[EXCLUSIVE] “Three Women and Their Wuhan Diaries: Women’s Writing in a Quarantined Chinese City” by Hongwei Bao

From 23 January to 8 April this year, the Chinese city of Wuhan was under lockdown for 77 days to contain the spread of COVID-19. For most of the period, residents had to self-quarantine at home and were not allowed to leave their residential compounds. During this time, one cultural activity experienced an unexpected boom: the writing of diaries. Many people picked up their pens or turned to keyboards to keep an account of their everyday life and experience during the lockdown. These diaries are often referred to as Wuhan lockdown diaries (Wuhan fengcheng riji), or simply Wuhan diaries (Wuhan riji).[1] Unlike conventional diaries which people keep for themselves, many people in Wuhan made their diaries public by posting them online and on social media. Some subsequently had their diaries published in print, such as Wuhan Lockdown Diary (Wuhan Fengcheng Riji) by feminist activist Guo Jing and published in Chinese by Taipei-based Linking Publishing in early April; Wuhan Diary written by feminist scholar Ai Xiaoming, an excerpt of which was published in the March/April issue of New Left Review; and Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City written by writer Fang Fang, translated into English by Michael Berry and published by New York-based HarperCollins in May.[2] Fang Fang’s diary was probably the best known in and outside China; the English translation of the book even triggered an intense debate inside China about its appropriateness given its criticism of the Chinese government in the middle of an ongoing China-US propaganda and trade war.[3]

It is perhaps no coincidence that most—if not all—of these published diaries were written by women. Historically, diary writing has often been associated with women writers—from Chinese writer Ding Ling’s 1927 short story Miss Sophie’s Diary to Anne Frank’s diary written during the Second World War.[4] Although both women and men have written diaries, diary writing often assumes a gendered association in the popular imagination. With meticulous attention paid to the personal, the intimate and the subjective, diary as a literary genre seems to occupy an important place in the history of women’s writing worldwide.

However, questions remain about what women’s writing is and what is specific about diary as a form of women’s literature. These questions are complicated by the fact that all three aforementioned Wuhan diaries were published online immediately after they had been written—that is, they assumed a public nature from the outset. The diarists had their readers in mind at the time of writing and they self-consciously used writing and circulation of their diaries to engage with the public concerning political and social issues. It is important to note that all three women are celebrities—or ‘influencers’ in today’s social media jargon—in their own ways: Fang is a well-known novelist in China and was chairperson of the Hubei Writers’ Association before her retirement; Ai, formerly professor of Chinese literature and gender studies at Sun Yat-sen University before her retirement, is an established feminist scholar and activist; the 29-year-old Guo had established herself as a young feminist activist before the Wuhan lockdown and had a large following on social media among a young feminist-oriented audience in China. The circulation of these diaries online and later in print has effectively disseminated these authors’ ideas to a larger audience; it has also consolidated their ‘symbolic capital’ as celebrities, activists, and public intellectuals in an attention-seeking social environment saturated by mass media.

Guo Jing’s Diary of the Wuhan Lockdown

Although the three diarists are all women, their relationship to the state and to feminism differ. Of the three diaries, Guo’s diary has probably articulated the most explicit feminist and activist political stance. Guo used her diary to launch a feminist critique of the quarantine situation and Chinese society overall by focusing on women’s experiences. She also ran a women’s helpline every evening and organised an online feminist support group to help women in need during the Wuhan lockdown. Moreover, she started an online ‘anti-domestic violence little vaccine’ feminist activist campaign, calling for participants to disseminate anti-domestic violence information online and offline.[5] Guo is a committed feminist activist. Writing and circulating a diary was therefore a way for her to disseminate her feminist ideas to more people and to encourage readers to act up against gender inequality and injustice in society.

Ai Xiaoming’s Wuhan Diary

As a veteran human rights activist and documentary filmmaker, Ai, in her diary, documented her experience of participating in a volunteer initiative to deliver personal protective equipment and tampons to female doctors and nurses working in Wuhan hospitals during the lockdown. But other than that, her diary seems less focused on gender and feminism. Ai’s writing reads more personal, intimate, and introspective. Ai’s father had passed away at the beginning of the lockdown, so Ai used a lot of space to grieve her father and those who had died in this crisis and previous disasters. She also took time to reminisce about people she had known and events she had experienced, some of which were only loosely related to the current epidemic. At times Ai’s diary reads highly intimate, poetic, and poignant. Her diary seems more akin to a personal diary, documenting thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and written in a more intimate and idiosyncratic way. During the lockdown, Ai only wrote a few entries, often sporadically, unlike the very disciplined daily account kept by Fang and Guo. The content of Ai’s diary may not seem explicitly political—although she did mention the stories of those people who had died during political turmoil in China’s past—it is her identity as a feminist scholar and human rights activist that has rendered her diary potentially politically sensitive.

Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City,
translated from the Chinese by Michael Barry.

In contrast to Guo’s and Ai’s diaries, Fang’s diary is probably the ‘safest’ because Fang never labelled herself as an activist—feminist or otherwise. Although Fang criticised the government’s poor handling of the crisis at the beginning of the lockdown, there was also plenty of praise for the government’s quarantine measures at a later stage. Aware of the public circulation and huge influence of her diary, Fang used the diary space to offer suggestions and constructive criticism for the local government. In Marco Fumian’s analysis, Fang best embodies the role of a Chinese intellectual located in the state bureaucracy, passing on the government’s policies to people and public opinion to the government; her diary acted as a ‘transmission belt’ between the state and its people.[6] It therefore comes as a surprise that Fang’s diary attracted the most public attention and controversy. The diary would have been largely welcomed in China had it not been for the complex global geopolitics beyond her control. The trade and propaganda wars between China and the US, together with a rising ‘biopolitical nationalism’ worldwide, have made the publication of Fang’s diary overseas a political event.[7]  

Perhaps ‘diaries’ is a misnomer for these writings. After all, keeping a diary is usually a private matter, and all three diaries had already assumed a public nature from the outset. It is perhaps more appropriate to refer to them as blogs, or collections of short essays. However, there are still good reasons to call them diaries because of the aura of authenticity conventionally attached to diary as a literary genre. This aura of authenticity has been exacerbated by the global war of propaganda and ‘fake news’, in which ‘truth’ is both desired and repudiated. The combination of diary and the buzzword Wuhan in the book titles quickly turns into a unique selling point in a competitive global publishing industry. All these seem to suggest that a diary does not have to be objective, comprehensive, or even factual. It is a different genre from journalism. In fact, its great charm lies in its subjective and intimate nature, which can effectively satisfy readers’ voyeuristic pleasure. It also caters to the popular imagination in the West of authentic voices from the grassroots suppressed by a repressive Chinese state. The spectre of the Cold War lingers on.

The three diarists relate to the Chinese state in different ways. In the diary, Ai was probably the most critical of the Chinese government because of her critical understanding of Chinese history and her experience as a human rights activist. Guo was critical of the state, but primarily from a feminist perspective, focusing on how the government suppressed Chinese feminist activists—represented by the arrest of the ‘Feminist Five’ in 2015—and how quarantine measures perpetuated gender inequalities.[8] Fang’s criticism of the Chinese government can be seen as a more constructive form of social critique from the position of a public intellectual situated inside the system who hoped to see an improvement in the government’s performance in handling a crisis.[9] The three authors’ different positionings in relation to the state set the parameters for their social critiques.

The three diaries also relate to feminism in distinct ways. Both Fang and Ai grew up in the Mao era and benefited from the legacy of state and socialist feminism, which offered women increased opportunities to enter the public sphere. They both held secure jobs and relatively high positions in China’s academic and literary establishments before retiring and have secure pensions. Fang’s writing seems devoid of feminist perspectives, but that itself is a manifestation of the internalised ‘gender equality’ discourse under state and Marxist feminism. As a former professor of gender studies, Ai is aware of gender inequalities, but she is more concerned about structural inequalities in China and China’s historical injustice. Her subject position as a public intellectual often overrides her subject position as a feminist. A socialist feminist in orientation, Ai’s feminist concerns are more structural and intersectional, focusing on the state violence and capitalist exploitation of women. Having grown up in the post-Mao era when there has been a resurging gender inequality in China, Guo—together with other young feminist activists like her—approaches feminism not directly from her feminist predecessors in China, but from international women’s movements such as the #metoo phenomenon. Guo’s major intellectual inspiration is therefore not state, Marxist, or socialist feminism but liberal and transnational feminism. Her activist experience comes not from Fulian, the All-China Women’s Association, or Women’s Studies programmes in Chinese universities, but from the international experiences of women’s participation and mobilisation in social movements.[10] Enthusiastic and social-media-savvy, the younger generation of feminists such as Guo are taking actions to engage with society and challenge the status quo with direct action and prefigurative politics.

