MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Hongwei Bao’s essay “Diary Writing as Feminist Activism: Guo Jing’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary (2020).” The essay appears below and at its online home: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/hongwei-bao/. My thanks to Hongwei Bao for sharing this important work with the MCLC community.
Kirk Denton, editor
By Hongwei Bao
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April 2020)
For seventy-seven days from January 23 to April 8, Wuhan, a Chinese city with a population of eleven million people, was locked down to contain the spread of the coronavirus. This extreme measure was “unprecedented” in world public health history. The total number of Covid-19 infection cases recorded in the city stood at 50,333, with 3,869 deaths, as of April 17, 2020. While a lot has been written about the Chinese government’s response to the epidemic, our understanding of the human cost and social impact of the epidemic has just begun. A lot of questions remain in the unpredictable aftermath of the lockdown: How did people cope with the lockdown physically, psychologically and emotionally? How did people live their lives during and after such a tremendous disruption? Can life go back to normal, if “normality” is so desired? Examining the situation in Wuhan, a city that has experienced such a dramatic and traumatic historic event, has significant implications for our understanding of and responses to the global pandemic.
During the Wuhan lockdown, a 29-year-old social worker and feminist activist named Guo Jing 郭晶 kept a diary, which she shared online and through social media with her friends and followers. Almost immediately after the lockdown, in early April 2020, Guo’s diary, titled Wuhan Lockdown Diary (武汉封城日记), was published by Taipei-based Linking Publishing (联经出版), making the book the first officially published Wuhan lockdown diary by a literary press (fig. 1). In the diary, Guo keeps a daily account of her own life and the lives of many other people she met online and offline. She also documents some of her thoughts on society and social issues, including her gender perspectives. With seventy-seven entries and totaling around 80,000 words, the diary is an important record of the lockdown history.
In this essay, I introduce Guo’s life and her feminist activism during the lockdown period, as represented in her diary. I quote extensively from the diary to give readers a sense of her experience and a feel for her voice. My focus here is on how Guo as a feminist activist perceived and engaged with society during the lockdown. With this case study, I hope to demonstrate that social movements such as feminist activism are not only possible but also urgently needed during a pandemic like this. I also suggest that diary writing, personal and private as it may seem, can function as a form of political and social activism.
Wuhan Lockdown Diary as a Literary Genre
During the lockdown, many Wuhan residents kept a diary, and some published them online and on social media. These diaries are often referred to as the “Wuhan lockdown diaries” (武汉封城日记), or simply “Wuhan diaries” (武汉日记). Although there is great controversy about whether such online accounts can be called “diaries” at all because of their public nature, and whether they are truthful accounts of history, their historical significance cannot be dismissed. The “lockdown diary” has become a specific literary genre, mixing self-expression with social commentary and even political critique. Guobin Yang calls these diarists “digital radicals” because of the socially engaged and journalistic nature of their writing: “These diaries offer valuable and timely glances into how ordinary people were coping with the crisis in their daily lives. They are documents of everyday life with news value.” In other words, in this specific historical moment, writing a diary ceased to be a personal and private matter; it entered the public sphere and became a form of social and political engagement. “Lockdown diaries” reach the public through their online circulation; they engage with public debates and participate in social changes. They also have a therapeutic function for a population experiencing a disaster. As Marco Fumian puts it in his essay on Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary: “As if by soothing readers’s discomfort and calming their anxieties, it also helps them, in the end, to generate a sense of constructive awareness and deal with the constraints imposed by the new circumstances.”
The best-known lockdown diaries from Wuhan have been written by famous writers and public intellectuals, such as the writer Fang Fang (方方) and the feminist scholar and filmmaker Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明). Both Fang and Ai are locals in Wuhan and their diaries have received much public attention. Fang’s Wuhan Diary, translated into English by Michael Berry, will be published by HarperCollins in late June 2020. The first entry of Ai’s Wuhan diary appeared in the March-April issue of the New Left Review, although the connection between Ai and the New Left is often unclear. Commenting on Fang’s Wuhan Diary, Marco Fumian suggests that Fang’s diary was not simply aimed to provide her readers with emotional support but marked a conscious effort to connect the government with the people. This reflects Fang’s status as a public intellectual, and as someone inside the state bureaucracy (体制) in her role as the former president of the Hubei Writers’ Association. Fang’s “worrying about China”—despite her sharp and critical tone—is best seen as a constructive critique of the party. The celebrity effect and “insider” status offered Fang a sense of security in voicing her opinions, but this privilege was not available to many other diarists, especially those from the younger generation, who had a different relationship with the state. For some, keeping and sharing a diary provided an alternative narrative to official discourses and helped to recover the voices of the marginalized and the forgotten. In Guo’s own words: “Lockdown diaries written by ordinary people can serve as important amendments to the grand narratives. They constitute multiple and diverse accounts. These accounts can provide outsiders with a lens into the real lives of the ordinary people in Wuhan” (March 23, 2020). 
