[EXCLUSIVE] “The Use of Literature in a Global Pandemic” by Hongwei Bao

What can literature—and arts and humanities in general—do in a global pandemic? Not much, some would say; a lot, others may insist.

I do not have an answer to such a complex question. But, ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have written for open-access websites and journals, thus kickstarting my career as a non-academic writer and even a translator of literary works. The fast-evolving pandemic condition gives me a sense of urgency to write quickly and share my thoughts and feelings with others. Open-access websites and journals offer me an ideal platform to engage with the public over important and urgent social issues. The writings I have produced so far are mostly short essays and non-fiction articles—including news reports, diaries, blogs, op-eds, ­and translations—and they all relate to the COVID-19 pandemic.[1] They cover a range of topics: COVID-19 literature, visual and performance art, feminist and queer activism, as well as my personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. These writings centre primarily on creative and cultural responses to the pandemic, and many of them are characterised by a strong feminist and queer politics. Trained in gender and cultural studies, I cannot do otherwise. My new writing experience raises interesting questions about the role of literature—and arts and humanities overall—in a global crisis. Indeed, the current COVID-19 pandemic discourse has been dominated by politicians and public health experts. Who would want to listen to arts and humanities scholars talk about the importance of literature and art? As academics and scholars, what can we say about the current pandemic? While these are big questions that cannot be answered in a short article, I can at least share my experience as an author writing about and during the pandemic to illustrate how writing has empowered me and possibly my readers, and I hope that this experience will be helpful to others who hope to take up writing as a profession or a hobby.

Since late January 2020, my otherwise routine academic life has been taken over by COVID-19. After postponing a couple of times a conference and some research seminars that I had spent months organising, I finally realised that cancelling those events was inevitable. My planned conference trips and a visit to China were also written off. Meanwhile, my normal writing plan was disrupted, and I found myself simply not being able to concentrate on reading and writing. I had to check my social media frequently to see what was happening in China, the UK, and other parts of the world. I participated in volunteer groups on social media to raise money for those who needed face masks and local hospitals that needed personal protective equipment. But all these things could not ease my anxiety. How could one read and write during such uncertain times? What else could one do when under quarantine at home? 

I should admit that I am in a privileged position. After all, I have the luxury of working from home and delivering teaching and research online; I am keenly aware that it is the “essential workers” who risk their lives to keep others safe, and keep the whole society running. Being labelled as a “non-essential” worker has its blessings, but it has also triggered an existential crisis in me: what can I, as an academic and a humanities scholar do, in a global pandemic?

“Coronavirus Wuhan diary: Living alone in a city gone quiet” (Source: BBC)

I started to look around for examples and inspirations. Guo Jing, a 29-year-old social worker from Wuhan, caught my attention. She moved to Wuhan in November 2019 and was trapped alone in her small flat for 77 days during the city’s historic lockdown. Having no family or local friends at hand, and not much that she could do during the neighbourhood’s lockdown, she turned to diary writing. She kept in her diaries her daily activities, thoughts, and experiences, infused with her feminist reflections on society. [2] She then published these diaries online and shared them with her friends, encouraging and supporting each other throughout the difficult times. She described the purpose of these diaries as “making [her] voices heard” and “making connections with people and working with them to change society”.[3] During the lockdown, she ran a helpline for women who experienced sexual discrimination in the workplace; she  also launched a “little anti-domestic violence vaccine”, a campaign designed to raise awareness of the issue in society. All these were done from her tiny flat in a quarantined city.[4] Her online diaries, first posted on the social media Weibo and frequently censored, were later published as a book, titled Diaries of the Wuhan Lockdown, in Taipei.

I attended a book launch event on Zoom, where Guo Jing talked about her book. I was expecting to see a heroic figure. But Guo looked an ordinary person—almost indistinguishable from her peers̄—and it was her “ordinariness” that struck me. She may look like one of us, but how many of us did what she did at the age of 29? And how many of us have done something to make the world a better place in a pandemic lockdown when self-preservation alone takes up most of our time and energy?

Guo Jing was not the only one who kept diaries in Wuhan during the lockdown. Famous writer Fang Fang and feminist scholar, filmmaker and activist Ai Xiaoming also kept diaries, shared their thoughts and experiences, and used their writing as a form of self-reflection and social engagement.[5] Inspired by their writings, I started to see literature—and writing in general—differently. In a pandemic, literature has an important role to play—it can comfort people’s souls, make social critiques, and intervene in and even create social realities. It may not be able to change the “objective” world, but it has the potential to change people’s perceptions and experiences of the pandemic. An “objective” world is often unknown and cannot be known; but the world that we construct for ourselves matters significantly to us. We need dreams, hopes, and aspirations to help ourselves navigate difficult times—this is what scientific statistics and medical drugs cannot offer. Literature—and arts and humanities in general—is in a good place to inspire hope and create an optimistic subjective world. We should not dismiss these subjective worlds as simply discursive—they are real, and they have real-life impacts; they are actual, and they embody a virtual dimension. Crucially, through writing, sharing, and commenting, people make connections with and provide support for each other. In a lockdown environment, writing becomes a way to make connections, share emotions and experiences, and keep hopes alive. Isn’t this what literature can do in a global pandemic? Isn’t this what arts and humanities can achieve at a time when they are devalued and unappreciated?

