Diary Writing as Feminist Activism:
Guo Jing’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary (2020)

By Hongwei Bao

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April 2020)

Figure 1: Cover of Guo Jing’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary

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.[1] 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.[2] 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).[3] 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.[4]

In this essay, I introduce Guo’s life and her feminist activism during the lockdown period, as represented in her diary.[5] I quote extensively from the diary to give readers a sense of her experience and a feel for her voice.[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8]

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).[9] 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.[10] 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). [11]

Figure 2: The first entry of Guo Jing’s Lockdown Diary on the Matters website, Jan. 23, 2020 (screenshot from matters.news)

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.”[12]

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)[13]

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18] 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):[19]

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)

Figure 3: screen shot of Guo Jing’s diary entry (excerpt) on female nurses, Feb. 18, 2020 (screenshot from matters.news)

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.[20] 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.

Figure 4: Guo Jing’s business card, frequently displayed on her social media (screenshot from social media)

An Intersectional Feminist Politics

As mentioned in the previous section, in media and government discourses worldwide, the fight against the coronavirus is often compared to fighting a war. One after another, countries and cities have entered the “state of exception” or “state of emergency” in which normal rules are suspended and stringent measures are imposed on human lives.[21] Behind all these is an unimaginable human cost, especially for marginalized social groups who are struggling with survival even under ordinary circumstances. On the first day, as a single woman living alone in a still strange city, Guo was keenly aware of the potential human cost of the lockdown. She queried:

In this battle, many people can only rely on themselves, instead of on a well-developed social welfare system. I am relatively young and can take care of myself. But what about those disadvantaged social groups such as elderly people and people living with disabilities? Can they survive the war? (January 23, 2020)

After Guo had resolved to make connections with others, she decided to do it not only online and through social media, but offline as well. This was not always easy during the quarantine period, and the people she met were also different from usual. Although most middle-class urban dwellers sheltered themselves in their private homes, countless working-class people—cleaners, drivers, deliverers, security guards, and shop assistants, many of whom were migrants to the city from other parts of the country and could not go back to their hometowns—still had to risk their lives to go to work. In the first week of the lockdown when she could still go out, Guo ventured out of her apartment every day, walking around the city or in the neighborhood talking to people whenever she could. She acted more like a journalist, asking people how they were coping with the epidemic:

I interviewed eight sanitary workers: six women and two men. They work seven to eight hours every day. Their monthly income averages 2,300 (or 2,400) RMB. After tax, they only get less than 2,000.

I asked them if they could get a pay rise during the epidemic. Some said that they could get double time only for three days during the Chinese New Year period. Some had no idea about this information.

They can get disinfectants and protective gloves for work. There was overall a lack of disposable face masks. If they are lucky, they can get twenty face masks at a time. One worker has only received two face masks since the start of the lockdown.

They are all very kind. Some even do not have a disposable surgical mask; they cover their mouth with a scarf. I gave them the three disposable masks that I had with me.

They earn meager wages and are not protected from the virus. But they kept on working. Do we really deserve their hard work? (Jan. 28, 2020)

The interview with the sanitary workers made Guo reflect on her own privilege as a university-educated woman living in the city. It also connected gender with other social issues such as class, migration, and the rural/urban divide. Indeed, feminism must take into consideration other social structures and issues and see these structures and identities as intersected; they create “scattered hegemonies” on women’s lives.[22] On the epidemic’s differentiated impact on various social groups, Guo remarks:

No one deserves to die. But society had divided people into different social groups and given them different values. I do not know if anyone has conducted a study of the quarantine measures and the fatalities from the perspective of class. The virus itself does not discriminate, but there are deeply embedded discriminations in our society. These already existing discriminations usually inform the decision-making of quarantine measures and their subsequent implementation, as well as the medical care those affected will receive. (March 25, 2020)

Guo astutely pinpoints the impact of social inequalities and injustices on the making and implementation of public health policies. But she did not take a passive attitude, complaining and venting grievances (as some public intellectuals did); instead, she took action to help those in need—from giving workers face masks to delivering medicine and goods to people in need. When interviewing workers became increasingly difficult because of social distancing policies, Guo started online interviews and her “anti-domestic violence little vaccine” activist campaign.

“Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine”: Feminism in Action

At the beginning of the lockdown, while the infection rate and death toll were rising dramatically and the situation in Wuhan getting out of control, Guo and her friends shared a sense of vulnerability and helplessness. She set up a WeChat group for her feminist activist friends. The group decided to examine the lockdown from a feminist perspective and take appropriate action to “help individuals overcome a sense of helplessness” (帮助个体克服一些无力感) (Jan. 26, 2020).

The issue of rising domestic violence during the lockdown soon attracted their attention. From stories shared by group members and from callers to the helpline, it soon became clear that life under lockdown posed a serious threat to many women who had been in abusive relationships or suffered domestic violence, and to many children who suffered abuse and exploitation from adults. These victims had nowhere to go because of the lockdown, and necessary police intervention and legal help was not available in this special period. Domestic violence has been exacerbated by the lockdown all over the world, and China is no exception.[23] Under the Blue Sky, an anti-domestic-violence NGO based in Hubei’s Lijian County, received 175 reports of domestic violence in February, three times the number of such complaints during the same month in 2019.[24] “Domestic violence is surfacing amid the epidemic,” Guo writes. “The lockdown increased the difficulty for victims to get help and support; it also increased the practical difficulty for us in being able to offer our own intervention” (Feb. 28, 2020). To raise public awareness of this issue, Guo organized an online workshop. In the workshop, feminist activist Feng Yuan shared her experience of and gave advice on how to deal with domestic violence. The live broadcast and its recording attracted 1,200 viewings that day, with positive feedback from participants and viewers (Feb. 29, 2020).

Figure 5. “Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine” campaign logo (The Chinese words read: “anti-domestic violence little vaccine” [left]; “caring for each other during the lockdown” [right]) (screenshot from social media)

Figure 6. An activist posted a hand-written “anti-domestic violence open letter” on an elevator door, March 5, 2020 (screenshot from social media)

Building on the success of the workshop, the anti-domestic violence workgroup led by Guo, in collaboration with the Rural Women Development Foundation Guangdong, launched an “Anti-Domestic Violence Little Vaccine” (反家暴小疫苗) activist campaign (fig. 5). The campaign called on women to act up and raise public awareness of domestic violence. The group published an open letter (倡议书) online, calling for the end of domestic violence against women. The group encouraged people to hand copy or print out the open letter and post it in public spaces (fig. 6). The response was overwhelmingly positive: “In just a few hours, several thousand people volunteered to become ‘little vaccines’” (March 2, 2020). Many people also came up with creative methods for public advocacy:

Since the start of the campaign, many people have posted the open letter in their own buildings or neighborhoods. Some have even redesigned the open letter and made it into a beautiful poster. Some dialed the telephone number of the Women’s Rights Hotline run by the All-China Women’s Federation to make sure that the hotline is in operation. Others shared their own experience of falling victim to domestic violence.

The aim of the campaign is to make domestic violence visible and make its victims feel supported. Now thousands of people have volunteered to become “anti-domestic violence little vaccines.” I hope that many people can get involved in this and the number can reach ten thousand, so that “anti-domestic violence little vaccines” can be spread in more neighborhoods. (March 4, 2020)

The lockdown condition offered ample opportunities for activist campaigns because many people had more time and enthusiasm for social participation. But it also posed unprecedented challenges. First, offline gatherings became difficult, although to a certain extent they could be replaced by online meetings. Second, the difficulty in bringing a movement from the private and domestic sphere to a public space also required appropriate changes in activist strategies, which is complicated by the cultural specificity of the public space in the PRC.

The notion of “public space” has a vexed history in China, especially because of the conflation of the public and the private in the Mao era and its aftermath. Public spaces in a city are often controlled with surveillance, and the use of these spaces are often politicized or even commercialized. A bulletin board in a residential compound is often occupied by political posters and commercial advertisements, and the residents’ use of these spaces is often forbidden or strictly scrutinized. The act of posting an open letter in these public spaces therefore marks an act of transgression and a reclaiming of ordinary people’s entitlement to these spaces. Guo reflects on this in her diary, aware that many participants in the campaign would be among her readers:

Many people said they were extremely nervous when they posted the open letter in public spaces, as if they were doing something wrong. In contrast, many perpetrators of domestic violence did not feel any unease at all when they committed physical violence in public. They would not tone down their voice. The victims were usually more worried about being seen and humiliated by others. Such a public space tolerates and encourages violence against women.

