The coronavirus has not only disrupted the way many Chinese people are celebrating their new year – it has also reshaped their traditional greetings.
Forget about fortune in the year of the rat – just keep your health.
As the coronavirus outbreak grips China in the midst of the country’s lunar new year holiday, celebrants are dispensing traditional well-wishes.
Instead of well-worn appeals to prosperity, many Chinese are telling each other to be free from sickness as the country struggles to contain a public health crisis.
With cities on lock-down and travel plans derailed due to the outbreak, Chinese internet users have found a new way to connect with family and friends during the two week holiday that began on 25 January.
A popular new New Year greeting, “bai du bu qin”, is trending online, supplanting wishes for abundance and fitting with the zeitgeist.
A poetic phrase with origins in Chinese literature, it means “may you be immune from 100 toxins”.
The benediction has been viewed over 50 million times on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform.
The greeting is also being used as a hashtag to help spread public health information. Xue Zhiqian, a pop star, told his Weibo fans: “Hope you don’t stay away from the office. Don’t go outdoors. Don’t spread the virus. Don’t believe in rumours. Bai du bu qin, stay true and pure.”
It has been taken up as a slogan of unity and encouragement to carry on in the midst of a fearful time. The hashtag “people unite together, bai du bu qin” has trended in China.
Until now, “bai du bu qin”, though familiar, had not seen popular usage in China.
It is certainly less well-known that “gong xi fa cai”, the decades-old greeting meaning “may you attain great wealth”. (That phrase is so popular it is taught in American primary schools.)
“Immunity from 100 toxins” appears to have originated in a verse by the Cambridge-educated poet Xu Zhimo, and also makes an appearance in the fiction of Louis Cha, a martial arts novelist, but was not known to be said at holidays.
It implies having great self-control and determination as well as not easily succumbing to disease.
On social media, the viral phrase has been turned into a faux traditional ornament that features a centrepiece and a “new years couplet”, as usually posted on people’s doors in China during the holiday.
One picture features the saying on a yellow background, framed with a couplet that urges people to wash their hands frequently, wear masks and improve ventilation.
Another widely-shared image shows a decorative sticker with a mask-wearing rat, the zodiac sign of the year.
Though the mood is dark, some Chinese are finding ways to make light of the tension.
A trending joke says that the best way to celebrate this lunar new year is to stay at home until day 15, only taking walks from the bedroom to the kitchen, not to leave until Zhong Nanshan, the ancient Chinese epidemiologist, advises otherwise.
For those who manage to visit their families and friends, their preferred choice of gifts has changed due to the outbreak.
Hong Kong illustrator Bonnie Pang shared on Instagram her illustration of people gifting face masks rather than traditional gifts, such as pastries.
Another viral meme shows red envelopes filled by surgical masks, instead of cash.
“This new year is different from the previous ones. Wishing you all bai du bu qin,” a said post trending on WeChat. The “fashionable” way to spend this lunar New Year, the writer said, is to be “chilling at home.”