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A Tale of Two Viruses

Hongling Zhang

I first learned about what is known as Covid-19 on the last day of 2019, twenty days before China’s official confirmation of this new species of coronavirus. On that evening, one of my cousins in Wuhan shared a picture in our family WeChat group of two health workers, both in white hazmat suits, spraying disinfectant into the meat and seafood stalls that lined a narrow, dimly lit street. The picture, with its juxtaposition of modern-day technology and old ways of living, immediately called to my mind an Asian food market from Blade Runner.

My cousin said the photo was taken in Huanan Seafood Market, where the first case of some unknown pneumonia infection had been discovered. Another cousin from Guangzhou, the city in the south where SARS is believed to have originated in 2003, was alarmed and cautioned everyone to be careful. At the time, none of us expected that this mysterious virus would quickly spread all over China and turn into a global pandemic, which would then turn into a political war between East and West, as well as left and right. I would be caught in two different temporalities and the dual perspectives of being a Chinese American. As Professor Michael Berry from UCLA ‑ the English translator of the controversial Wuhan Diary by Fang Fang, whom I attended university with in Wuhan in the early ’80s ‑ put it in his translator’s afterword: “Along the way, I experienced many moments when these different temporalities seemed to clash, in eerie and jarring ways.” For Berry, the experience of translating Fang Fang’s diary in the midst of his real-time life in pandemic-stricken America brought about many such jarring correspondences. To give just one example, the 40,000-family Lunar New Year event in Baibuting that Fang Fang described in her diary entry on January 28th and Trump’s super-spreader campaign rallies reported by the American media. It seems both of our lives were intertwined with some kind of experience from another domain, in his case Fang Fang’s book, and in mine was the virtual reality of WeChat group chats.

Many relatives in this group chat live in Wuhan, where I went to college and graduate school and worked for four years before I emigrated to America in 1993. Wuhan is a gigantic city that consists of three towns and over eleven million people, with the Yangtze river flowing through it and dozens of railway lines and highways connecting to places far and near. During the time I lived there, it was an old industrial city in decline, sometimes compared to Chicago in the first half of the last century. Congestion, backwardness, stagnancy, repression, lack of opportunities … the list of negative words to describe Wuhan in the late ’80s and early ’90s could go on and on. Young people like me left the city for the more developed and affluent south or more advanced countries like America, Japan, England and France, looking for greater opportunities.

It has been twenty-seven years since I left Wuhan, on New Year’s Eve in 1993. I actually celebrated New Year’s Eve twice that year – once on the airplane, and again in St Louis. Like most new immigrants to the States, I struggled to learn English and finish school during the first few years and didn’t have much chance to go back to China. After I found my footing in my adopted country, I flew back quite often, either to take my students on educational tours or to visit my relatives and friends. Each time I was there, I found traces of the city’s past removed and replaced by new skyscrapers, highways and residential towers: “Wuhan, Different Every Day”, as the city’s official slogan goes. During my most recent visit, in the summer of 2019 for my husband’s sabbatical research on local folk religion, Wuhan had emerged as a completely foreign city in my eyes. Young, vibrant, innovative, modern, fast-paced … the list of positive words to describe contemporary Wuhan can also run on and on. I couldn’t help but marvel at the endless high-rise commercial and residential buildings, these super-tall skyscrapers that now surpassed Chicago’s in both number and height. In the evenings, dazzling LED light shows with different political and cultural themes ‑ of which the most striking was the upcoming 7th Military World Games in October ‑ swept across the Yangtze River and animated the Great Bridge and the skyscrapers along the river, giving the city a futuristic and dystopian touch.            

The locals had only wonderful things to say about their great metropolis. Every evening we were entertained with exquisite food and unequivocal bragging about the developments in the city. Another cousin, who had graduated from the same university as I did, now a multimillionaire, volunteered to give me a driving tour of the city in his white Porsche. He patiently introduced each notable new landmark and repeatedly asked me if there was anything like this in the States. We ended our tour in Optics Valley, Wuhan’s version of Silicon Valley. As he looked across the high-tech industry innovation hub, he gasped admiringly “My great Wuhan! Oh, how I love this great city!”

While I echoed the locals’ sentiments about the city’s great accomplishments, I had my doubts about their unreserved enthusiasm and unchecked appetite for development ‑ or overdevelopment as I saw it. Yes, the traffic congestion had been greatly alleviated after the completion of an intricate Metro system, which includes nine lines and 228 stations. The blue sky was still a luxury and smog continued to hover over the city, but the air quality was definitely better. Nevertheless, new issues emerged. Among them were the urban flooding disasters that hit Wuhan almost every summer, caused by rapid urbanisation and the loss of water and green belts in the city. According to The Guardian’s 2019 series “The Next 15 Megacities”, Wuhan, once known as “the city of a hundred lakes”, now has only about thirty left out of the 127 that existed in the 1980s.

