Although Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary is now available in English translation, the extraordinary story of pandemic diary production in China remains little known outside of the Chinese-reading world. On March 30, 2020, the New York Times carried a story called “The Quarantine Diaries,” which offers fascinating glimpses into pandemic diary writing “around the world.” It covers diarists in Paris, Manila, St. Petersburg, Spain, and several cities in the United States, but fails to even acknowledge the existence of the mother of all Covid-19 diaries—the lockdown diaries of Wuhan.
Documenting the pandemic experience“Lockdown diaries brought the visceral realities of this city, and the pandemic, close to home.”
I began to see diary postings on Chinese social media after Wuhan was locked down on January 23, 2020. Initially, there were not many of them, but the few I saw became viral. These must have inspired others to write. Very soon, there was an explosion of pandemic diaries. Most of them were written by residents of Wuhan. Teachers, medical workers, Covid-19 patients, government officials, IT professionals, students, poets, novelists, and community volunteers all posted diarists. They documented personal troubles and collective struggles. Many diaries came with photographs. Some were video blogs, or vlogs. The abrupt shutdown of a city of 11 million had stunned China and the world. Lockdown diaries brought the visceral realities of this city, and the pandemic, close to home.
The contents of the diaries reflect the changing circumstances of the war on Covid-19 and their impact on personal lives. Diaries in the first week of the lockdown depict the initial reactions—panic shopping and personal helplessness. A diary entry, dated January 27, by feminist activist Guo Jing contains the following:
Today, the weather was a bit clearer, but still cloudy. After walking for only a few steps outside, I saw two cats on a pile of debris. We stared at each other. This scene has such a strong sense of the apocalypse. When we stared at each other, it seemed as if there were only me and the two cats left in this world.
February was the cruelest month in Wuhan. It saw the peak number of daily confirmed cases of coronavirus and daily deaths. No diarist who wrote on February 7 would fail to mention the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, widely reported as an early whistleblower who later contracted the disease on his job and died on February 7. February was also the month when the war on Covid-19 was at its most austere stage, and many diaries record the impact of a rigid regimen of community isolation and quarantine. A graduate student who volunteered to work as a guard at the entrance of a residential community wrote the following on February 20: She started work at around noon. At 12:30 p.m., two lunch boxes were delivered to the volunteers at the gate. At 1:08 p.m., a man in his 30s passed by and asked for a pair of gloves. The man told her he was going to visit his wife in the hospital, and he had to wear gloves to be let in. She gave him the gloves. At 2:35 p.m., a white-haired elderly woman in her 80s appeared and said she was going out to buy some lunch. Instead of letting the elderly lady out, she gave her a free lunch meal and persuaded her to return to her apartment.
Patients in temporary shelter hospitals posted video diaries on video platforms such as Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok, offering intimate glances into lives in these gigantic facilities. One of these videos showed medical workers and patients cheerfully performing public-square dances inside a temporary hospital. Square dancing was ubiquitous in China’s pre-Covid-19 urban landscape. Seeing it again was a boost of morale for many, while critics saw it as inappropriate for a time of national suffering.
By March, Covid-19 had been contained in China, but it got worse in other countries. Many diarists took note of these changes. Mr. Zhang started posting pandemic diaries on January 27. By March 18, he had posted 49 entries. He wrote on March 18 that he would now turn his attention more to the outside world. After all, his son was studying in the United Kingdom and incidents of racism against Chinese students there worried him. For several days, he posted diaries in the form of letters to his son, offering advice about how to manage his stay-at-home life in a foreign country. These diaries attracted other parents with children studying abroad.
Ms. Ma noted in her diary on March 1, 2020, that 58 countries in the world had reported cases of Covid-19. She commented that in northern Italy, although multiple towns were locked down, residents in one town rallied in a plaza to demand freedom. After enumerating a long list of such Covid-19-related activities in foreign countries, she summed up her thoughts with these words from Yuval Harari: “Never underestimate human stupidity.”1Harari’s best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind has a best-selling Chinese translation.
Pandemic diary communities
Shared on social media, pandemic diaries form online diary communities. Some of these communities are small, comprised mainly of friends, family, and acquaintances. Popular diaries like those by Fang Fang, however, attracted millions of readers. In these diary communities, readers and viewers comment on the diaries, argue among themselves, and share personal experiences. There is a sense of communal belonging.
Some people organized communal diary-writing projects. In early February, a member in a closed, fee-based WeChat group on psychological counseling called on her online community to start a diary-writing project. Participants were invited to write at least 100 words a day for 100 days. Many joined the project, eventually producing over 3,000 diary entries. Like a sustained, 100-day-long conversation, these diaries created a sense of community for people living in isolation.“Each diary entry was a social media sensation.”
Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary was the most influential of all lockdown diaries. Fang Fang is a Wuhan native and a well-known novelist. From late January to late March, she posted 60 diary entries on social media. She wrote mostly of her observations and reflections about the pandemic and the havoc it wrought on her native city. For her sharpness, empathy, and insights, she endeared herself to the hearts of millions of readers in China and beyond. Each diary entry was a social media sensation. Her readers would wait long hours at night to read new entries, because she posted at night—usually before midnight, but sometimes at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
Posting a diary on social media in China entails navigating technical and political barriers. Politically sensitive words are automatically filtered or blocked. If a diary entry contains one single sensitive keyword, it would not go through. Some diarists complained of having to spend an hour or more to make a successful post. Even after a diary is posted, it may still be removed by the web editors and managers. Savvy readers save the diary first and then read it.
