Wuhan Diary:
Dispatches from a Quarantined City

By Fang Fang
Translated by Michael Berry

Reviewed by Howard Y. F. Choy
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2020)

Fang Fang. Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City Trans. Michael Berry. New York: HarperVia, 2020. E-book version: ISBN 9780063052659, 0063052652.

The COVID-19 outbreak from Wuhan has impacted not only China but the entire globe, with the highest numbers of infections and deaths in the United States reaching around 5,380,000 and 170,000, respectively, as of August 15, 2020.[1] In a time of pandemic, what is the role of literature, particularly the form of online diary—the daily-based documentary genre that first appears on social media and is then translated into foreign languages and published in print abroad? Must the translator bear the burden of xenophobia from the nation of the source language? How much courage does one need to translate a testament to COVID-19 from China? Such was the situation that Michael Berry faced in April of this year, when he was translating the last entries of Fang Fang’s 方方 Wuhan Diary (武漢日記) and received more than six hundred hateful comments and threats against him and his family on his Weibo 微博 account. [2] In his “Translator’s Afterword,” Berry makes it clear that he did not intend to “weaponize” the book as a tool to criticize China and that his translation has nothing to do with the CIA; instead, he “felt the pressing need for the United States, and the world for that matter, to learn from Fang Fang” (368) from her epidemic experience, compassion, conscience, bravery and “audacity to refuse to be silenced,” and to “speak truth to power” (373).

The diary dispatched from the quarantined Chinese city is composed of sixty entries, dating from January 25 to March 24, that chronicle the coronavirus lockdown on Sina’s 新浪 microblogging sites Weibo and WeChat. Berry reminds us of its timely, electronic mode of circulation among millions of readers via social media, whose “message boards emerged as a virtual biosphere of vibrant social debate—a place for readers to converge, share, sometimes argue, and often cry” (365-66). From the windows of the writer’s home to the hospitals and streets in the city where she has spent more than sixty years of her life, from internal space to virtual space, as Bao Hongwei 包宏偉 has observed: “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” because these diaries “reach the public through their online circulation; they engage with public debates and participate in social changes.”[3] Pandemic writings have indeed redefined the diary form by blurring the boundaries between the private and the public, the author and the reader. They consist of much more than medical discourse and are always already intertwined with political agendas and social disorders.

Because of its disapproval of the local government and nationalistic ultra-leftism, Wuhan Diary has aroused split opinions online, where it has been both constantly censored and criticized for its lack of politically correct “positive energy” (正能量) and re-posted virally on online platforms, particularly the private account “Er Xiang’s 二湘 Eleven Dimensions of Space” on WeChat (310-11).[4] Fang Fang’s criticisms, as summarized by Italian scholar Marco Fumian, are “to exercise a role of democratic supervision.”[5] Since Fang Fang and her supporters challenge the authorities politically and ideologically against its propaganda manipulations, such as the ridiculous “gratitude education” (感恩教育), their posts are excised like a cyber virus.[6]

As a professional writer, Fang Fang has tens of millions of fans, but she also attracted sharp attacks from Chinese patriots, particularly after she agreed to let Berry translate her diary into English and publish it in the United States amid the backdrop of the Sino-American trade war and political tensions, the so-called new Cold War.[7] The leftists accused Fang Fang of “handing a knife” (遞刀子) to foreigners to attack China. Although the book is dedicated to the author’s fellow citizens and all her proceeds from the English publication will be donated to relief charities in Wuhan (14, 373), Wuhan Diary is not just about one quarantined city, but concerns all corners of the world as well. We should read it not as Chinese or Americans, but as humans.

In her retrospective introduction to the English translation, entitled “The Virus Is the Common Enemy of Humankind,” Fang Fang describes her personal feelings, from “shock” (震驚) to “anger” (憤怒), then “desolateness” (悲涼), “sadness” (難過) and “confusion” (困惑). Her nine million fellow Wuhanese are “stressed out” (壓抑), “frightened” (驚恐), in “utter panic” (惶惶然), “frantic and confused” (驚慌失措), and in “fear” (kongju 恐懼). The two most common words she employs for herself and her helpless fellow citizens are “anxiety” (緊張) and “pain” (痛苦).[8] Fang Fang points out that “a portion of the blame for this catastrophe lies with human error” (人禍) and therefore: “It is absolutely essential that we continue to fight until those responsible are held accountable” (追責) (9). As a matter of fact, 追責 is one of the most frequently used words in the diary. American readers will be amused by the conspiracy theory that Fang Fang states satirically: “When people passed blame, it was often the politicians who blamed the scientists, who, in turn, blamed the politicians. But now things are getting really interesting; now they are placing all the responsibility on the United States” (March 23, pp. 351-52).

