Locked up in Wuhan for a week, then a month, then two, Fang Fang sought solace in words.
The novelist has lived in Wuhan for over 60 years. On January 23, as the soon-to-be-pandemic coronavirus outbreak spiraled out of control, China quarantined its city of 11 million people. Many residents panicked, flocking to supermarkets or fleeing to other towns before the lockdown began.
Hospitals were already under pressure. Coughing, feverish patients thronged the hallways as medics struggled with insufficient protective gear and testing equipment. They lacked beds too. All eyes in China have been on the ongoing disaster in Wuhan. What broke out there would spread as the rest of the country also began to lock down.
On January 25, Fang Fang started her diary.
What started as a reflection on his own grief, anger and anxiety has become a window into life and death in Wuhan. His musings have more than 4 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese blogging platform, and many more on WeChat, the social media app where thousands of comments flood each of his entries as they are posted.
It’s a voice of rare authenticity, an antidote to the flood of Chinese propaganda celebrating the country’s victory over the coronavirus. She cries, she screams, she describes corpses in sacks, dragged and burned while their loved ones mourn alone. She curses those who hid the truth and won’t apologize even if thousands of people die. As state media trumpet hero stories and optimistic slogans, Fang Fang speaks plainly of the suffering of his people.
Readers across China say they wait until after midnight every day, refusing to go to bed before reading Fang Fang’s messages. Some of them are censored in the morning.
Fang Fang begins nearly every entry the same.
Today is the third, the twenty-second, the fifty-sixth day of confinement, she notes. (Sometimes she adds, “My God, has it been so long?”) Then she talks about the weather: snow, or wind, or warm sunshine, the kind that makes Wuhan so beautiful in the spring.
One day it’s cloudy and sunny back and forth, “like in my diary,” she jokes. “Open one moment, blocked the next.”
She describes what she saw and heard that day, often referencing conversations with doctor friends who remain anonymous for their protection. One morning, she wakes up to a dramatic drop in the official number of infections in Wuhan and receives three text messages from a doctor. “It’s already under control, amazing! he says.
But shortly after, he wrote: “It’s too fast, isn’t it? Too amazing! I’m afraid to believe it. »
And about an hour later, he said to her, “I looked closer, Wuhan’s numbers dropped because they changed diagnostic standards… Pay attention to tomorrow’s numbers.”
This is how revelations come, a few lines at a time.
Fang Fang is a pen name for Wang Fang, originally from Nanjing but raised in Wuhan since she was 2 years old. She lived 30 years south of the Yangtze River and 30 years north of it, she says in an entry, surviving the Cultural Revolution, doing hard work as a porter, then attending college and working as a journalist, editor and author. She won the Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010 and served as president of the Hubei Writers Association. for a while.
She loves Wuhan.
“You could put every city in the world in front of me and I would only know this one,” she once said in a documentary. “It’s as if, in a crowd of people walking towards you, among countless faces of strangers, only one face is smiling, letting out a laugh that you recognize. This face is Wuhan.
She feels deeply for her people. In a Feb. 11 entry, she wrote, “These carefree and direct people in Wuhan who like to laugh for no reason; those people from Wuhan who talk so fast and so loud that others think they are fighting.
“But today many of them are suffering,” she continued. “They wrestle with the god of death. And I, or we, have no power to help at all. At most, I can only cautiously ask on the internet, is everyone okay? And sometimes I don’t dare ask, for fear there won’t be an answer.
Even before the outbreak, Fang Fang had drawn criticism from radical leftists in China, who tend to be ideological hardliners when it comes to nostalgia for the days of Mao Tse-tung.
She was scorned for her realistic portrayals of China: accepting neither the utopia of the Communist Party’s textbook version nor the land of the brainwashed masses that overseas critics sometimes depict. Instead, she explores a complex country filled with flawed individuals struggling to survive under immense political, social, and economic pressure.
In 2016, Fang Fang won a literary award for his novel “Soft Burial,” about a family of landowners who committed suicide amid Mao’s land reform campaign in the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands , even millions, of landowners were killed by peasants under the exhortation of the chief. .
