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Letters against Separation – Liu Ding, Liu Qingshuo, and Carol Yinghua Lu as a family in Beijing


This image was taken when we were visiting Chaozhou, a coastal city in South China on January 23, the day when Wuhan went into lockdown. A man was mediating in solitude facing the Hanjiang River. Since then, nearly everyone in China has been forced into a kind of self-isolating.

When receiving the invitation to join this conversation, we immediately decided to participate as a family of three. It feels the right thing to do since the epidemic has brought our whole family’s life into a new “together” mode. Every day we have been in constant conversation with each other about how the situation evolves and how it affects each of us so much that it will leave a profound mark on all of our lives, thinking and future. We have personally learned a great deal from the words and thoughts of two Wuhan-based writers who have kept and published a daily account of their lives and experiences throughout the lockdown of Wuhan. We believe that writing and sharing of our experience can both help ourselves develop a better understanding of our experience and perhaps can connect many of us who are both frightened by the situation and determined to understand it. As a dear friend has written to us, “any small but heartfelt and personally urgent step matters, especially if it thinks about what is right for the world without the person being self-righteous.” We begin our first entry by answering the questions posted to us in the invitation.

Q: Please describe the situation in general where you are and your circumstances. What differences has Covid-19 made to your life already?

A: It has been exactly 60 days since we returned to Beijing from a short trip to South China on January 31. Initially, we were required by the local authority in our community to be self-isolating at home for 14 days but we have extended it ourselves until now, for fear of catching the virus. All the most tragic and heart-breaking news and stories about and from Wuhan and Hubei Province, the most affected area, have taught us to be extremely cautious and not to underestimate the situation. Constantly reading everything about it for the past two months have taught us one thing, which is that we are really on our own in this. We must do everything to protect ourselves and our loved ones from catching it because it literally has no cure. Past experiences do not apply and the only thing one can do above all is to stay at home and to feel grateful for such a privilege because it could be a thousand times worse. When we get sick of being at home, we think about those infected patients standing for hours waiting to be tested and dropping dead while still waiting to be seen by a doctor in Wuhan barely one month ago, we think about the daily cries appearing online to plead for a hospital bed for their sick family member, we think about all the couriers who are constantly exposed to the danger of infection because they can’t afford to stay home, we think about a friend who went to visit his mother-in-law in Wuhan from another city. He and his wife were preparing to stay for one week but they ended up staying in a hotel room for over 60 days since Wuhan’s lockdown on January 23. They were not allowed to get out of the door of their 15 square meter hotel room all this time and had every meal delivered to their door. Patience is something that we have all learned from the Covid-19 outbreak because just as we thought that everything was looking bright early last week, when new local transmissions in Wuhan fell to zero, things became stiff again. As the time of writing this entry, the number of new local transmissions is zero in China, but imported cases are increasing every day and Beijing has a record number. In particular, asymptomatic patients are highly infectious and the potential risks are very high still. So we continue to stay at home, studying and working.

It has been almost 90 days since the Covid-19 epidemic broke out. In this epidemic, we are not in the most dangerous Wuhan. The fear and despair we have experienced have been translated through the media, so to a certain extent, we have developed a relationship of empathy with the events during this epidemic.

All of our lives have been affected profoundly by this experiece so far. Practically speaking, we have to wear a mask wherever we go. We have seen new-born babies wearing masks while sun-bathing in the garden. It’s not funny but heart-breaking. Although there are efforts to normalize things in the society and the government is trying to convince the public that it is safe to resume work and life, there is no school for any school-aged kids yet. From the most recent notice we have received from school, the current schedule for online teaching is planned until May 9, which means that schools in Beijing could not resume before that. All of this means that this is a long-termed condition. It’s still too early to assess how this experience affects us emotionally but hopefully with this diary entry, we can try to resolve some of our emotions.

Q: How does it pan out in relation to your professional life, if it even exists at this point?

A: We all have shows closed, and works in a show that can not be viewed, exhibition projects postponed, trips cancelled, teaching jobs suspended but a professional life is a life-long undertaking so these temporary inconveniences are just temporary. At this point, there is nothing more important than the physical and psychological wellbeing of ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and our colleagues. This experience, however, will have a very deep mark in our professional life definitely, not in forms of lost opportunities but in ways that we view the profession of art, which we will elaborate in the following entries.

Q: What is the current impact, in your view, on anything to do with art, both in terms of infrastructure and maybe even conceptually and aesthetically?