The above analysis suggests that being a woman does not automatically make one a feminist; nor does it point to a fixed strand of feminism. Being a feminist is a subject position one occupies contingently, or a political stance one picks up at a specific historical moment, rather than a fixed identity attributed to an essentialised understanding of gender. But this does not make the three diarists and their diaries less relevant to feminism; nor does it make women’s voices less important to the global pandemic. What can feminism do in a global pandemic such as the one we are currently experiencing? How can feminism actively engage with a society—and even a world—in crisis? What does women’s writing look like if it is not defined as an essentialised form of écriture feminine (women’s writing), but as a public and socially engaged form of writing circulated online and through social media?[11] The three Wuhan-based women writers and their diaries have raised interesting and challenging questions for the place of feminism in a global pandemic.

[1] Guobin Yang, “Digital Radicals of Wuhan.” Centre on Digital Culture and Society (3 February 2020) (accessed 4 May 2020) https://cdcs.asc.upenn.edu/guobin-yang-2/

[2] Guo Jing, Wuhan Fengcheng Riji (Wuhan Lockdown Diary) (Taipei: Linking Publishing, 2020); Guo Jing, ‘Wuhan Lockdown Diary.’ Translated by Hongwei Bao. Words Without Borders (May 2020) (accessed 15 May 2020) https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/coronavirus-voices-from-the-pandemic-wuhan-lockdown-diary-guo-jing-hongwei; Fang Fang, Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City. Translated by Michael Berry (New York: Harpervia, 2020); Ai, Xiaoming, ‘Wuhan Diary.’ New Left Review 122 (March/April, 2020) (accessed 4 May 2020) https://newleftreview.org/issues/II122/articles/xiaoming-ai-wuhan-diary

[3] Hemant Adlakha, ‘Fang Fang: The “Conscience of Wuhan” Amid Coronavirus Quarantine.’ The Diplomat (23 March 2020) (accessed 4 May 2020) https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/fang-fang-the-conscience-of-wuhan-amid-coronavirus-quarantine/

[4] Ding Ling, Miss Sophie’s Diary and Other Stories, translated by W. J. F. Jennifer (Beijing: China Books and Periodicals, 1985); Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, translated by Mirjam Pressler and Susan Massotty. (London: Penguin, 2007).

[5] Hongwei Bao, ‘Diary Writing as Feminist Activism: Guo Jing’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary (2020).’ MCLC Resource Centre (April 2020) (accessed 4 May 2020) https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/hongwei-bao/

[6] Marco Fumian, “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus.” MCLC (April 2020) (accessed 4 May 2020) https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/marco-fumian/.

[7] Jeroen de Kloet, Jian Lin and Yiu Fai Chow, ‘We are Doing Better’: Biopolitical Nationalism and the COVID-19 Virus in East Asia. European Journal of Cultural Studies  (4 June 2020) https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549420928092

[8] Leta Hong Fincher, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (London: Verso, 2018).

[9] Marco Fumian, “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus.” MCLC (April 2020) (accessed 4 May 2020) https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/marco-fumian/.

[10] Dongchao Min, Translation and Travelling Theory: Feminist Theory and Praxis in China (London: Routledge, 2016)

[11] Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1 (4): 875–893, 1976.

How to cite: Bao, Hongwei. “Three Women and Their Wuhan Diaries: Women’s Writing in a Quarantined Chinese City.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 17 Oct. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/10/17/wuhan-diaries/.

Hongwei Bao is an Associate Professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. He holds a PhD in gender and cultural studies from the University of Sydney, Australia. He has written extensively about queer literature, film, art, and activism in contemporary China. He is the author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (NIAS Press, 2018) and Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism (Routledge, 2020). Queer China has been recently published by Routledge and a sample chapter is available free access on the publisher’s e-book website.

One thought on “[EXCLUSIVE] “Three Women and Their Wuhan Diaries: Women’s Writing in a Quarantined Chinese City” by Hongwei Bao

  1. Pingback: [EXCLUSIVE] “The Use of Literature in a Global Pandemic” by Hongwei Bao | Cha

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