Opinion

The CDC’s Misappropriation of a Chinese Textile, and Why It Matters

The cover of the May 2020 issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal stokes xenophobia against Asian-Americans by identifying COVID-19 as a Chinese disease.

Rank Badge with Leopard, Wave and Sun Motifs, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), late 18th century, silk and metallic thread, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 30.75.1025

I had always assumed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was a voice that could be trusted to guide Americans through the present global pandemic, save for its flip-flopping position on the efficacy of wearing face masks in public. After all, I had shared the CDC’s safety guidelines concerning the novel coronavirus with students in my Asian art history classes before we made the transition to virtual learning. Instead, it was with a mixture of shock and disbelief that I saw my colleague Michele Matteini’s Facebook post about a Chinese textile gracing the cover of the May 2020 issue of the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal. The cover image had been posted to the CDC’s Instagram feed and the comments section was flooded with expressions of outrage and concern at the inappropriate use of a Chinese work of art on the cover of a journal issue devoted to scholarly articles on COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. With this editorial decision, the CDC seemed to side with politicians and public figures, including our president, who have publicly characterized the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus and by doing so, contribute to a recent wave of xenophobia directed against Asian-Americans.

A screenshot of the CDC”s Instagram

An FBI intelligence report obtained by ABC News on March 27 reported the sobering news that “The FBI assesses hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease … endangering Asian American communities … the FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.” Produced in the FBI’s Houston office, the report was then circulated to local law enforcement agencies throughout the US. How was it conceivable, I wondered, that one federal agency was aware of the dangers of associating COVID-19 with China and another, the one charged with protecting the health of Americans, was not?

Not only this, taking into account that only seven pages between two articles in this lengthy 234-page volume address COVID-19 directly (“Risk for Transportation of Coronavirus Disease from Wuhan to Other Cities in China” and “Potential Presymptomatic Transmission of SARS-CoV-2, Zhejiang Province, China, 2020”), one wonders why COVID-19 — and China — were given such prominence on the front cover at all. The 43 articles in this issue address respiratory diseases in geographic locales as far-flung as New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Florida, and Illinois. Why was China singled out? I sense clickbait.

The Instagram post has since been taken down, but the cover image still remains on the journal’s website. During a nearly fifteen-minute conversation that I had with Managing Senior Editor Byron Breedlove on April 22, I attempted to explain the problems underlying the journal’s association of China with COVID-19 and the fears expressed by my Asian-American friends, colleagues, and students about venturing out in public in the age of the pandemic. He expressed confusion about how the cover art was related to those fears and insisted that he thought the Chinese textile was a “striking piece of art.”

The textile in question is indeed a striking piece of art. It also has nothing whatsoever to do with respiratory disease. Dating to the late 18th century, the textile is held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Measuring 10.75 x 11.25 inches and made of silk and metallic thread, it is around the size of a piece of notebook paper. Objects of this type are known as rank badges. Sewn onto the front and back of a court official’s robe, they denoted the civil or military rank of their wearers. With a nod to the longstanding tradition of animal depictions in Chinese art, the primary motifs of rank badges consisted of animals, both real and imagined.

Portrait of Hankou Daotai, a Chinese Official, in Official Winter Uniform with Embroidered Badge of Office on His Chest and Court Beads. Hankou, Hubei Province, China, 1874

The central motif of the Metropolitan Museum textile consists of a leopard striding purposefully above gently rolling waves. Given the martial appearance visually conveyed by its robust musculature and gaping jaws, the leopard indicates a military rank. The red sun in the upper left corner represents the emperor under whom the court official served. Other visual motifs communicate auspicious meanings. The peaches in the upper right corner of the badge symbolize longevity. The swirling clouds and rolling waves clump together to mimic the distinctive bracket-shaped form of the lingzhi fungus, which is also associated with longevity. While further studies are needed, clinical data suggests that the lingzhi fungus, commonly used in herbal medicine, may offer health benefits ranging from anti-cancer effects and blood glucose regulation to antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral effects. Finally, the bats flying throughout the landscape, eliciting the watchful eye of the leopard, represent auspiciousness or good fortune. In the type of wordplay commonly seen in Chinese art, the word for bat, “fú,” is a homonym for the word meaning good fortune, also “fú.” In another example of wordplay, bats flying overhead generate the rebus “happiness descends from heaven” (fúzĭ tiānlái), or literally “bats descend from the sky.”

Byron Breedlove and Isaac Chun-Hai Fung, authors of the cover feature “Auspicious Symbols of Rank and Status,” try to give an art historical analysis of this textile their best shot. However, their attempt at intertwining art and science takes a disastrous, even comical turn in the sixth paragraph, in which they state that “The birds and animals featured on the various rank badges (excepting, among others, dragons, unicorns, and qilin) may also serve as zoonotic reservoirs capable of transmitting viral pathogens that can cause respiratory infections in humans.”

The cover art of journals is typically relevant to the content published on its pages. However, the rank badge does not have, in any concrete way, direct bearing on COVID-19 research, its health outcomes, or its disastrous march across the globe. Instead, the editor’s notes linger on a fanciful vision of late imperial China that fails to reflect the highly dense urban environments in contemporary China in which the disease first emerged. The editors draw attention to the status of bats as carriers of the SARS coronavirus. Yet it is completely disingenuous to associate the animals in this late imperial Chinese badge with the zoonotic transmission of disease in the modern era. The bubonic plague that spread throughout China at the turn of the last century, for example, was transmitted by rats and fleas, not by bats. Finally, the predominant motif of this particular rank badge is a leopard. While a major study last year of snow leopards in the South Gobi desert of Mongolia revealed their potential as carriers of the zoonotic pathogens Coxiella burnetii, Leptospira species, and Toxoplasma gondii, none of the articles in this May 2020 issue make mention of this, making the singular focus on bats seem all the more perplexing.

The role of art during a global pandemic should be to educate and uplift, not to obfuscate and denigrate. The Emerging Infectious Diseases journal sets an irresponsible example by using art to place undue emphasis on animals in China as carriers of zoonotic disease. Furthermore, the CDC now stands apart from other scientific and scholarly organizations in implicitly promoting the characterization of the novel coronavirus as a “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned against calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” saying that the term is “more dangerous than the virus itself.”  In May 2015, the WHO issued the document “World Health Organization Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases,” guidelines for the naming of diseases that mandated their disassociation from specific geographic locations. Nature recently issued an apology for its early association of the virus with China and Wuhan in its news coverage, citing the need for international collaboration in scientific research. Finally, the Association for Asian Studies, the premier scholarly organization for Asian Studies, has spoken strongly against racism and offered resources for those affected.

The target audience of the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal is specialists in infectious disease, those at the frontlines of research on COVID-19. For this reason, it is all the more urgent that those researchers are educated on the racialization of COVID-19 in political and public discourse so that they do not perpetuate this damaging narrative. In their closing reflections on the rank badge, Breedlove and Fung note that “Perhaps one’s rank and status might confer favor in some circles, but they offer no protection from human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and other viral respiratory infections and illnesses.” Neither does the CDC offer protection from the COVID-19-fueled xenophobia unleashed against individuals of Asian descent, nor does its journal model best practices of responsible editorial norms.

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