In contrast to well-known public intellectuals such as Fang and Ai, Guo is an ordinary person whose name is little known outside China’s feminist activist circles. As a young woman who has not lived in Wuhan for long, she does not seem to have much authority on the topic (fig. 2). In fact, when Guo’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary was published in Taipei in early April, some netizens accused her of being an imposter stealing Fang’s thunder; some even criticized Guo’s writing for its lack of literary merit. Guo responded by saying: “Diary writing is not a privilege for any person. Everyone has a voice, and everyone has the right to express oneself. Writing skills can be improved with lots of practice” (March 23, 2020). In her diary, Guo talks about her life as a young woman and comments on social issues from a young person’s perspective, which markedly distinguished her writing from the authoritative intellectual voices of Fang and Ai. Guo also includes many photos taken with her smart phone, such as photos of Wuhan streets and even of her own cooking. Guo’s diary is more likely to attract a younger generation of readers because of its vivid language and the subject matters covered. Importantly, in contrast to Fang’s and Ai’s diaries, which are surprisingly lacking in gendered perspectives, Guo’s diary is often charged with a feminist and activist edge.
“Making Connections”: Writing as Social Activism
Guo was not a regular diary writer; nor was she familiar with the city of Wuhan when she started the diary. In fact, she had only moved from Guangzhou to Wuhan in November 2019. She lived alone in a small, rented apartment located in a small residential compound with only three apartment buildings. She did not know the city well, nor did she have many friends in the city. She could not understand the local accent very well when she tried to communicate with her neighbors. Keeping a diary during the lockdown started accidentally as a form of self-expression, when Guo was looking to establish connections with other people online, so that she would feel less lonely and better supported. She also realized that she was not the only one who felt helpless, and voices like hers needed to be heard in society. Guo wrote in the third entry of her diary:
As an activist working on the issue of gender equality, I know better than others that for a social problem to be addressed, someone needs to speak out. I have therefore decided to keep a diary because I need help and support now. (Jan. 25, 2020)
Writing a diary therefore started as a way for Guo to reach out to others—friends and the strangers online who were following her social media accounts—to seek help and support. This support was not only material but also emotional. Guo had access to food and everyday necessities despite shop closures, entry and exit restrictions, and food rationing, but it was the feeling of isolation and helplessness that she tried to overcome. In the first few days before the complete lockdown of her residential block, Guo took every chance to go out, fearing that she would not see the city again. In the process, the purpose of writing the diary changed from that of an individual desperately seeking help to that of an activist consciously making connections with other people to change society:
It is not easy to establish trust and connection during a lockdown. Yesterday a journalist asked if I would consider communicating with other people. I said that I did not know. The whole city is now shrouded in a gloomy atmosphere. Living in such an environment, I cannot help but be careful myself, avoiding contact with other people. The lockdown has made a person’s life individualized and isolated, losing connections with other people.
In the last few days, my anxiety about survival has gradually disappeared. I have tried to walk for a longer distance each day. But if I do not make connections with the people here, what is the use of walking further? Social participation is an important human need. We need to have a role in our society, play our part, and make our lives more meaningful. (Jan. 28, 2020)
At the end of subsequent entries, Guo frequently appends a signature signoff, clearly stating her activist aims and sharing her contact information: “I want to become a point of connection. I hope to make connections with more people so we can act together. My WeChat account is 146177244.”
