In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, new global challenges have been presented to all affected countries, underlining the importance of international communication and co-operation. This study examines a particular linguistic means, classical Chinese poetry, used successfully by China, Japan and South Korea to facilitate their intercultural relationships. Specifically, poetic texts were pasted onto boxes of COVID-19 prevention supplies. An analysis of these texts in the context of the pandemic points to their role in establishing an ‘expressive tie’ between the countries (Hwang, Kwang-kuo. 1987. Face and favor: the Chinese power game. American Journal of Sociology. University of Chicago Press 92(4). 944–974) and demonstrating emotional resonance in the midst of mixed-tied intercultural relationships. The texts also helped to conceal the requirement of reciprocity, while highlighting morality of a country for its favour-giving behaviour. Through practicing reciprocity in a culturally appropriate way, the three countries were able to promote their national image (i.e. national face). The findings provide insights into East Asian ways of managing intercultural relationships, that can be applied to navigate international co-operation for future challenges.