A: It’s too early to assess the long-termed impact of Covid-19 on the infrastructure of art, at least in China now. We have seen many remarkable colleagues, both out of necessity for survival and out of courage, to keep their activities going as much as possible. Most venues for art in Beijing are not open to the public but some museums and institutions have opened their doors to the public in Shanghai. It’s a very difficult decision to make. We are observing how the institutions that have opened will go so that we can explore our next steps. A sense of community must be enhanced among all of us working in the art field so that we can support each other and learn from each other. We have seen this works remarkably among the three of us at home in the past 60 days of being together. When one of us feels lazy, we look to the others for morale and roles to follow. It’s important to work as a community. When one takes a step forward, the others can all learn from his/her experience, success or failure.

Q: What short- and long-term effects do you foresee on art, its production and circulation, keeping in mind that right now this may be very secondary?

A: One should never underestimate human imagination and visions. There is a lot to learn from dealing with Covid-19 in terms of understanding of human existence, social organizing, and self-governance. Despite all the Covid-19-triggerred suspensions, delays and cancellations, when the art world is re-activated, we will see new models, innovative forms of practice and visionary initiatives because having fought a hard battle and having learned the most difficult lesson, we will hopefully have more respect towards life and thus feel more compelled and urgent to make where we work a more respectful place other than the usual shallow, narrow-minded, utilitarian, short-sighted and greedy field.

Q: For those of you who have already gone through the phase of worst impact, are there any recommendations for those of us who are lagging?

A: The practice in China is to stay at home as much as possible and stay healthy mentally. We wear masks in public places, use public transportation as little as possible, and stay away from crowds and above all stay patient.

One should never underestimate the power of the Nature and overestimate the power of man. It’s important to feel humble and to acknowledge danger and the limits of our knowledge and ability in the face of unknown circumstances. We have seen too many lives lost to ignorance and arrogance in the past few months. It’s also important to be patient with everything, with oneself, with one’s emotion, with one’s loved ones and with the unknown. The epidemic has brought our whole family’s life into a new “together” mode. We have learned to cherish this precious time every single day.

Stay safe and patient

Liu Ding, Liu Qingshuo and Carol Yinghua Lu

Beijing
March 30, 2020

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March 31, 2020

For many of us in China, Wuhan and elsewhere, the experience of the last two months was nothing short of a life-changing tragedy. It was horrifying and heartrending. Many lives and families were ruined. Yet, there was a crack of light that has emerged on the social media platform in China, a kind of momentary awakening, almost. Today we are sharing a selection of video clips circulating in wechat groups in the past three months since the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, some comical, some tragic, some thought-provoking, some empowering and some saddening.


This popular emoji is a visual translation of the Chinese term “shuai guo,” (甩锅) which literally means throwing pans. What it really means is a blame game being at play since the Covid-19 went public in China. As the central government drew widespread criticism for its delayed disclosure of the epidemic crisis after its initial discovery, it sent out messages through media to indicate that the Wuhan municipal government should take the blame for concealing the severity of the virus. But having the Wuhan municipal government taking the blame doesn’t mean that the central government can be exempt from silencing the online discussions on the outbreak on December 8 when eight people from Wuhan were reporting a “mysterious virus.”

On the night after Dr. Li Wenliang died of Covid-19 virus on February 7, two members of a local rescue team went to pay their tribute to Dr. Li in front of the hospital where he died. There, they took down their masks and whistled to mourn the 34-year-old doctor who sounded the alarm on the Wuhan coronavirus and was given a warning and silenced by local police in December. His death triggered something of an online revolt staged by the Chinese public. People in and out of Wuhan, lit candles, whistled, honked their horns on February 8 and shared their mourning on the Internet.


At the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, there was such a shortage of hospital bed and care that many people died and couldn’t get help before they could make it into the hospital. In this video, a woman in an upper floor apartment banging a homemade gong, pleading for help from her balcony, to request a bed for her sick mother. After this video being uploaded online, her mom got help and has recently recovered. Despite its happy ending, we should never forget such desperation.

A tiktok shows a car with a Wuhan license plate having grass growing all over as it’s been parking outside for months due to the lockdown. But we can not verify if it is really a car parking in Wuhan for this long.


This rap is made of a series of angry voice messages voiced by a woman in Wuhan in a wechat support group set up to help local residents of a gated community. As a resident, this woman criticized the bureaucratic and inefficient style of work in the formation of volunteer work in the community. She was frustrated and outspoken. Her Wuhan accent makes her iterations compelling. Many feel that she speaks their minds.


On March 18, 2020, Beijing was hit by an unexceptionally strong wind, reaching Grade 11 (wind speed≤ 111.5km/h). This clip shows the waves on a storming Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace, an otherwise scenic spot for many Beijingers on this afternoon. Besides this wind, there have been several instances of off-season snows in middle of China in late March, which have triggered anticipations of a doomed year.


