Starting on January 25 2020, novelist and poet Fang Fang has posted 60 daily diary entries about life and death in her home town of Wuhan to WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform.
Born in 1955, Fang has a long and respected career as a writer of poems, novels and novellas. She won the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010, and was elected president of the government-funded Writers Association of Hubei Province in 2007. But her work has rarely been translated into English.
Her diaries were read widely in China, and but their reception was mixed. Some readers celebrated Fang for voicing people’s struggles in lockdown, others criticised her viewpoints. In her diary, Fang wrote* about her persistence: “I’m never too old to lose the strength of criticising.”
News of publication of her translated diaries in English and German only the inflamed debate in China. But in any language, Fang Fang’s unfolding recording of the pandemic will be valuable for the globe’s understanding of our shared memories of this time.
Fang Fang and her diaries
Before becoming a writer, Fang worked as a dockworker at the Port of Wuhan, on the Yangtze and Hanjiang rivers. Her stories mostly depict struggling social underdogs in Wuhan.
Fang’s diaries (which I read in the original Mandarin) chronicle the situation in Wuhan throughout the lockdown.
She describes her daily life in quarantine: food shopping, online communication with families and friends, and responding to readers.
She touches on sensitive topics: the investigation of China’s belated reporting on coronavirus, overcrowded hospitals, and those dying at home unattended.
There are heartbreaking snapshots: scattered, unclaimed cell phones at a mortuary; sweet moments when volunteers help with the old and the weak. She reflects on the dilemma of media workers in a public crisis, emergency policies enacted by local administrations, and misinformation capturing the interest of Chinese netizens.
In Fang’s diaries, we see a personal account of public memory and national trauma.
Fang’s diaries attracted a large following during the outbreak in China. One reader commented under her post: “These diaries are the respiratory valve for us in gloom.”
Fang’s tone is colloquial, poignant and accessible. Her words resonate with people isolated and frightened in her appeals for help, and her grieving over the beloved.
A critical reception
By the end of Fang’s diarising on March 25, criticism had swelled, with Chinese citizens targeting the writer’s credibility and integrity. This torrent of criticism peaked when Harper Collins announced it would be publishing the diaries in English translation, under the title Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City.
Fang was denounced by her opponents as selling Wuhanese suffering to Westerners and defaming China’s effort in fighting the virus. Opponents have said this book will “hand over the knife” to anti-Chinese sentiment, and provide legitimacy to conspiracy theories and unjustified blame on China. One post about her on Weibo said: “You’re giving Western countries ammunition to target China.”
There is also some contention about the legitimacy of Fang’s dairies as the testimony of Wuhan. Her writing presents anxiety and anger in quarantine, but some challenge her viewpoints as partial and information unattested. She is accused of exposing too many negative emotions, losing authenticity and objectivity.
“Global memory” is a phrase I use to describe recording experiences and the transposition and reconstruction of local memories across borders and barriers. It considers both the potential for mutual understanding, and the difficulty in communicating experiences across languages and cultures.
As the world goes through the trauma of COVID-19 and its eventual aftermath, psychological effects are emerging. The publication of diaries and other texts will become important in how memories are handled individually and collectively.
In her dairies*, Fang sighs:
People in Wuhan are all traumatised. We’re not lucky; we are only survivors.
Fang’s writing can help identify patterns, solutions and mindsets to deal with pandemics. She reminds us cooperation is required between people and nations, and this cooperation is too often frustrated because of racial bias, political agendas and economic competition.
She writes about the medical assistance teams from across China aiding Wuhan, and asks why the Wuhanese outside Wuhan – suspected as infected – are refused entry to cities, towns and villages. This story of alienation and repulsion is now recurring in a global context with stories of fear and racism across the world. These narratives shape, and repeat in, human history of pandemics, wars and trade.
Global memory entails a humanitarian thinking about how we relate ourselves to “others”.
Fang’s dairies capture Wuhan’s memory and will help people in and outside China understand and empathise with other humans whose lives are all drastically changed by the pandemic.
In sharing universal human emotions, these dairies will empower those currently feeling confusion and desperation. In remembering the pandemic – even as it continues to unfold – readers will rethink their present, and their uncertain future.
*Quote translated from Mandarin by Meng Xia.