What was it about Fang Fang’s diary that made readers wait for it late into the night? Fang Fang was writing during the worst period of the pandemic right from its epicenter. She felt the pains of her fellow Wuhan residents. She called on the public to hold government officials accountable for their actions or inaction. She mourned the dead in moving words. For many readers, her diaries had a cathartic effect in a time of darkness. They admired Fang Fang’s courage in telling the truth. Others liked Fang Fang’s diaries simply because she put into words what they themselves wanted to say. Mourning Dr. Li Wenliang, Fang Fang wrote:
People who are not in Wuhan could not understand the trauma we suffer in our hearts. It is far more than a matter of being quarantined at home. Wuhan people badly need consolation and emotional release. Is that why Li Wenliang’s death broke everyone’s heart and made them all want to scream and wail?
In a time of crisis and uncertainty, Fang Fang’s diary created a sense of certainty. Through her diary, readers felt connected to a larger community. In this sense, pandemic diaries like Fang Fang’s were a unifying social force in China’s war on Covid-19. One reader wrote about Fang Fang’s diary in her own diary:
In the past two months, reading Teacher Fang Fang’s diary2“Teacher” is a generic honorific in China. You may address your neighbor as “Teacher” without knowing what her profession is. every night became a habit before going to sleep. One reader left a comment [on Fang Fang’s diary] that only after reading Fang Fang’s diary was a day considered complete. I want to add that every day, only after reading Teacher Fang Fang’s diary could my inner self calm down…. Without the guidance of Fang Fang’s diary, I would probably become more and more depressed in my stay-at-home life.
Fang Fang’s diary was so popular that after she had written 60 entries and decided to stop writing in late March, her fans started a relay to carry on her cause. Reading Fang Fang’s diary had become such a daily ritual in these diary communities that many found the absence of the ritual unbearable. So, they decided to write and post their own diaries as “relay diaries.” From March 27 to May 29, 2020, 60 people wrote 60 “relay diaries” to match the number of Fang Fang’s diary entries and continued their communal discussions in the comment sections of the diaries.
But Fang Fang’s diary also attracted scrutiny and personal attacks. Initially, her detractors blasted her diaries for being too critical and “negative.” They complained that Fang Fang’s diary lacked “positive energy.” In late March, when news came that an English version of Fang Fang’s diary would soon be published in the United States, Fang Fang was called a traitor. By making her diaries available to US readers, the accusation goes, she “handed over ammunition” to US politicians who were blaming their own pandemic failures on China. Fang Fang had criticized government leaders for mishandling the pandemic. Now her critics challenged her by pointing out that China did so much better than the United States. Fang Fang’s diary drew the ire of Chinese nationalists. Some of her earlier supporters changed sides.
But the word “nationalist” is inadequate for describing ordinary people. One diarist—I’ll call him Mr. X—recounted a personal story. In X’s WeChat circles, several of his well-educated friends, who had been polite and courteous in their online interactions, suddenly turned belligerent after they heard that Fang Fang’s diary would be published in the United States. They attacked Fang Fang viciously. What puzzled him most was the change in an elderly woman in her 70s who was like a mother figure to him. The lady was Mr. X’s mother-in-law’s friend. He called her “Aunt.” About ten years ago, X had a serious illness. A surgery left him in great pain for months. It was Aunt who nursed him in the hospital. Aunt had often told him that she had a miserable life when she was young. Her family was poor, but she was fortunate to have received help from many kind people. That was why later in her life, when her own circumstances improved, she wanted to help those in trouble. To Mr. X, Aunt has a Buddha-like heart.“She called Fang Fang a traitor in her WeChat comments.”
After the lockdown started, Mr. X recommended Fang Fang’s diaries to Aunt. Initially, Aunt did not express any opinions, but did read them. X felt that if Aunt did not say anything, that would mean she did not dislike the diaries. Several times, she even “liked” the diaries he had posted on WeChat. However, when she learned that Fang Fang’s diary would be published abroad, her attitude changed. She began to forward postings and videos which were critical of Fang Fang. She called Fang Fang a traitor in her WeChat comments. X was stunned. He had known Aunt’s patriotic feelings, but was still greatly puzzled by her drastic change of attitude.
By sharing personal stories of daily struggle during the lockdown, pandemic diaries had brought the nation closer together in a common crusade against the coronavirus. But just as the pandemic was tamed, pandemic diaries were lifted out of their original context and turned into something else—a testing kit to check people’s ideological temperatures. And the world of Chinese social media was divided into two opposing camps. Although this divide reflects enduring ideological tensions between liberals and conservatives, the story of Aunt’s reaction to Fang Fang’s diary reveals how a global crisis, mediated through online diary-writing and reading, can awaken latent passions about self, family, and the nation among the most ordinary people of a society.