On March 28, when the corona epic centre Hubei Province started to lift its ban on outbound travels, one of its neighboring provinces, Jiangxi Province refused to let in people who were leaving Hubei Province for fear of asymptomatic infections. This led to clashes erupting on the Jiujiang Yangtze River Bridge near a checkpoint in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province.

Today is the 69th day of Wuhan’s lockdown. There are only a few newly infected cases across China at the moment. Despite the blossoms outside of our window, we can’t help being saddened again while reviewing the past two months through these videos. We do not know if the most difficult time has really passed yet, but we know that the reality is far more complicated and challenging than what immediately meets the eyes and often beyond words. We still hope for the best.

Wish you strength and patience as always

From Liu Ding & Carol Yinghua Lu

Beijing
March 31, 2020

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April 3, 2020

Liu Ding/A Man in Deep Sleep/2017/Oil on canvas/200 x 120 cm

Last night we read in the Chinese news that China’s main grain supplies are sufficient for domestic demand and that the Chinese government would punish anyone for speculation and illegal stocking. Without hesitation, we placed an online order for some supplies: a few bags of rice and flour, some sugar, and biscuits, to prepare ourselves against future shortage. It was not a considered plan but an intuitive reaction. For some of us living in China, learning to decipher official messages and reading between the lines is almost a survival necessity.

When we first noticed the shortage of masks in pharmacies and supermarkets, it was only two days after the Chinese respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan first confirmed people-to-people transmission of Covid-19 and infection of medical staff on January 20. That night, we had a gathering at home, drinking home-made plum wine and tasting freshly made ham, a gift brought by a friend whose mom had sent it from Wuhan. What happened in Wuhan barely crossed our minds. In our impression then, it was a Wuhan-based issue and remote from us. Still, before heading to the airport on January 22 to fly out from Beijing to Chaozhou, a coastal city in South China, we threw into our handbags a handful of disposable masks lying around home without thinking. When arriving at the airport, we gave two of them to the taxi driver after spending nearly an hour on our ride discussing the precarious situation of taxi drivers in China. Despite the stiff portion of the fares paid to the taxi companies, each driver is very much on his/her own, receiving no protection or support from the companies, not even a free face mask during the SARS outbreak 17 years ago.

On the evening of our arrival, we suddenly found that all of the pharmacies and supermarkets in Chaozhou were out of stock for masks. Pharmacies were crowded with people looking for masks. The few remaining masks that we had became very precious. At that time, there was no official announcement or requirement yet for people to wear masks. How did word get around that quickly? How did people know already to stock up on face masks? We wondered.

In his book Fudo (Climate and Culture, 1935), the Japanese environmental philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960) analyzed the character of Chinese people, based on his observations in Hong Kong and Shanghai of common people’s lives in 1927, in relation to its tangible climatic, scenic and topographical characteristics. Mr. Tetsurō was so surprised by the sight of families with young kids and elders living on boats at Kowloon Bay in Hong Kong. These small boats were used for transporting cargo from international shipments and meanwhile, they were equipped with cannons in order to fight with pirates from the sea. Despite such dire and potential danger, the families on the boats seemed to be able to live their daily life in a harmonious manner.

Mr. Tetsurō noted that there was a certain rebellious temperament in the nature of Chinese people: “they are not bound by anything else other than bloodlines and native relationship…….They are trying every means to escape the constraint of the nation, to do whatever they want. When placed under irresistible and powerful forces, they can only endure, with outward meekness and inward rebellion.”(1) He was impressed by the resilience of Chinese people, which he felt was a result of their disillusion with the state. They didn’t count on the state to come to their rescue so they lived a completely anarchist life. Instead of facing the danger with emotions, which they felt couldn’t reduce any risk of the danger, they found indifference a strength of life. Reading from today’s perspective, this essay written by Mr. Tetsurō in 1929 might be a partial and idealized perception of Chinese character to a certain extent. Yet the fact that he portrayed Chinese people as someone who “never anticipated the protection of the state and thus they were never concerned about whether they would be protected or not” might sound close to where we are at today.