And there was also the massive amount of plastic and litter waste. While this was hardly a problem exclusive to Wuhan, the city certainly hadn’t lived up to its ambition to be a modern and civilised metropolis. My husband and I stayed at a small apartment in Wuhan University, lent to us by a good friend who works for the school. It was in the central area of a beautiful campus, with school cafeterias, libraries and subway stations all within walking distance. We were very happy about the living arrangements until I noticed that the cafeteria’s patrons, mostly college students and faculty, used disposable dinnerware made of plastics, foam and paper. It was all dumped into the lidless trash cans that lined the sidewalks to the cafeteria. This was the campus of one of the top ten universities in China, with nearly sixty thousand students and over seven thousand faculty and staff members. I couldn’t help wondering how much trash and waste it must produce in a single day. If its highly educated and cultured university leadership didn’t care about sanitation and pollution, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the rest of the city was like. Everywhere we went, we saw a tidy, clean modern facade that hid a backstreet littered with filthy garbage, rotten food, and industrial waste. Having grown up in undeveloped China, I was not a stranger to poor sanitation, but I couldn’t help thinking, uneasily, that these kinds of living conditions would trigger an epidemic outbreak, sooner or later.

I didn’t expect that outbreak would come so quickly. Fast forward to January of 2020, the month when our family group chat was most active. We exchanged information about the nature of the virus, symptoms to watch for and precautions to take, which masks were most effective and where to buy them, how many people were infected in Wuhan. We noted with alarm that hospitals were running out of space. We shared fear and uncertainty about the future and comfort and support to help each other get through the present. The information we received about the novel virus was mostly accurate, even from today’s perspective, since six cousins in our group are health workers in Wuhan and had a lot of first-hand knowledge. At one point, my cousin in Guangzhou, a businessman with connections to other countries, was searching for masks abroad to donate to Wuhan. Trying to help, I even contacted my family doctor, dentist, and eye doctor in St Louis to find out where I could purchase them.

It was the origin of the virus that my relatives and I disagreed on. As the coronavirus spread to other countries, a different type of virus, a political one, started to propagate and infect human relationships. A couple of my cousins believed the virus had been brought into Wuhan by American military athletes during the Military World Games in October. Their evidence to support this claim included the proximity of the US Guest House to Huanan Seafood Market, the poor performance of the always strong American athletes (because, these cousins said, they were not professional athletes but soldiers with biochemical weapons), and the sudden illness of five American athletes with symptoms similar to Covid-19 (later the local hospital that treated them clarified that they had contracted malaria). It was the most ridiculous conspiracy theory I had heard, but being obsessed with the coronavirus lab-accident theory myself at the time, I was not immune to the novel political virus. We were rational enough to curb our tongues and avoid getting into nasty fights, as was happening all over WeChat then. But this family group chat, which had brought me the earliest knowledge about the virus and so much other inside information from Wuhan, went dormant. Eventually, our group chat returned to polite exchanges of holiday greetings.

But people need an outlet to vent their anger and share their fear and confusion. This was particularly the case after the Chinese government announced a shutdown of the entire city, forcibly putting eleven million Wuhanese under quarantine on January 23rd. So naturally, another group chat I’m in, consisting mostly of high school classmates who had used the group to keep in touch, became an avenue for sharing information and emotional support. At the time, many of my former classmates began to follow the online diary of Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang, who documented the struggles of daily life and emotional turmoil in quarantined Wuhan. One of the most important writers in contemporary China, Fang Fang has won many major literary awards, including the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize. Her diary, later called Wuhan Diary, was initially posted on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Her honest and poignant writing instantly won her immense popularity on social media and was read by millions of desperate people with no access to truthful and reliable information about Wuhan. For her fellow Wuhanese, my classmates included, reading her diary became as essential as eating and sleeping. They admired her courage in telling the truth and criticising the government’s early mishandling of the pandemic; the personal feelings she described in her writing, from panic and anger to sadness and hopelessness, resonated with them; they identified with the difficulties and challenges she faced daily and shed tears for the less fortunate ones she wrote about, those who had lost their lives or lost loved ones, those who had to wait or fight to get into overcrowded hospitals, and those who were homeless, living in tunnels or denied entries to other cities and stuck on the road indefinitely. People often took screenshots of her posts before they were censored and disappeared. After her WeChat account was suspended, her writings were reposted by a fellow writer friend, Er Xiang, whose WeChat account name had kept changing—from Six Dimensions of Space at first to Eleven Dimensions of Space eventually, because it was repeatedly suspended. Fang Fang had become the voice of Wuhan and a national hero people admired and were deeply grateful for.

