A writer friend of mine once told me “writing is therapeutic.” As one of the more than 11 million residents locked down in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese writer Fang Fang probably felt the same way when she decided to record her experiences online daily during the lockdown.
She started posting entries on Jan. 25, two days after the Chinese government quarantined Wuhan and several nearby cities with a total population of 60 million. She entered her last entry on April 8, when the lockdown was formally lifted. These entries have now become a new book, titled Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City, translated into English by Michael Berry.
When reading this book, it’s important to keep in mind its original form and purpose. Fang Fang wrote her entries on Wechat, a popular messaging app in China. She usually wrote at the end of the day to summarize her anecdotal experiences, as well as information she learned from others online, in text messaging, and from phone calls.
Her writing style is very conversational and, as any diary, it was full of quotidian details, such as about the weather, food, and her dog. Because she didn’t plan to write a book initially, many entries give readers a sense of spontaneity: she simply wrote how she felt, whatever came to her mind that she deemed to be worth sharing, as well as things she needed to get off her chest.
Therefore, you won’t find well-crafted, sophisticated passages in this book. Some parts of the diary almost felt repetitive. At the same time, these shortcomings also made Fang Fang’s story endearing, and her experiences real to readers. When I read the book, I felt like I was in the same room with Fang Fang, who is about the same age as my mother, listening to her chat about her day.
Anger and Despair
Wuhan Diary is full of heartfelt emotions on an entire spectrum, from boredom, to isolation, to the yearning for life to return to normal. These are the feelings we can relate to well, as many of us have just experienced lockdown ourselves. However, it was the anger, despair, and hope Fang Fang documented that really stood out.
Out of the many forms of suffering noted in Wuhan Diary, I want to decipher the feeling of despair first. The number of people infected with coronavirus exploded during the Lunar New Year, “a time of year that is usually filled with joy. Instead, the world froze over.” Since all forms of public transportation were shut down and most residents do not own cars, “they had to walk from one hospital to another in search of a place that might admit them.”
Once they reached a hospital, they usually had to wait all day – and sometimes all night – in line, only to be told to “go home” because there were no bedsl. Doctors and nurses were often at the point of exhaustion and overwhelmed by their helplessness. Fang Fang notes that too many medical professionals “have tragically sacrificed their lives during this pandemic,” including Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the early whistleblowers warning about the burgeoning pandemic, before succumbing to the virus himself.
To prevent potential infection, remains of people who died at home were hauled away immediately to the crematorium. Fang Fang wrote about heartbreaking images she saw on the internet, one of which showed a pile of cell phones in the crematorium, left behind by the dead. Another image shows “a daughter trailing behind her mother’s funeral car, screaming through her tears.”
Another heart-wrenching story Fang Fang shared was about a gentleman named Xiao Xianyou, who died of Covid-19 leaving a 11-word final testament. A local newspaper praised him as a patriotic example because of his first seven words, “I donate my body to the nation,” but left out his last four words, “What about my wife?”
Fang Fang asks in her diary, “Why did they [editors] take special pains to remove those last four words? Perhaps the editor thinks that love for one’s nation is a sublime love whereas love for one’s wife has lesser value?” In the midst of a pandemic, when so many lives have perished and so many more are at risk, a departed individual still had to serve one final political purpose for the party.
Naturally, there were many instances of anger in this book. Some were caused by the government’s lies early on, in January, when citizens were told the virus was “not contagious between people,” and that “it’s controllable and preventable.” Fang Fang states that the Chinese people, including herself, “have placed too much faith in our government.” At the beginning of lockdown, she even told her friends: “The government would never dare to try to conceal something so huge.” So the people of Wuhan went about their business as usual.
More than 4,000 people attended a mass banquet. When a few days later the government finally admitted the virus was contagious, Fang Fang couldn’t hide her anger anymore. She pointed out that those who said the virus was not contagious had “committed heinous crimes with their irresponsible words,” and that hosting the mass banquet was “a form of criminal action.”
Some of her anger resides in her disappointment with the government-botched responses and incompetent government officials. Fang Fang’s doctor friend told her that if they had been better prepared early on, “Wuhan should have been able to treat all the serious cases that came in. But things were just too chaotic during the early stages of the outbreak.” Local government officials were used to “let[ing] written directives guide their work, so once you take away the script they are at a complete loss as to how to steer the ship.”
While steering clear of any criticism of the central government and its leadership, Fang Fang doesn’t mince words at criticizing local officials, many of whom were deemed “utterly useless.” She clearly recognizes their incompetence reflects a systematic problem rather than individual fallibility, caused by “deeply ingrained habitual behaviors, like reporting the good news while hiding the bad preventing people from speaking the truth, forbidding the public from understanding the true nature of events, and expressing a disdain for individual lives.” She vows more than once in her diary to hold these government officials and their accomplices accountable for having led the “massive reprisals against our society and untold injuries against our people.”
As Fang Fang’s online postings readers attracted more readers, her frustration also grew as censors kept deleting her posts, and eventually, began to lock her out of her account from time to time. Furthermore, she mentions that “Weibo has a special feature that makes the user believe their post was successfully unloaded when it actually remains invisible to other users.” She concluded that “Technology can sometimes be every bit as evil as a contagious virus.” Fortunately, many Chinese readers became very creative at making digital copies of her posts before censors could take them down.
The Power of Memory
Fame did bring a downside to Fang Fang’s writing career. Fang Fang was, and still is, on the receiving end of resentments and hostility. She has been under vicious online attack from far-left nationalists who called her diary a lie and nothing but gossip. These attacks worsened as the word of publishing her diary in English transpired. Chinese trolls publicized her home address, spread rumors about her, and implied that she was paid by the West to fabricate her diary all this time.
In addition, some made the tremendous effort to climb over the internet firewall to denounce her on Twitter and Amazon. The trolls’ toxicity and maliciousness can be seen through fabricated one-star “reviews” of her book on Amazon. Trolls have even extended their hatred to the book’s English translator, Michael Berry. Some friends advised Fang Fang to stop writing to protect herself, but she decided to keep going, after finding motivation in a Chinese saying: “Don’t leave the world in the hands of the bastards.”
Along with despair and anger, this book is also full of hope, much of it generated from others’ acts of kindness. Fang Fang lives alone with her 16-year-old dog in a housing compound. Neighbors and colleagues frequently brought her masks and food without her ever asking. A journalist who came to interview her hid a dozen chocolate bars in a bag of vegetables he brought.
Young volunteers organized grocery deliveries for neighborhoods on their own. Other provinces in China sent medical professionals to Wuhan and donated medical supplies and fresh produce to residents. Fang Fang also received many messages of gratitude and support. Some of her audience told her that reading her diary had become part of their daily ritual that they couldn’t live without.
The most vibrant form of hope came from the gradual containment of the spread of the virus. While the official number of infected cases and the death toll in Wuhan remain questionable, the 60 days of entries evoke a feeling of relief as things indeed have become better, and life in Wuhan has returned to some form of normalcy.
Ultimately, Wuhan Diary is a worthy read because it presents a first-hand account from an honest, thoughtful, and rational observer who also had the power of words. As the Chinese government is busy portraying itself in the most positive light, suppressing truth and any dissent, Fang Fang’s book preserves the memory of the reality in the ground zero of the pandemic.
Another Chinese writer, Yanlian Ke, said preserving such memory is especially important for people who live under an authoritarian regime: “While memories may not give us the power to change reality, it can at least raise a question in our hearts when a lie comes our way.” Only those who remember can someday pass these memories to future generations, in the hope that history won’t repeat itself and we don’t leave the world in the hands of the bastards.