In 2017, after criticism from hardliners, the novel was banned.
For quarantined readers, Fang Fang’s diary cuts through the familiar and the unbearable: in one paragraph, she’s lying in bed scrolling through her phone. She notes the rise in vegetable prices. She wonders if there is anyone at the park. She lacks food for her dog.
In another paragraph, her classmate in high school—the only other girl in the school band, who once shared an office with Fang Fang—dies. His neighbor’s cousin dies. The brother of his acquaintance dies. Her friend’s parents and wife die, and then her friend also dies.
She writes of doctors dying on the front lines, of elderly people living alone struggling to survive without caregivers, of the 6-year-old found one day locked up at home with his deceased grandfather, too scared to come out because of the virus.
The measure of a nation’s civilization is not the height of its buildings, the speed of its cars, the strength of its army, the advanced degree of its technology, or the number of tourists it can send to consume. goods around the world,” she posted on February 25. “There is only one test for you: how you treat the weak and vulnerable,” she wrote.
“In Wuhan, practically everyone is traumatized,” she wrote in another entry that was later censored. “People need to let off steam, to cry loudly, to talk about their pain and to be comforted. The pain of Wuhan people cannot be eased by shouting a few slogans. »
Over the past few weeks, the coronavirus outbreak in China has been brought under control, with fewer infections being reported while cases are soaring in the rest of the world. Chinese diplomats and propaganda have begun to portray China as a savior who can pass on wisdom, test kits and protective equipment to other countries.
Fang Fang continued to demand accountability from those who berated Wuhan doctors, covered up the outbreak and prioritized face-saving politics over “negative news”.
“Accountability is necessary. Or how are you going to make up for the thousands of dead and more people from Wuhan who have suffered? she wrote this week.
The WeChat account that shares his entries has been repeatedly censored. Every few days, the account shares a post asking readers to click and follow a new account because the current account is blocked.
“The newspaper does not smear those who sacrifice and give of themselves, it simply reminds those at the top that we are still a long way from starting to sing praises. Why do you have to keep deleting over and over again? one commenter wrote on a censored entry. “Isn’t it just an obvious lack of self-confidence?” Do you feel guilty?
This week, an open letter to Fang Fang from an “anonymous high school student” emerged on the internet. The writer pretended to be a 16-year-old finishing a school assignment. Then he criticized Fang Fang for exposing the negative sides of the epidemic in Wuhan and for not being grateful to his motherland.
“My mother told me that I shouldn’t air our family’s dirty laundry outside. Auntie Fang Fang, did your mother ever teach you that? he wrote. One could ignore Western countries when they criticized China because “a human cannot reason with an animal”, he said.
“But you, Aunt Fang Fang… you were born in the new China, raised under the red flag, you live on the grain of Wuhan and the water of the Yangtze! Young people can be excused for saying strange things about their country because they are ignorant. You are 65 years old, why are you different from the others?
Fang Fang’s response was a memory of his teenage years during China’s Cultural Revolution, a time when young Maoists criticized, tortured and killed their elders, teachers and intellectuals, tearing the country apart.
“Child, I must tell you: when I was 16, times were much worse than yours,” she wrote. “I had never even heard of the term ‘independent thinking’… I had never been an independent person, just a screw in the machine.”
She didn’t expect another Chinese generation to have to endure such things. But she wished the ‘high schooler’ and others like him a wake-up call: “You’re going to clean up the trash and the poison that was poured into your brain in your youth… Every round of cleaning is a round of liberation. “
Like many of Fang Fang’s other responses to critics, his response eschewed their arguments and insults, instead highlighting the systemic issues that have led to catastrophe for the Chinese people — and suggesting the possibility of change.
“Arrogant power always tries to cover things up, but Fang Fang’s diary removes those covers. Clear, simple, sweet, but it has the power to move the heart and soul,” one commenter wrote.
Every night, with grace and defiance, Fang Fang writes about Wuhan, his city of splendour, lies and sorrow. His city of words.