Sarah Svoboda is a senior at the Schedler Honors College of the University of Central Arkansas, majoring in English literature and minoring in Asian studies. Originally from western Massachusetts, she moved to central Arkansas five years ago and is currently developing her thesis on the complex mythos and history of the American adoption system. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Sarah plans to pursue a master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages. In this post, she responds to the Pandemic Forum session led by historian Kelly Hammond, Chinese Reactions and Responses.
On my twenty-third birthday, April 5th of 2020, I gave myself the gift of routine and foolishly read the news. I found an op-ed published in the New York Times titled, “China and the U.S. Must Cooperate Against the Coronavirus.” I assumed it would be written by the New York Times columnist on China but instead found it was written by Cui Tianaki, the Chinese ambassador to the United States. The article is fitting in context. The ambassador expresses his love for New York City, his former home, and writes that “it is sad to see the bustling, sleepless metropolis put on hold.” The piece came across commiserative and clear, the narrative focused on the responsibilities of the two largest economic superpowers in the world, to the rest of the globe and to each other. The article was published only three days before the end of the Wuhan lockdown, ending an unprecedented 77-day period of restrictions, placed on roughly 11 million people. The peaking crisis experienced by New York at the time of the article’s publication was described by Tianaki as an echo of China’s past and the future is rendered bright if hard-won.
This article would remain in my mind and over a month later, I would read about the diary of Wuhan social worker and feminist activist Guo Jing, recounting her experiences during the lockdown. The voices of both authors, Cui Tianaki and Guo Jing, were fitted with specific filters through which grief and trepidation were communicated. Guo Jing is an activist, a social worker, and a private citizen. Her priorities lie in her local community and with the safety of individuals made vulnerable by gender and class; she is concerned with a loss of connection because it constitutes the fabric of her work. She is performing the emotional labor necessary to reckon with suffering as something more complex than a symbol of resilience or endurance. To Guo Jing, it is also a sign of something lacking.
“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 I did not know. The whole city is 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.” (Guo Jing’s Wuhan Lockdown Diary)
The differences between Guo Jing’s lengthy diary of the Wuhan lockdown and Cui Tianaki’s contribution to the New York Times are many. The former is a personal practice with political implications while the latter is a public statement aimed towards the United States, written by an individual representing the Chinese government, not really himself. The priorities of these writers are different. They are experiencing this event from enormously different positions. However, they both must reckon with and then express themselves on undeniably emotional terms. This pandemic has rendered the global population devastated, submerged in ceaseless vulnerabilities. Whether you are a Chinese state official or a Wuhan social worker, you must find language to address the unpredictability of the human condition. What is interesting is how the respective parties choose to do so.
There has been a recurring theme in many of the articles I have read concerning the Chinese government, COVID-19, and the Wuhan Lockdown. There is concern and frustration regarding the appropriation of human lives for the sake of the narrative. In her personal piece, “The Cruelest Month”, Yangyang Chen writes about Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who first warned his peers and the Chinese government about the possibility of a new viral respiratory infection. She writes “… the people who appropriate his name never cared about Li as a person. They only want a narrative that is the most convenient, the most useful.” The appropriation of Li’s life for the sake of narrative is not exclusive to the Chinese government or “tough-on-China” United States senators, but Yangyang Chen points out that it is one of the most unnerving appropriations of death. However, she also describes the tendency of individuals of all sorts to refer to the virus in the language of war. We “combat” the virus. Our nurses are “soldiers.” We must keep “fighting.” It would not be a stretch to say that the least among us will feel embattled at the end of a global pandemic. However, Yangyang Chen makes a good point when she writes that our desire to create meaning can be blinding; there are individuals, groups, and governments that will take advantage of the crisis and give us meaning in the form of dogma. He died for our country. He died for your safety. He died because of them.
Our want for reason in the face of numbing meaninglessness is undeniable. However, we must consider the kind of emotional and moral contortions we will have to perform if we decide we need a reason. People are ready with all kinds of answers, all easier to swallow than the truth that there is no “why” and there simply won’t be.