“Making connections” (建立连结) with other people was in fact Guo’s aim for keeping the diary. Guo’s diary was published both on social media, which are often subject to censorship, and on Matters, a Chinese-language news website whose server is located overseas and therefore bypasses Internet censorship in China. The diary was published in batches on Matters, putting several entries together under a title. For example, the diary entries from January 23 to 26 were given the simple title “A Single Women’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary.”
Like any other Chinese authors who publish online, Guo had to deal with China’s strict media censorship when publishing her diary. Although the Internet and social media are widely accessible through computers and smart phones, they are often subject to strict and often idiosyncratic censorship in the PRC. Weibo and WeChat are the major social media sites on which Guo connected with other people during the lockdown. The multi-functional platform WeChat enabled her to chat with other people by text, voice, or video calls, to publish and read news and updates, to set up task groups, and to order food and delivery from online shops. She also used a VPN to access overseas websites such as Matters. Despite the multifunctionality of WeChat and the availability of a VPN, she still encountered constant censorship in publishing her diary:
On the first day, I could not upload my writing and pictures to the Weibo account. I converted the text to an image format and managed to upload them online. Yesterday, I could not even publish them in my WeChat updates. My Weibo account could now only reach a small group of people. Around 5,000 people forwarded my Weibo message on January 24, whereas yesterday’s update was only forwarded by forty-five people. For a short while I thought no one liked my writing. Internet censorship and restrictions did not start now, but they appear to be especially cruel at such a moment. (Jan. 26, 2020, original emphasis)
From the above account, we can see that Guo’s diary was the outcome of active interactions between herself and her readers. The diary attracted an enthusiastic readership, and the readers’ responses strengthened Guo’s determination to keep the writing going and to some extent shaped the parameters of the diary. Internet censorship does exist, but there are also ways to circumvent it—for example, through converting text files to image files or changing keywords and replacing them with homonyms or code words. These tactics for circumventing censorship are used frequently by a younger generation of Internet users, and Guo’s experience is by no means unique. Media censorship in China is unstable and porous, and ordinary people often seek to exploit the gaps to express their resistance in a mediated environment.
The above account also suggests that Guo’s writing was not completely free, because she had to bear censorship in mind when she was writing. Censorship had an impact on her content and word choice. As Guo acknowledged in an online talk, she had to exercise necessary self-censorship in order to be able to publish her online diary. At the same online event, Ai Xiaoming called these published lockdown diaries a form of “traumatic writing” (创伤写作), or a type of mutilated expression as a result of censorship and self-censorship, on top of the traumatic historical context of such writings. For these online diaries, what is left missing is as important as what has been documented. Guo’s diary should, therefore, be seen in this light: it is truthful as it could be at the time, but the political conditions under which it was written had an impact on what could be written and in what way.
The Feminist Practice of Care
In the midst of a traumatic historical event, how can a person cope, physically and psychologically, with a situation over which one has no control? Instinct for survival is usually the first reaction. Early in the diary, Guo writes: “This is my first time being so close to so many unfair deaths. It is so traumatic! I am lucky enough to be alive. I must try my best to live on” (Feb. 18, 2020). For Guo, keeping a diary started with a personal motivation: “I am lucky because I am able to write down how I feel now. I must face everything, speak out how I feel, and then try to understand my own experiences and intense feelings during the lockdown” (February 11, 2020). In this sense, writing a diary is a form of self-care, or a “technology of the self” in the Foucauldian sense, through which one can establish an ethical relationship with the self and others.
For Guo, diary writing can turn the self into a “point of connection” (连结点) with other people. In this process, the care for the self is entwined with the care for others. Reciprocal care and mutual support are crucial for people and communities collectively experiencing such a traumatic historical event. Published on different social media sites and attracting a readership, Guo’s diary writing and sharing of it soon became a social act, connecting people together in an imagined community. Guo commented on the importance of building an online community of care in her diary: “Every message on Weibo, including every forwarding, commenting, and the like, is important. It is an expression of mutual support and encouragement for us to keep going and act together” (March 23, 2020).