Then all of a sudden, virtually overnight, she turned from national hero to public enemy, a state traitor who had empowered the West by handing them “a knife”. This 180-degree turn happened after an English publication of her diary was announced in April. Both Fang Fang and her English translator, Michael Berry, received angry attacks from armies of Internet trolls, Little Pink (young Chinese nationalists) and Ultra-Leftists (old CCP hardliners) included. Some of my classmates also started to question her motives and criticised her for what, in their view, was “airing the family’s dirty laundry in public”. They were deeply ashamed that the world had to learn about Wuhan in such a negative way and worried that the city would be associated with the coronavirus forever.

The attacks on Fang Fang escalated and turned violent after President Trump hinted that China was knowingly responsible for the global spread of the coronavirus. Detractors accused her of “consuming steamed buns dipped in the blood of Wuhan people” and demanded that she apologise on her knees. One Little Pink girl even suggested cutting out Fang Fang’s tongue and sending it to her “disgusting American master”. The speedy translation and timely publication of her writing also invited speculation that it had been a premeditated, organised conspiracy of the West, aimed at discrediting China’s success in battling the pandemic and marring the country’s international reputation.

The scale and the nastiness of the attacks threw me into a funk. I was shocked and speechless at how people could so easily twist facts to fit their preferred narratives and how they could make an about-face from adoration to hatred overnight just because of their patriotic pride.

I know the early stage of the diary’s translation personally. As a matter of fact, I’m the one who put translator and writer in touch in 2018, regarding the translation of her banned work A Soft Burial, a historical novel about property redistribution and the mass killing of landlords in China’s land reform in the 1950s. As a long-time fan of Fang Fang’s fiction, I have followed her career since my college years, when we lived in the same dormitory at Wuhan University from 1981 to 1982. The winner of the best national short story that year, Fang Fang was a rising literary star in her senior year, while I was a freshman and a literary enthusiast who hoped to write as well as she did some day. We didn’t meet in person until the summer of 2019, when we had tea together at a mutual friend’s house in Wuhan. I asked her how the translation of A Soft Burial was coming along, and she said she had sent a copy to Mr Berry but hadn’t heard anything back yet. I said Mr Berry had told me he liked the novel very much, but being a full professor at UCLA and the director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies probably kept him very busy. Fang Fang said she was not too concerned about having her work translated into other languages, although she was confident that no translator would regret translating A Soft Burial, her most important work to date. Being a literary translator myself, I recognised the weight of her words and immediately passed on our conversation to Michael Berry, who said he would write to Fang Fang directly to explain his situation. In October 2019, I sent another inquiring message to Michael, who told me that he and Fang Fang had worked out an agreement on the project. I was very happy about the outcome. On February 28th of last year, when Fang Fang’s diary went viral in China, I wrote to him again, asking if he was aware of it. He said he was, and in fact had temporarily put aside A Soft Burial and asked Fang Fang’s permission to translate her diary first. He believed the world needed to know what was going on in Wuhan, and Fang Fang’s personal testimony and her refusal to be silenced needed to be understood by the world. 

This is the so-called “premeditated and preorganized conspiracy” that Fang Fang’s attackers were so sure about. There was no CIA involvement. No spy team following instructions from American intelligence agencies to manufacture “the weapon” against China. Michael Berry is a Sinologist specialising in Chinese film studies and a well-known literary translator who has always been friendly to China. From February 25th through April 10th, 2020, he translated roughly five thousand words daily, labouring more than ten hours a day and seven days a week. It was his contribution to the world in the pandemic crisis, and “weaponising” the book against China was the last thing on his mind. Neither was Fang Fang trying to profit from the Wuhan people’s sacrifices. In fact, she decided to donate all her profit from the publication to relief charities in Wuhan.

I had thought about helping clear up the conspiracy theory regarding the English translation of Wuhan Diary, but knowing that my tiny voice would be drowned out in an ocean of online opinions and knowing that I myself was becoming increasingly vulnerable as the virus began to take over America, I kept my mouth shut and tuned out all the toxic patriotic noise from my native country. I felt the need to take care of myself first, to get ready for the second battle in my adopted country, during which I would have to stay quarantined for a much longer time than the people in Wuhan did. Many more people would get infected and lose their lives, and our hospitals would experience greater shortages of health workers and resources. We would also have to fight the political virus, different in content but similar in nature to the one in China: the stigma of “China virus” or “Wuhan virus”, different conspiracy theories, the anti-mask wars, the rise of xenophobic nationalism and discrimination against Asian Americans …

Just as I had to celebrate the New Year’s Eve twice on my westward journey in 1993, so I had to fight the pandemic battle twice in 2020.

1/3/2021

Hongling Zhang’s short stories have appeared in Tampa Review and Selected Stories of North American Chinese Writers. She has published two collaborative translations of literary works from China: Wang in Love and Bondage, (SUNY Press, 2007), and The Bathing Women (Scribner, 2012). Her translation of AB Yehoshua’s The Continuing Silence of a Poet was published in China last year, and her translation of Alice Munro’s Open Secrets is due next year.

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