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The quarantine diary emerged in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic as the genre de rigueur in response to the crisis and trauma, both personal and global, brought on by the coronavirus. As a literary form, the diary is perfect for capturing the immediacy of emotional experiences and ongoing uncertainties. It is kind to fragments and negative space and does not require perfection. The public diary shares many strengths with the traditional private diary but has a social aspect closer to blogging and letter writing; it seeks connection with others who are (or have become) physically distant. Thus, as the coronavirus pushed us further and further away from any sense of normalcy or a predictable future, diary writing—both public and private—became one way for people to hold on to small certainties.
Writing from Wuhan, the city in China’s Hubei province that was ground zero for the pandemic, Fang Fang became one of the most prominent voices on Chinese social media. A prolific, award-winning new realist novelist whose work has been translated and published internationally, the 65-year-old Fang began her “Wuhan lockdown diary” on the microblogging platform Weibo on January 25, the day a citywide lockdown went into effect, when most of the world was still in the dark about the coronavirus. Her daily writings commanded the attention of more than 50 million people in China. At a time when rumors, misinformation, and misguided folk wisdom ran rampant and official channels of information were increasingly restricted, readers found solace in her lucid recap of the day’s news. As the viral outbreak peaked in Wuhan, Fang grew stern in her unrelenting demands for accountability regarding the government’s mishandling of the crisis, which contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, as well as innumerable post-traumatic consequences that people in China have yet to reckon with.
With the help of her fiction translator Michael Berry, Fang’s entries from January 25 to March 24 have been published in English by HarperCollins as Wuhan Diary: Dispatches From a Quarantined City, the first such diary from China to reach a mainstream global audience. Chinese nationalists attacked Fang online for criticizing the government and allowing her dispatches to be weaponized by the United States, particularly in this moment of high tension between the two countries. If there was briefly the faint hope that the looming catastrophe would awaken the country’s population to the point of possible radicalization, that hope has flattened along with the infection curve. After a momentary bloom in investigative and citizen journalism, the state has regained control of the narrative of events, most emblematically by refashioning the tragic deaths of people like Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old doctor who was reprimanded for warning his colleagues about the novel coronavirus and soon after died from Covid-19, into simplistic narratives of patriotic heroism rather than a painful lesson in the Chinese government’s disastrous early response. In this light, Fang’s anger and frustration speak more to the limits of citizenry under the system, in addition to the substance of her criticism.
Fang conceived her writerly mission as one of bearing witness to the unprecedented lockdown of Wuhan, the most populous city in central China. “I’m afraid people outside the city have no way to truly understand what we are going through. There are no words strong enough to capture the sacrifices that the people of Wuhan have had to make during this outbreak,” she wrote on February 29. While she stipulates that her diary is not “intended as a vessel for grand narratives,” it is not just a window into the quotidian, either. Fang is more concerned with social commentary and public events than the details or emotional nuances of daily life under the lockdown. Many of her updates are based on articles she read, videos she watched, or messages from friends who are medical experts or sources connected to the government. And she acknowledges these limitations, writing, “For a literary person like me, all I can do is keep a record of the things I see and hear.”
I read her diary on Weibo during the first month of the lockdown, while I was stuck in Hong Kong after travel to the mainland became restricted, and it started to make sense why it was so beloved. During a public crisis, people seek a relatable, trustworthy voice, and Fang takes on that role here—amiable, chatty, eager to share the insights of her various connections while adding her observations on the mysterious virus and the lack of conscientiousness and common sense in the response by the government. As a member of the establishment watching out for her fellow Wuhanese, she even called for the resignation of top provincial officials. Her stance on contemporary debates appears unexamined at times (“What is privacy when compared with the cost of a human life?”), but she maintains a rational, even-keeled tone. She is not a Debbie Downer, even though her diabetes meant that she was mostly confined to her home, except to pick up groceries and packages, and do chores in her apartment building’s courtyard. Her diary created a common platform for conversation, not unlike a nightly news show.
But a month and a half into the lockdown, when Fang opined, “Online shopping, binge-watching, sleeping: This is our life now,” she began to sound like what teens would describe as “boomer” rather than a force for inspired change. Part of the tonal distance is a result of language; she sounds, even in English, like a slightly out-of-touch older family member, using terms like “family chat group” instead of the more common “group chat” or “Old Godmother hot chili sauce” instead of the brand name of the popular condiment Lao Gan Ma. But more crucially, I began to question the value of privileging a diary like Fang’s when there is no shortage of alternative accounts of the lockdown by Wuhan residents, citizen journalists, and writers. If, under the best-case scenario, the pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to reset our lives and our societies, is screen time, shopping, and ennui the best we can do?
Long after the initial viral outbreak, Fang’s diary no longer serves the immediate need for real-time analysis or emotional support. If the appeal of her legacy now rests on her audacity in speaking up against an oppressive government, it is more of an effect of the political conditions than within the realm of what a diary can offer, even in the public form she has adopted here. But Fang doesn’t always see herself at eye level with the audience she claims an affection for; her diary reflects the privilege and limitations of writing about the public health crisis and its corresponding gaps in translation.
