Book Review: Wuhan Diary by Fang Fang

Wuhan Diary – Fang Fang (HarperVia, 2020)

On January 25, 2020, the city of Wuhan went into lockdown. This was the epicentre of what would become a global pandemic. While much of the world would soon follow suit, while Wuhan was at the height of its fight against coronavirus, the rest of the world was still continuing on with life as normal, still thinking of this is a problem that existed elsewhere. From the beginning of the lockdown until it ended on April 8, Fang Fang kept an online diary. Here she shares her daily life, her fears and observations. It is both a record of the mundane and the extraordinary. The early struggle to find face masks. The concern for family near and far. The confusion and incompetence of officials. The small kindnesses of others and the sense of community that existed even in the darkest of moments.

Reading this book almost exactly one year later (coincidentally I began reading it on Lunar New Year, which occurred at the beginning of Wuhan’s lockdown in 2020), in our second though less mild lockdown here in British Columbia, brought back a lot of emotions. While our experience in Canada was different in many ways and we thankfully never reached the extremes of full hospitals that so many other countries did, the fear and uncertainty of those early weeks is still so palpable. I wonder if, in years to come, those who study this period of history will be able to truly grasp what it was like to experience this novel coronavirus in real time. I think it’s unlikely, just like I can’t really know what it was like to live through a world war.

I was drawn to this book, of course, because it is so relevant and timely at the moment, but also because of my own personal connection to Wuhan. In 2002, when I was sixteen, I spent the summer in Wuhan, as part of a team teaching English to high school students. It was a formative summer for me in many ways. In a humid dorm room in Wuhan was the first place and time that I personally and undeniably felt God speak directly to me. It was a moment that I have returned to many times in the years since so when Fang Fang writes, “For a lot of people…, no matter how far they wander and no matter how long they have been away, Wuhan will always be their spiritual home”, I felt that in my own way.

The book is offered up as a full collection of the daily diary that Fang Fang wrote over those weeks of 2020. Although mostly unknown outside of China, Fang Fang is a well-established Chinese writer, a lifelong resident of Wuhan, with a wide circle of connections within Wuhan. A lot of her entries are filled with references to colleagues, classmates, friends, and family. She shares her own experiences as well as theirs. Striving to keep their anonymity, she refers a lot to her “doctor friend” or her “former classmate”, which can make it hard to keep track of how many people she’s referring to. And there is, of course, a repetitiveness to the entries. There is a lot of focus on how to get groceries which, while interesting to me because those early days of food uncertainty are still very fresh in my mind; I’m not sure, however, that a readership ten years from now will find it quite as fascinating.

Fang Fang is writing within and for a Chinese audience and so I imagine there will also be parts that are misunderstood by a western audience. As the diary progresses, Fang Fang spends more time addressing criticisms from readers and officials. Many of her entries are removed from the internet and she begins to receive more and fiercer criticism from many others. As a western reader, I never thought Fang Fang was particularly harsh against others or against the government and leadership of Wuhan. I’ve read much louder and harsher criticism against my own leaders with less retaliation. At times, I felt like Fang Fang was too flattering toward the authorities. Early on in the book, she applauds the police and tells her readers that one can always rely on the police and call them if they need help. Even as a white woman in Canada (ie: I know I’m privileged in my treatment by the police), I would never say this as a blanket statement and I certainly wouldn’t ever say it in China. That said, it’s important to read Fang Fang’s diary within the context of China and its culture. Within China and its censorship of media and news, Fang Fang’s criticisms are bold and sometimes shocking.

As Wuhan begins to slowly exit from its severe lockdown, the rest of the world is entering theirs. In a year when anti-Asian racist sentiments and actions have been on the rise, I think this diary being published is so important. There are certainly criticisms and responsibility that should be directed toward some in China but the Chinese people and the people of Wuhan have suffered for those lies and mistakes as well as the rest of the world. Reading Fang Fang’s daily life and the experiences of her acquaintances, there is much here that will be familiar to the rest of us. Over and over, Fang Fang celebrates the people of Wuhan. Not the officials or the government, but the average person who submitted to staying home, locking down their lives to protect those around them and those around the world. As Fang Fang says in one entry, “No compliments or beautiful words would be considered excessive in describing the contributions that all these people [of Wuhan] made.”

Wuhan Diary was translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry. In the translator’s note, Berry describes the process of beginning his translation even as Fang Fang was still writing her diary online.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Wuhan Diary by Fang Fang”

    1. Absolutely! I think it will be an important record but also a thoughtful book to read now while we’re still going through this experience.

  1. Do you know if the book is, or will be able to be, published in China given the way her original diary entries online were removed? I always think of this as something that only affects countries unlike my own, but even reading Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography shows that many of us are under some sort of censorship. In Hurston’s case, she couldn’t say what she really felt about her patron, who was a white woman who often tried to dictate what Hurston would write about (most white patrons at the time would call for books that were MORE African, with the racist implication that the books be “wild” or “savage” or whatever).

    1. I haven’t been able to find anything about the book being published in China. I’m not sure whether that’s due to censorship or simply because the entries are already available online for Chinese readers. Fang Fang had the privilege of being a well known and lauded author before 2020 so she at least had a built in audience to begin and when her posts were removed other writers would share them on their own platforms.

      That’s an interesting point about the censorship Hurston’s work underwent. It makes me think about how we might have less overt censorship in N. America but there’s still a ton of privilege as to who has access to publishers, editors, writing programs, etc.

  2. What a fascinating read this must have been. I hope more people seek it out b/c there is still so much fear and resentment towards Wuhan directly, which is so sad and unfair to witness as a Canadian. People are always looking for others to blame, but the people of Wuhan are certainly not to blame for this. Reading a first-person account will hopefully change people’s minds.

    1. It’s terrible to see the increase and boldness of racism toward Canadians of Asian heritage. This book really highlights that the people of China suffered just as much as the rest of the world. You can blame the officials who were reluctant to shut things down at the beginning but, honestly, you could cast the same blame at any number of leaders around the world.

  3. This sounds like an incredible, important read. For some reason it was barely on my radar, but I’m completely sold on it now. I must look for a copy. Beautiful review.

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