One major theme in the diary is indeed Fang Fang’s persistent appeals for accountability. To those irresponsible and incompetent government officials, dogmatic administrative personnel, negligent hospital leaders and medical specialists who deliberately delayed the reporting of person-to-person transmission of the novel coronavirus, Fang Fang keeps asking “Who was responsible for that 20-day delay?” (March 2, p. 206) and pushing the “government to quickly establish an investigation committee” (March 9, p. 255) for “an investigation to get to the root cause behind this delay” (Feb. 27, pp. 183-84) because “all of us want an explanation” (說法) (March 3, p. 211; see also p. 216). Yet “no one has apologized to the people” for their dereliction of duty (Feb. 26, p. 178; see also March. 6, p. 233 and March 9, p. 254); instead, “the political leaders here in Wuhan have requested that the citizens provide a public expression of gratitude toward the Chinese Communist Party and the nation,” to which the author responds boldly: “My dear government, please suck in your pride and humbly extend your gratitude to your masters—the millions of citizens of Wuhan. Next the government should make haste and beg for the people’s forgiveness. This is the time for reflection and assuming responsibility” (March 7, pp. 239; see also p. 241).

Another constant theme of the diary is censorship. In fact, the first entry of January 25 (i.e., the Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day), titled “Technology can sometimes be every bit as evil as a contagious virus,” starts the diary with an expression of discontent with Sina’s scrubbing of the writer’s earlier blog that “criticized a group of young nationalists who were harassing people on the streets with foul language” (16). It is not coincidental that this coronavirus diary begins with “plague” (瘟疫) as a metaphor for high tech’s role in shielding uncivilized patriotism. The second entry, dated January 26, is titled “What you are seeing from government officials in Hubei is actually what you can expect from most cadres throughout China,” and continues to trace the disaster to the empty talk of officials and the prohibition against people and the media speaking and reporting the truth.

Thereafter, the diary covers the police admonition against the “eight netizens spreading rumors” (March 14, p. 288) due to “a strict government order not to publish any negative news” during the high-level provincial meetings that were taking place in Wuhan at the time. Even “the hospital administrators,” she writes, “didn’t allow their doctors to speak up” (Feb. 7, p. 68; see also March 3, p. 213). The diarist sees politics as more lethal than the pandemic: “Although human lives are important, those officials believe that their meetings are even more important. The political is the first killer here” (March 6, p. 231). Due to her outspokenness, Fang Fang’s Weibo and WeChat posts were consistently blocked (屏蔽) (see Jan. 29, p. 32; Feb. 17, p. 120). “Fearful of being censored,” she once addressed the cyber censors directly: “To my dear internet censors: You had better let the people of Wuhan speak out and express what they want to say!” (Feb. 10, p. 81; see also Feb. 9, p. 77)

As a matter of fact, the multiple crises caused by the COVID-19 outbreak are no less political than physical and psychological in the post-pandemic world. As “this virus continues to roam the city like an evil spirit” (Feb. 7, p. 67), the “rogue virus,” a term that Fang Fang borrows from a medical specialist to refer to corrupt politicians and profit-makers, also “swallows” up families and society (Feb. 15, pp. 105-6). Ironically, while the writer likens the lies and leftism to “coronavirus” (see March 5, p. 226 and March 24, pp. 358-59) as a metaphor of the specter of the Cultural Revolution that continues to haunt China, her opponents also accuse her of spreading the “virus of thought” (思想病毒) to promote a “colored revolution” (颜色革命).[9] In the final entry, Fang Fang praises Chinese and American doctors for “joining forces to discuss the best methods for saving patients’ lives” while politicians from both nations were going after each other (March 24, pp. 356-57).

The third theme of Wuhan Diary is China’s anti-Covid-19 strategy, such as the fast-paced construction of enormous emergency hospitals (Huoshenshan 火神山 Hospital and Leishenshan 雷神山 Hospital) and fourteen smaller temporary hospitals. Besides the shortage of face masks and protective biosuits, Fang Fang also shows concern about non-pneumonia patients, such as cancer patients and those with chronic conditions, scheduled surgery, or urgent medical needs whose care was deferred. She also includes medical information about ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome), Chinese and Western medicines, personal health QR codes, discussion about tensions in doctor-patient relationships, and reports of zero cases five days in a row.