Despite the personal disclaimers of her diary format, Fang seems comfortable speaking for “the people of Wuhan”—for example, when she writes that “people are more bored than scared” or that “the people of Wuhan seem to be quite calm these days.” For someone who rarely left her residential compound, such generalizations have a presumptuous ring. The perch from which she writes shows up again when she “noticed [the sanitation workers’] consistently calm attitude. They are the group that always gets overlooked as they quietly carry out their jobs, but somehow they are always there to set the heart of this city at ease.” Observations like this can read as patronizing at best and othering at worst. It should, in any case, inspire curiosity about chronicles of the lockdown told from a different vantage point. For example, in her Wuhan Lockdown Diary (Linking Publishing, 2020), the 29-year-old feminist activist Guo Jing offers this account of sanitation workers (translation by professor Hongwei Bao):
I interviewed eight sanitary workers: six women and two men. They work seven to eight hours every day. Their monthly income averages 2,300 (or 2,400) RMB [renminbi, or about $330 to $340]. After tax, they only get less than 2,000…. If they are lucky, they can get twenty face masks at a time. One worker has only received two face masks since the start of the lockdown…. They earn meager wages and are not protected from the virus. But they kept on working. Do we really deserve their hard work?
In 2014, Guo was the plaintiff in China’s first lawsuit over gender discrimination in employment. (She won the case.) Afterward, she helped start a legal hotline for women experiencing workplace issues. She moved to Wuhan in November 2019, less than three months before the quarantine began. When a friend suggested that she write about her experiences there, she initially hesitated, partly because she didn’t want to be seen as a victim or give the impression that she must be miserable under the lockdown.
Guo’s diary was originally serialized online before being targeted by Chinese internet censors, and the book was published by a Taiwanese publisher in April. It has been censored in China and is not yet fully available in other languages. When quarantine rules still allowed, Guo made a point of taking walks around the city every day and talking to as many people as she could. Her quarantine diary was a mix of her everyday routine, her reflections as an activist, and a citizen journalist’s notebook on the material conditions of Wuhan at the time. In February, in response to a highly publicized hair-shaving directive for female nurses to prepare them for duty—something that caused a feminist outcry online—Guo wrote:
We talked about the female nurses from Gansu Province who were forced to have their hair cut; we also noticed that there was only one male nurse with short hair in the photo. Many female nurses were very unhappy when they had their hair cut; some even cried. Hair is not simply about looks; it also symbolizes one’s dignity. Is it necessary to cut off all their hair? Have all these women given their consent? Women’s bodies never truly belong to themselves. There are always people who feel more entitled to putting women’s bodies at their disposal.
In Fang’s diary, the event is remembered this way: “Medical professionals have been lining up to volunteer; they are cutting their hair, some even shaving their heads completely, and saying goodbye to their friends and family to come here to help.”
A contemporary of Fang’s, the 67-year-old documentary filmmaker and political activist Ai Xiaoming, discussed in her own popular lockdown journal how the political environment had given rise to the diary as a form of agency. She wrote, “The diary form became popular because it fills the gap at a time when citizen journalism is being suppressed. Diaries became sought after because people lack other channels for direct, on-the-ground reporting from the grassroots.”
Reporting that enables bearing witness enables change. In Guo’s case, her diary, while more intimate in tone and scope, liberated its writer from centering herself; she speaks not as Guo but as a feminist social worker in Wuhan. Through the volunteer legal hotline she ran as well as a group chat she started with feminist friends in the city, she learned that domestic violence was a threat for many women under the lockdown. She subsequently led a work group that co-launched an anti-domestic-violence campaign in Wuhan in early March. In contrast, despite drawing connections between government policies and its impact on people, Fang’s backseat-driving narrator becomes its own literary limit.
Ultimately more concerned with preserving a picture of life in Wuhan by filling in the gaps she saw in the mainstream media’s coverage rather than with advocating for change at the grassroots level, Fang did not expect her diary to become a barometer for public discourse in contemporary Chinese society. While Ai uses a higher level of sarcasm and metaphor in her social commentary (as opposed to Fang’s more accessible, plain, and colloquial style), she nonetheless labors to provide historical context for the controversies surrounding Fang and her diary. “In an authoritarian society, it is inevitable that diary-writing becomes endangered,” Ai wrote in an entry on April 4. “If we look to the memoirs of those who were at the scene of the anti-rightist campaign in 1957, many of their diaries didn’t even mention anything politically adversarial. They were simply personal reflections or perhaps diaries kept out of habit. But in the end, their words became distorted and even got [their writers] killed.”
There is a human instinct to look for heroes and villains—catalysts, really—in a narrative of catastrophe, if for no other reason than to cling to the hope that change is possible. As China recalibrates in the aftermath of the initial Covid outbreak, news of one of the most disastrous floods in decades in the southern part of the country, including Hubei, in early July became censored as soon as it was published. Journalists could only speculate, as one had The New York Times: “Perhaps people had grown numb to hardship. Or perhaps China’s government and its censors did not want to draw more attention to people’s suffering.” As Guo observes in her diary, “It is so hard to get rid of the feeling of helplessness. But maybe rather than trying to get rid of it, we should find a way to co-exist with it.” As sympathetic but helpless outsiders beholding materially distant suffering, perhaps our first ethical duty is to seek out as many witnesses as possible.