To whom do public spaces belong? Today, our urban spaces are overwhelmingly occupied by homogenous propaganda slogans and commercial advertisements. […]

It is thus easy to understand people’s nervousness. We seldom use public spaces and do not claim ownership to these public spaces. The campaign of posting anti-domestic violence open letters in fact has two objectives: first, to raise public awareness of domestic violence and to offer support to victims; second, to exercise our right to use public spaces and to improve the social environment where such practices exist, and to send a warning message to the perpetrators. (March 6, 2020)

Guo believes in the power of individual and collective action in empowering marginalized people in society; she also sees the potential of ordinary people’s agency once they feel that they can do something to change their lives and to change society. She wrote on March 8, the International Women’s Day, also the fifth anniversary of the arrest of the “feminist five”: “Many people have been looking for light and connections in darkness and lockdown. They have never given up their desire for social change. This can release tremendous strength and power” (March 8, 2020).[25]

The Aftermath of the Lockdown

April 8, 2020 marked the day when the lockdown was finally eased in Wuhan. It was a sunny day, so Guo went out for a bicycle ride. Life in Wuhan seemed to have largely gone back to normal, although the after effect of the epidemic could still be felt:

The traumatic effects and the disasters brought about by the epidemic persist. Some who have survived COVID-19 will have to live with its side effects for the rest of their lives. Who takes care of them in the future? Will people from Wuhan continue to be discriminated against in other parts of the country? The closure of companies has led to many job losses. What will these jobless people do? To address these issues requires a lot of resources. The responsibility cannot simply rest with individuals; the government has a crucial role to play. The trauma left by the disaster on individuals cannot be told, but it can have a long-lasting effect on people’s lives. (April 8, 2020)

Guo also reflected on her experience of keeping the diary:

When I started the diary, I had not expected that this would last seventy-seven days. But I have had a lot of unexpected gains. Writing is a dialogue, a dialogue with myself and with other people. In the last seventy-seven days, I have not only observed but also experienced the lockdown first-hand. I have witnessed and documented my own feelings, the lives of other people, and some events.

This double identity [of both witnessing and experiencing the lockdown] has made me more observant of everyday life; it has also made me reflect on human relationships. I have seen the interactions among residents in this community. I have also seen people’s passivity and frustration, but I have also seen how people actively connected with each other and helped one another.

I will stop writing my diary, but I will not stop making my voice heard. I hope to make more connections with people and work with them to change society. (April 8, 2020)

Where most people could see disaster and tragedy in Wuhan during the lockdown, Guo saw and experienced the epidemic in a different way. She noticed intensified connections among people and that these connections changed society and people’s lives in a positive way. She also saw that the ongoing pandemic was a gendered event that had serious implications for women’s lives, and that women should act up to change the patriarchal world. Her commitment to feminism was strengthened along the way. Guo wrote in an early phase of the lockdown: “The luckiest thing in my life is to have become a feminist and to be able to work with a group of like-minded friends, accompanying and supporting each other.” (Jan. 25, 2020). Near the end of the lockdown, she wrote: “I will still be a feminist activist because women are still under suppression” (March 30, 2020).


I have explored here the conditions and strategies of feminist activism in a state of emergency. As the Wuhan case shows, the lockdown of cities and neighborhoods was not the end of political activism and social movements; feminist activism and other types of activism were rife in the quarantined city. Activists came up with innovative strategies to reach out to the public and brought neglected social issues to the fore. The intense public feelings and the urgency for social engagement in this special period created fertile ground for the articulation of these social issues. The coronavirus has now developed into a global pandemic, and there has been widespread panic and fear around world. In this context, we have a lot of things to learn from Wuhan, not simply in terms of how the government responded to the pandemic, but how ordinary people mobilized themselves to help and support each other.