As a diary, the book naturally contains the author’s comments on small and personal things, such as how to wear a face mask, worries about food supply and prescription refills, as well as the state of her recurring headaches and her herniated disc. Yet more often than not she presents us with stories about common citizens and the broad situation in Wuhan and the feelings of Wuhanese: families torn apart, the loneliness of elderly and orphaned children, sanitation workers sweeping the streets in the cold wind and rain. Readers find an array of the masses: “young volunteers working on the front lines” (see Feb. 2, p. 48; Feb. 28, p. 189; March 2, p. 208; March 22, p. 340; March 23, p. 349), journalists and reporters, medical aid teams, stressed-out pregnant women, a new-born baby, food delivery boys, infected members of senior-citizen choirs, sick prisoners, discriminated people from rural Hubei, returning overseas Chinese students, as well as Fang Fang’s old dog. Among them are heartbroken episodes of the deaths of entire families, “a daughter trailing behind her mother’s funeral car” (Feb. 2, p. 46), a ninety-year-old mother taking care of her sixty-year-old son (March 15, pp. 291-92), and departed medical practitioners, including ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang 李文亮, five of his colleagues at Wuhan Central Hospital and his physical therapist Li Liang 李亮. Witnessing the “Wuhan citizens who dared to shout out from their windows” and “to speak truth to” the central government inspectors about their lies and deceptions (March 5, pp. 225-27), Fang Fang points out: “the true test of a country’s level of civility . . . is how you treat the weakest and most vulnerable members of your society” (Feb. 24, p. 164).

The most frequent topics about the day-to-day lives of Wuhanese and their emotions are grocery deliveries and depression. For instance, Fang Fang records the public outcries about government officials “using garbage trucks to deliver food to Wuhan residents” (March 13, pp. 282-83). And during the traditional Qingming 清明 Festival, people were no longer able to prepare the tombs for their deceased relatives, nor could they pick up the ashes (March 12, pp. 279-80). Moreover, what follows the infectious disease is a “secondary disaster” (次生災害) related to economic pressures, livelihoods, and employment.

The production of the online diary was a process, as Berry points out, in which “Fang Fang increasingly interacts with her many supporters as well as with the trolls who attack her, both of whom become an increasingly important part of the narrative that she weaves” (366). This interaction with readers online undoubtedly enriches the text. In response to her Chinese diary, there have appeared not only numerous comments but also follow-up entries, including a collection of sixty “Readers’ Relays of Fang Fang’s Diary.” The phenomenon is worth studying because it indicates people’s need to carry on writing and reading as therapeutic treatments against the trauma of the plague. It involves not the various treatments discussed in the diary—which New York publisher HarperCollins disclaims as medical advice on its copyright page—but what Rita Charon calls “narrative medicine.” According to Charon, “the telling and listening to stories of self . . . are themselves enabled by illness.”[10] Hence, disease is not only the content of a story but also the condition of storytelling.

In effect, the literary diary form empowers its author, her family and friends, former classmates, colleagues, neighbors, and her readers, all who were living their lives in quarantine, by writing and reading in the time of the coronavirus. As the disease demands to be documented, Fang Fang regards writing as living and remembering: “Every day I record the little things happening around me and add a few thoughts and feelings that I find interesting. This is a purely individual record written in diary form. It isn’t intended as a vessel for grand narratives” (Feb. 28, p. 186). Instead, it is as self-reflective as metafiction: “Look at me—a novelist documenting all these trivial daily occurrences here in this diary” (Feb. 17, p. 120); “I just wanted to jot down some reflections for myself” (March 4, p. 218). With her reflections on literature, she reminds her fellow Hubei writers of the need for integrity: “If you are just going to fawn all over the officials, please restrain yourselves.” (Jan. 31, p. 37) Knowing that besides writers and poets there are many people in Wuhan writing about the catastrophe, she recommends individual recording, outreach documentation, testimonial publication, and even a kuwang 哭網 or “wailing web” (March 12, p. 280): “Let all of us in Wuhan leave behind a collective memory of what happened” (March 9, p. 255).