“Three Women and Their Wuhan Diaries:
Women’s Writing in a Quarantined Chinese City” (Source: Cha)

Inspired by Guo Jing and many others, I began to write about my experiences and thoughts about the pandemic; I also began to write about the literary and art forms and expressions created during and in response to the pandemic. I have also documented the people and things that had touched me and lit up my life in the gloomy days. Admittedly, Guo Jing and the city of Wuhan feature prominently in my writing. I have visited Wuhan before and cherish fond memories of the city and its people. I would like people to remember Wuhan as a place full of “ordinary heroes” such as Guo, Fang and Ai, and not simply a symbol of global geopolitics representing disease, suffering, and strict political and social control. My writings are usually online blogs or op-eds—genres often neglected and devalued in the hierarchy of academic publication. They are intended to be read and engaged with. I therefore had to think about my use of language and style, as well as outlets and platforms for publication, bearing in mind the target readership of these articles.

I cannot deny that I have personal motivations to write. In the grey days of lockdown, I was looking for existential answers to big questions pertaining to the value of arts and humanities in society. Meanwhile, I was also looking for existential answers for myself: how can I get through this pandemic? Can I? For health reasons, I was labelled as belonging to the “high-risk” group: what if I get COVID-19? Will I survive? If I don’t, what can I leave for society? It was my incessant desire and impulse to leave my mark in this world that motivated me to write down my feelings, thoughts, and experiences—however instant, ephemeral, and insignificant they might be. I hope these people, things, and creative forms that I document, highlight, and analyse can give people hope and strength as they have offered me.

Thankfully, I can write in both my native Chinese and English. What a blessing it is to be able to express oneself in words! Writing is a fantastic experience: it can take one to other times and places. In the process of writing, I can feel myself in motion, travelling from one place to the other, from one state of mind to another. The self is no longer fixed, constrained, a burden… it travels as desires flow. Writing is simultaneously a subjectivising and de-subjectivising process; the self is created at the same time it is broken down. In the process of writing, I become Guo Jing, Fang Fang, Ai Xiaoming and many others I write about, and I become more-than-and-other-than-myself. In this process, bodies and affects have started to connect, entangle, and disentangle—with friends and strangers alike. The pandemic situation no longer feels daunting, and the lockdowns no longer feel restrictive. In writing, I feel the energies of life flow; I live and become alive.

Writing open-access and for a non-academic readership can bring unexpected challenges: I have received criticism from a senior literary scholar for my bold transgression of academic disciplinary boundaries; I have also received homophobic remarks from hostile readers after my article was shared on Yahoo News. But most of the time, I have received encouragement and support from friends, family, and readers whom I have or have not met. The writers and artists whose works I wrote about have also expressed their appreciation for my promotion of and critical engagement with their works, and I am pleased that my work can help their careers in however small a way. Importantly, writing has lit up my world as it may have many other lives. In a pandemic, one is not alone, and lonely—we are all connected, through writing. And we can connect with and care for each other in words, on digital media, and through difficult times.

Writing open-access for a non-academic readership has been a rewarding experience for me, and I encourage more scholars and writers to do so. I am aware that being able to and having time and freedom to write is itself a privilege in society, but being self-reflexive about the privilege and making use of it for a public good is an important part of the writing process. I am also conscious that I still have not answered the big question that I raised at the beginning of this article: what literature—and arts and humanities in general—can do in a global pandemic. But I can see the necessity and importance of writing for and engaging with the public during the pandemic. If arts and humanities have any value, perhaps their greatest strength is the ability to speak to as well as create social realities, spark hopes and imagination, and move and connect bodies to create social change. Such an affective cultural politics and critical intervention is very much needed at this significant historical juncture.

[1] Hongwei Bao, “QueerChinese Art and Performance in a Time of Viral Contagion: Review of Queering Now, Chinese Arts Now, London, 2020” (26 March 2020); Hongwei Bao, “Home and Away: Queer Diasporic Musings” CCVA Lockdown Diary (31 March 2020); Hongwei Bao, “Diary Writing as Feminist Activism: Guo Jing’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (April 2020); Guo Jing, “Wuhan Lockdown Diary” Translated by Hongwei Bao. Words Without Borders (May 2020); Hongwei Bao, “Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine: A Wuhan-Based Feminist Activist Campaign During COVID-19” Interface: A Journal for and About Social Movements 12: 1 (2020): 53-63; Hongwei Bao, “How China’s LGBT Community Came Out for Pride Month in 2020” The Conversation (3 July 2020); Hongwei Bao, “Three Women and Their Wuhan Diaries: Women’s Writing in a Quarantined Chinese City” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (17 October 2020).

[2] Guo Jing, Wuhan Lockdown Diary

[3] Hongwei Bao, “Diary Writing as Feminist Activism”

[4] Hongwei Bao, “Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine”

[5] Guo Jing, Wuhan Fengcheng Riji, Wuhan Lockdown Diary (Taipei: Linking Publishing, 2020); 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

How to cite: Bao, Hongwei. “The Use of Literature in a Global Pandemic.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 25 Oct. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/10/25/literature/.

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.

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