Read an Exclusive Excerpt from The Wuhan Lockdown — HarperCollins Publishers India
This book tells the dramatic story of the Wuhan lockdown in the voices of the city’s own people. Using a vast archive of more than 6,000 diaries, the sociologist Guobin Yang vividly depicts how the city coped during the crisis. The book features compelling stories of citizens and civic groups in their struggle against COVID-19. These snapshots from the lockdown capture China at a critical moment, revealing the intricacies of politics, citizenship, morality, community, and digital technology.
Read an excerpt from the book.
Chapter 1 Festivities, Interrupted Apocalypse
Guo Jing (郭晶) is a social worker and feminist activist. In 2017, Guo started a legal aid hotline for female professionals who were victims of workplace discrimination. She wrote 76 lockdown diary entries spanning the 76 days of the Wuhan lockdown. In one of them, she wrote that she had just moved to Wuhan in November of 2019 and did not have many friends there. I first read her diary postings from a WeChat public account run by a friend of hers. The first four days of her diary, from January 23 to 26, 2020, appeared as one long essay under the title “The diary of a woman who lives alone in the locked-down city of Wuhan.” The essay has over 100,000+ views, the sign of a viral posting on WeChat. Her entries from January 27 to 29 were posted under the title “Rediscovering my place in an isolated city,” and from January 30 to February 1, “Living with a sense of helplessness.” These are testimonies of the everyday struggles of Wuhan residents in the early period of the lockdown.
Guo Jing’s diary postings in the first days of the lockdown convey her reactions to the lockdown and the sense of apocalypse she felt.
January 23, 2020:
When I got up this morning and saw news of the lockdown, I was at a loss what to do. I couldn’t anticipate what this would all mean, how long the lockdown would last, and what preparations I should make.
January 24, 2020:
The world is so quiet it’s scary. I live alone. It’s only from the occasional sound in the corridor of the building that I can make sure there are still people around. I have a lot of time to think about how to survive. I have no resources or social networks within the establishment. If I’m ill, I will be as unlikely as many other ordinary people to receive medical treatment. Therefore, one of my goals is not to let myself get sick. I must persevere in doing physical exercise. To survive, I will need the necessary food, and therefore I must find out about the supply situation of daily necessities…. Therefore, today, I went out.
January 27, 2020:
Today the weather was a bit clearer, but still cloudy. After walking for only a few steps outside, I saw two cats on a pile of debris. We stared at each other. This scene has such a strong sense of apocalypse. When we stared at each other, it seemed as if there were only me and the two cats left in this world.
As Guo Jing’s diary attests, the initial period of the lockdown in Wuhan was full of scenes of apocalypse. These were recorded in diaries, videos, photographs, drawings, social media postings. Guo Jing’s friend Xiao Meili (肖美丽), also a feminist activist, documented some of the best known and most tragic scenes in a series of ink and water paintings which she posted on Sina Weibo. On February 12, 2020, she posted a painting of a 90-year-old lady named Xu Meiwu sitting next to the bed of her 64-year-old son who was seriously ill with the coronavirus and was on a ventilator in ICU care. Xiao Meili’s annotations on this painting were from Xu Meiwu’s own words:
After I got to the hospital, I found there was no bed vacancy at all. We could only see the doctor. The crowds were like mountains and oceans. People rubbed against one another. I stood in a line for my son’s CT test and our number [in the queue] was 297. I remember this number clearly because it gave me a feeling of despair.
Xiao wrote in her Weibo posting that she had painted this scene the day before. She thought that it must have been extremely painful for the elderly woman to stand in a long line for her son, and yet the mainstream media were praising her for her motherly love. Xiao commented:
I feel such praise is very cruel…. Instead of praising her struggling in hardships out of great motherly love, what is more important is that we should ask whose responsibility it is to put disadvantaged individuals like her in such difficult situations?”
Descriptions of painful scenes like these are sometimes mixed with stories of absurdities, absurdities which could only be imaginable in a times of apocalypse. Long lists of such absurdities circulated online, such as the following:
An elderly man wearing a mask was playing [the Russian song] Katyusha on his accordion while taking a night walk in the street.
Help! Help! A woman on a balcony was knocking on a wash basin while crying out for help.
Unable to say goodbye, a daughter ran after a vehicle which was taking away her dead mother.
A vehicle drove right up to a warehouse and picked up a box of face masks for some [privileged] leaders. A long line of medical workers had waited there for hours to receive their face masks.
A truck driver [with a Hubei license plate], finding himself blocked wherever he tried to go, had to live on the highway for twenty days.
“My relative died in the afternoon and could vacate a hospital bed. Please contact that hospital to give it a try.”
Each of these lines contains a dramatic story — tragic, inspiring, or painful. These are the scenes of the pandemic in Wuhan that have kept people like Xiao Meili wonder: What happened?
How did the apocalypse come about?
Originally published at https://harpercollins.co.in on May 9, 2022.