Thus, Fang Fang inspires her readers to write about their own lives during the difficult time by providing them with an alternative feminine, if not necessarily feminist, perspective of the pandemic. The patriotic and patriarchal campaign of hatred against her reveals the relation between gender and genre or, following the title of an article by Valerie Raoul, “Women and Diaries.”[11] The diary exposes the problems of politics through the pandemic and, with its female sensibilities, challenges the patriarchal power of the policymakers. Hence, a Wuhan woman is praised for her “elegant way to curse” her district management in a crisp and sharp local dialect with all kinds of idioms that made people laugh, exemplifying the nüjiang 女將 “women generals” typical of Wuhan (March 8, p. 243).

Back to the task of the translator: Berry has maintained the unadorned style of the original and his work is meticulous, with five full pages of translator’s endnotes. For example, the final testament left behind by a Wuhan patient consisted of a mere eleven Chinese characters, but the newspaper reporting on his death used only the first seven and removed the last four to make the testament more patriotic and uplifting. Berry renders it into exactly eleven English words: “I donate my body to the nation. What about my wife?” (我的遺體捐國家。我老婆呢?) (Feb. 21, p. 142). Of course, like any translation, there is room for improvement. For instance, the phrase 生命難以承受之重, a wordplay on Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, might be better translated as “the unbearable heaviness of being” than “the incredible weight of being” (March 3, p. 214). Another example is the translator’s misinterpretation of a narrative sentence that the inspecting “leaders only take a quick look around and leave” as part of the public outcry, which Fang Fang does not put in quotation marks (March 5, p. 225). Hanyu 漢語 “Chinese language” is also mistaken as “the people of Wuhan” in the 7 March title “Who could have imagined that a second catastrophe would befall the people of Wuhan?”[12] And the Beijing-based media group Caixin 財新 is misidentified as Caijing (March 8, pp. 246-47). In terms of nuance, when it comes to the single most widely circulated sentence from the diary, “One speck of dust from an era may not seem like much, but when it falls on your head it is like a mountain crashing down on you” (March 10, p. 258), I would like to see more of the helplessness of an ordinary person implied in the original Chinese word geren 個人, literally “an individual” or “one,” rather than Berry’s “you” or “your.”

Berry started his work on February 25, exactly one month behind the diary’s first entry, only to find himself wandering between two worlds: Wuhan in the very recent past and Los Angeles, his home, where the pandemic has been unfolding into an unknown future. While the virus was spreading from China to California, the translator “felt an urgent need to get Fang Fang’s words out as quickly as possible,” therefore “racing desperately to catch up” around the clock (370). Such urgency contributes to making the entries seem like dispatches from a battlefield. When the work was finally finished on April 10, the total cases in Los Angeles County had already reached 8,430, with 241 deaths.[13] Where the Wuhan diary ends, the American stories begin in the book’s afterword with the translator’s laments to the family members of a high school classmate who lost several members to the virus and to both his physician’s and the U.S. President’s ignorance about “the flu” (371). While Berry felt strange that over the course of this project his “life gradually began to mimic Fang Fang’s” (372), this reviewer also shared that sense of strangeness while reading the English edition and rereading the Chinese original in Hong Kong, where people are confronting a third wave of coronavirus infections and the new national security law that Beijing recently enforced.

Howard Y. F. Choy
Hong Kong Baptist University


[1] See https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.

[2] Michael Berry, “Translator’s Afterword,” in Fang Fang, Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City, trans. Berry (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 373. Hereafter, unless stated otherwise, entry dates and page numbers in the text refer to the English pdf version kindly provided to me by the translator. (The e-book version currently for sale does not have page numbers.) The page numbers used here will be different in the print book, when it is published.

[3] Hongwei Bao, “Diary Writing as Feminist Activism: Guo Jing’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary (2020),” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Center (April. 2020), https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/hongwei-bao/ (last accessed 17 July 2020).

[4] Opinions on Fang Fang’s diary are divided not only among general readers but also intellectuals such as writer Yan Lianke 閻連科, who is on her side, and Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu 張頤武, who is against her. See Yan Lianke, “Jing ci yi jie, rang women chengwei you jixing de ren” 經此疫劫,讓我們成為有記性的人 (Let’s remember this catastrophe), Duan chuanmei 端傳媒 (Initium Media) (Feb. 21, 2020, https://theinitium.com/article/20200221-mainland-coronavirus-yanlianke/ (last accessed July 26, 2020); and Xifeng 西風, “Beida jiaoshou pi Fang Fang: Shei he ni zheng shenme zuoyou? Zheng de shi zhenjia” 北大教授批方方:誰和你爭什麼左右?爭的是真假 [Professor of Peking University Criticizes Fang Fang: Who’s Debating with You Left or Right? We’re Debating about True or False], Guancha zhe 觀察者 (March 26, 2020, https://user.guancha.cn/main/content?id=271875 (last accessed July 26, 2020). Fang Fang responded to Zhang’s comments in the March 20 entry of her Wuhan Diary (328-30).