The case of lockdown diaries like that of Guo Jing’s suggests the need to reassess the role of diaries in their public circulation and active engagement with political and social issues. Lockdown diaries can act as a “transmission belt” between the party state and the people created by a cynical public intellectual.[26] But they can also constitute a form of social activism on the part of an ordinary person who refused to live in isolation and who tried to connect with others and help people in need. They can bring the issue of gender to the fore in a largely masculine quarantine environment. Feminism, in this context, ceases to be an abstract theory; it has started to speak to and “make connections” with ordinary people’s lives on the ground. If COVID-19 indeed marks a historical moment for social change, let us pay attention to and learn from these impulses, strategies, experiences, and emerging narratives that are reshaping the world we live in.


[1] Gabriel Crossley, “Wuhan lockdown ‘unprecedented,’ shows commitment to contain virus: WHO representative in China.” Reuters (Jan. 23, 2020) (accessed April 25, 2020).

[2] James Griffiths and Steven Jiang, “Wuhan officials have revised the city’s coronavirus death toll up by 50%.” CNN (April 17, 2020) (accessed April 25, 2020).

[3] Guo’s diary was published by Taipei-based Linking Publishing, titled 武汉封城日记 (Wuhan Lockdown Diary) (accessed April 25, 2020) at: https://readmoo.com/book/210134351000101. The diary is also available on the Matters website: 郭晶的武汉封城日记 (Guo Jing’s Wuhan lockdown diary) (accessed April 25, 2020) https://matters.news/@GuoJing

[4] The total word count of Guo’s published Wuhan Lockdown Diary is 80,983 words in Chinese characters.

[5] In writing this essay, I have also cross-referenced and factchecked Guo’s diary against official news reports and other residents” accounts of the life in Wuhan at the time. Although Guo’s account cannot offer a comprehensive picture of the situation in Wuhan during the lockdown, she has tried to document the events about which she knew at the time to the best of her knowledge and ability. In fact, because of her training in social work, she could see the bigger picture and structural issues better than many other diarists; her accounts therefore often went beyond individual experiences and touched on social issues.

[6] Besides reading and analysing Guo’s diary, I have also followed Guo’s social media accounts and attended her online talks organized by Matters.

[7] Guobin Yang, “Digital Radicals of Wuhan.” Center on Digital Culture and Society (Feb. 3) (accessed April 25, 2020).

[8] 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 April 25, 2020).

[9] Fang Fang, Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City. Translated by Michael Berry (New York: Harpervia, forthcoming in 2020); Ai, Xiaoming, “Wuhan Diary.” New Left Review (2020) 122 (accessed April 25, 2020)

[10] Marco Fumian, “To Serve the People or the Party.”

[11] In this essay, all the dated quotes are taken from Guo’s online diary and the dates in brackets refer to the dates on which the entries were written. All the translations are mine unless otherwise specified.

[12] Starting from January 27, 2020, each batch of the diary entry had its bespoke name, usually a line from Guo’s diary, such as “rediscovering my place in a locked down city” and “living with helplessness”. It is unclear how much input Guo had in designing these titles.

[13] Where Guo uses bold letters to add emphasis, I use italics to indicate the original emphasis.

[14] Guo Jing 郭晶 , Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明, “Under the Epidemic: Writing as a Form of Social Activism” (疫症之下: 写作作为一种社会行动). Matters (April 15, 2020) (accessed April 25, 2020).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

[17] Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

[18] Mayfair Mei-Hui Yang, Spaces of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[19] Jane Li, “China is Being Accused of Mistreating Coronavirus Nurses for Propaganda.” Quartz (February 18, 2020) (accessed April 25, 2020).

[20] Legal Information Institute, “Guo Jing v. East Cooking Vocational Skills Training School.” Women and Justice (2014) (accessed April 25, 2020).

[21] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[22] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1 (1989): 139-167; Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

[23] Amanda Taube, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” New York Times (April 6, 2020) (accessed April 25, 2020).

[24] Jiayun Feng, “COVID-19 Fuels Domestic Violence in China.” SupChina (March 24, 2020) (accessed April 25, 2020).

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

[26] Marco Fumian, “To Serve the People or the Party.”