s mother died under a pseudonym in a nursing home in Hong Kong. Spreading communism to the world was also like spreading a virus. That virus dragged China into the abyss and destroyed the lives of her parents.

I refrained from calling Yingxiang again. I didn’t want to disturb her. The morning of April 9th, I received an email from Mary informing me that Yingxiang had passed.

“When her husband Claude died, he at least got a hug from her. No one was around when she died.” Mary wrote. She hadn’t been able to visit Yingxiang for a while because the nursing home was closed to visitors. According to a nurse Mary had spoken to, Yingxiang had contracted the virus and began suffering from shortness of breath. Her treatment included intubation. The night before her death, she became uncomfortable and kept trying to pull the tube out.

“A virus named totalitarianism perpetrated the Kremlin and robbed Yingxiang of her last breath,” Mary wrote me in French.

I couldn’t understand this sentence. I used Google translate to communicate with Mary. What did this have to do with Kremlin? I wondered if Google translate had made a mistake. I asked Manou. She replied, “I think by ‘Kremlin’ she meant the Le Kremlin-Bicêtre station of the Paris Métro by the nursing home.”

(This piece was first published in Chinese as a part of  the author’s "My Self-Isolation Diaries" on April 24, 2020. It was translated into English for Humans in Pandemic by Anna Wang.)


Born in China, Zhang Xinxin lives in Atlanta, U.S.A. She is a well published writer, a theater director, and a multimedia artist. Check her more detailed bio here.


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