[5] Marco Fumian, “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Center (April 2020), https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/marco-fumian/ (last accessed July 30, 2020). As a matter of fact, Fang Fang suggests in the February 19 entry in her Wuhan Diary (131), that the term CCP in the newly established “CCP assessment group” (黨建考核組) should be substituted with “supervision” (監督).

[6] A typical “gratitude education” in the traditional Chinese analogy of “parental officials” (父母官) is demonstrated in an open letter to the writer by an alleged sixteen-year-old high school student: “My parents treat me well every day, but I don’t realize it and instead I keep ranting against them and complaining about everything: I really am worth less than a beast! What do you say: should I remember or not the meals and clothes that I received from my parents?” Chinese original, “Yi wei gaozhongsheng gei ‘Fang Fang ayi’ de xin” 一位高中生給“方方阿姨”的信 [A Letter to Auntie Fang Fang from a High Schooler], Guancha zhe (March 18, 2020), https://user.guancha.cn/main/content?id=265081 (last accessed 26 July 2020); English translation by Fumian, “To Serve the People or the Party.” For Fang Fang’s earnest reply, see the March 18 entry in her Wuhan Diary (315-18). Despite strict Chinese censorship, netizens still found spaces online for creative and critical expressions, especially messages that have transformed whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang’s 李文亮 (1985-2020) posthumous Weibo page into a wailing wall, a group photo with the image of Dr. Jiang Xueqing 江學慶 (1964-2020) surrounded by candles replacing the heads of his colleagues at Wuhan Central Hospital and, more dramatically, a deleted magazine article about the “whistle-giver” Dr. Ai Fen 艾芬, which was then reproduced in multiple languages and spread widely and wildly. Also see Fang Fang, Wuhan Diary, entries for March 11, 12, and 14 (266-67, 280, 286-87).

[7] See the official report by Cao Siqi, “Chinese Vigilant on Deifying Writer Fang Fang amid Publication of Wuhan Diary in English,” Global Times (April 8, 2020), https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185055.shtml (last accessed 15 Aug. 2020). The diary has indeed attracted attention abroad; for example, Indian Sinologist Hemant Adlaka calls it “a new critical voice.” See “Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ amid Coronavirus Quarantine,” The Diplomat (March 23, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/fang-fang-the-conscience-of-wuhan-amid-coronavirus-quarantine/ (last accessed Aug. 15, 2020). Meanwhile, Michael Kahn-Ackermann has translated it into German, Wuhan Diary: Tagebuch aus einer gesperrten Stadt (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 2020).

[8] In his translation, Berry renders 悲涼 into “depressed” and 痛苦 into “suffering/difficult” (7, 10-11).

[9] See Wang Cheng 王誠, “Bei Fang Fang du jitang ‘Ruan mai” de Wuhan ren!” 被方方毒雞湯“軟埋”的武漢人! (The “Soft Burial” of Wuhanese by Fang Fang’s Poisonous Chicken Soup!), Baijia sheping 百家社評 (March 10, 2020), http://www.占豪.com/home/index/article/id/19107 (last accessed July 26, 2020). Soft Burial is the title of Fang Fang’s 2016 historical novel, which has also drawn criticism from Maoists and is another translation project of Berry.

[10] Rita Charon, Afterword to Psychoanalysis and Narrative Medicine, ed. Peter L. Rudnytsky and Rita Charon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 287.

[11] Valerie Raoul, “Women and Diaries: Gender and Genre,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 22.3 (Summer 1989): 57-65.

[12] Referring to the “sensitive terms” (敏感詞) in censorship, this question reappears at the end of the entry and is correctly translated. See Berry, trans., Wuhan Diary, 235.

[13] See City of Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti’s Innovation Team, “COVID-19 Daily Data Summary,” COVID-19: Keeping Los Angeles Safe (April 13, 2020, https://corona-virus.la/sites/default/files/inline-files/Data%20Report%20Monday%204_13.pdf (last accessed Aug. 12, 2020).