With the publication and circulation of her diary, Guo also received plenty of help and support from her readers, from cooking recipes to DIY guides. When she had difficulty posting on her social media sites because of censorship, her readers would help her to post on their own social media and even on international websites. Inspired by Guo, many netizens also started keeping and sharing their diaries. Guo mentions in the diary that a young woman who had attended one of her talks many years before had become a feminist activist and that she had recently got in touch and thanked her for the inspiration: “This is what I had not anticipated when I started writing my first entry. In a repressive society, it is uncertain whether activism can make a difference, but there are always pleasant surprises” (April 6, 2020). Because of Guo’s identity as a feminist activist, the online community surrounding the diary automatically took on a feminist edge. During the lockdown, Guo kept close contact with a group of young feminists, video chatting for a few hours every evening. “I have been chatting online with my friends for a month without fail. They are a special company during the lockdown” (Feb. 26, 2020). The group chat functioned like a form of feminist support group, offering care to these young feminist activists through difficult times.
Feminist Critiques of the Quarantine
In the quarantine discourse, public heath advice such as “stay at home” and “avoid public gatherings” often has a spatial dimension, and these spatial imaginations are usually gendered. As Nancy Fraser points out, the notion of the Habermasian “public sphere” is intrinsically a gendered one, which often relegates women to the domestic and private space, in contrast to the glorified male public space of labor and production. Mayfair Mei-Hui Yang critiques the patriarchal, political, and commercial domination of women’s spaces but she also charts the emergence of women’s spaces in post-Mao China. Publishing one’s diary is a way for young women such as Guo to enter the public space and to have their voices heard. Ironically, this has been achieved by making public something that is usually seen as deeply personal and private. After all, it is a feminist tradition to make the private public and to make the personal political.
Stringent quarantine measures such as the ones adopted in Wuhan often rely on a masculinist language, such as the use of “war” as a metaphor to justify the social costs and human sacrifice; in doing so, they downplay or ignore the importance of care. These measures often reinforce patriarchal control of women’s bodies. Guo writes in response to a news report that some female nurses had all their hair cut off to “facilitate their work” in a Gansu hospital so that they did not have to visit a hairdresser during the public health crisis (fig. 3):
We talked about the female nurses from Gansu Province who were forced to have their hair cut; we also noticed that there was only one male nurse with short hair in the photo. Many female nurses were very unhappy when they had their hair cut; some even cried. Hair is not simply about looks; it also symbolizes one’s dignity. Is it necessary to cut off all their hair? Have all these women given their consent? Women’s bodies never truly belong to themselves. There are always people who feel more entitled to putting women’s bodies at their disposal. (Feb. 18, 2020)
Guo compared the draconian lockdown measures to the society in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where women lose their freedom in a state of exception and are ruthlessly exploited by a male-dominated society (Feb. 18, 2020).
The quarantine reinforced the boundary between the public space and the private space, rendering gendered division of labor more visible. In Guo’s observation of the residential compound she lived in, there were usually more men than women walking around the neighborhood enjoying the sunshine. She reflected that many women had to do housework at home. When women did appear in the public space, they were usually taking care of children and the elderly. Guo observed on March 8, International Women’s Day:
In the morning, Tong Tong and her grandma were downstairs chatting with another family. The grandmother and the mother are like many other women. They had to take care of children even on their own holiday. How many people notice the hard and unpaid work of all these women at home, year in and year out? (March 8, 2020)
In another entry, Guo reflected on the implications of home or family (家) for women:
To an extent, the lockdown gives men an idea of what women’s life is like without a public life. The life of many married women revolves around their families. Even if they work full-time, they must cook dinner, do laundry, and take care of their children at home. All the domestic work they undertake is unpaid and under-valued. Their public life gradually shrinks, as they have less and less time to talk to their colleagues and friends. They care more about their families than themselves. (Feb. 4, 2020)
When women do go to work, they often face sexual discrimination or “glass ceilings” in their workplaces:
Women are marginalized in the public space. They are often sexually harassed by men and discriminated against at work. However, when it comes to sexual harassment and workplace discrimination, women always take the blame. Therefore, many women often blame themselves in times of difficulty, attributing failures to their own incapability. (March 20, 2020)
Guo herself had an experience of workplace discrimination. In 2014, she was involved in China’s first lawsuit regarding gender discrimination in employment and subsequently won the lawsuit against the employer. Inspired by her success, Guo set up a legal aid helpline for women facing gender discrimination in the workplace (fig. 4). On her social media sites, she frequently advertises the helpline. During the lockdown, she kept the helpline running and answered questions from callers every evening.