Professor Sun Ge, who first introduced us to the work of Watsuji Tetsurō, published an inspiring essay on March 14, 2020, entitled “The Shortcomings of Relaying Hearsay.”(2) A scholar of Japanese and Chinese intellectual histories, Professor Sun contemplates the existence of hearsay as a community of knowledge for common people, in situations lacking access to consistent attention from specialists and authority. Although she starts her essay with an instance of spreading gossip affecting people’s lives in a negative way, she asserts that as an average person, while hearsay might not be reliable, we still need to “relay this hearsay.” Of course, Professor Sun is not promoting the spreading of rumors. She writes, “In the process of circulating all kinds of gossips, as we can usually see on the Internet, all kinds of elements are constantly being added into the pool and no one is taking responsibility for the additions. Therefore, relaying hearsay can not usually provide the correct information, which is a common sense that everyone has in the era of mass media. However, when normal channels and providers of information cannot fulfill people’s needs, hearsay is naturally irreplaceable. Hearsay does not necessarily cause harm; the key lies in how one deals with such information.” She continues by stating that in China there is a profound cultural climate for hearsay and its side product is the deep suspicion that people tend to have. Historically, the instinct of Chinese people for not believing in information from official channels is extremely well-developed. She attributes this powerful instinct to radical social transformations and population flows. The codes for actionsin the daily life of Chinese people emerge through the self-determination of common people. This form of exchanging information and communication formulates the feeling of life in the Chinese community.

During Covid-19’s initial outbreak in Wuhan, what frustrated and saddened all of us the most, who were not directly affected as all the Wuhan-based people, was the failure and unaccountability of the institutional structure in China to handle the situation. In our letter dated on February 5 to friends in Italy who had checked on us, we wrote the following:

It’s a terrifying situation. Can you imagine Beijing being an empty city? The airport was nearly empty when we arrived. Everyone has a mask on and looks terrified and nervous. What you have read (about what is happening in China) is all true and no exaggeration. People in Wuhan are dying every day and many more cannot be treated. Everyone tries to stay at home in Beijing. Everything is closed at the moment. It’s a national disaster. Schools are postponed indefinitely. We are trying to stay calm and healthy, taking our temperature every day. But it still feels like the end of the world. What is more frightening and hopeless is the realization that our political and social structures are not only incapable of dealing with the current situation but are making it worse through suppression and blocking of information. You do not want to be where we are.

On midnight of February 7, Dr. Li Wenliang lost his 34-year-old life to the Covid-19. He was among the few doctors who had detected the virus very early on and alerted his friends and colleagues to his suspicion in private. But he was summoned and severely warned by the local authority. In the end, he had to sign a confession to admit that he was spreading inappropriate gossip. As it soon turned out, had such “gossip” been taken seriously instead of being stifled, many lives and families could have been saved, including that of Dr. Li.

It is has also recently come to light that the central health authorities in Beijing had first learned about the outbreak after unknown whistle-blowers leaked two internal documents online. As Seven Lee Myers revealed in his New York Times report on March 29, “After doctors in Wuhan began treating clusters of patients stricken with a mysterious pneumonia in December, the reporting was supposed to have been automatic. Instead, hospitals deferred to local health officials who, over a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system — keeping Beijing in the dark and delaying the response.”(3)

In the past three months, rumor, gossip, and hearsay have filled our lives with anxiety, fear, shock, and sometimes hope and elation even. Of course, we should never just rely on them purely for information. However, like the process of developing a stronger immune system, it’s not insulation but exposure to risk and courage to live that will perhaps prepare us for the worst. And in this, we are together. Still, let’s keep hoping for the best.

Be safe,

Liu Ding & Carol Yinghua Lu

Sunny Beijing
April 3, 2020

NOTES:

(1)Watsuji Tetsurō, Fengtu 《风土》( Climate and Culture ), Chen Liwei transl. (Beijing: The Commercial Press, 2018), 127.

(2)Sun Ge孙歌, “Yiechuane zhihai”《以讹传讹之害》(“The Shortcomings of Relaying Hearsays”), Wechat of Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Peking University, March 14, 2020.

(3)Seven Lee Myers, “China Created a Fail-Safe System to Track Contagions. It Failed,” New York Times, March 29, 2020.

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April 4, 2020
In commemoration of lost lives to Coivd-19
Today, April 4, is Ching Ming Festival, a traditional festival in Chinese lunar calendar, for mourning the death by paying visits to the tombs of ancestors and family members. In 2020, today, April 4 is also an official day of mourning for people who died from Covid-19. At 10am, three minutes of silence was observed by the public across the country. Air raid sirens blared. Cars, trains and ships honked horns. Flags were lowered to half-staff from Tian’anmen Square to the compounds of the central leadership organs of the Party, national legislature, central government, national political advisory body, military, top court and top procuratorate. It was a sad moment but it didn’t manage to silence many who request for accountability over the suppression of information in the initial stage of the outbreak and the loss of many innocent lives over mishandling.

Politicians

Even with the eyesight of an eagle

You won’t get me

Flaunting your heavy-set figure, like a bear

You won’t get me

I’ve come.

To find all streets empty

No need to be so reserved

Now you and I, both alone

Brothers

Take off the gown

Come out, for a walk too

Why blame me

For turning the world into hell

Hey

Keep it in mind

Don’t hijack me

To make your capital

A poem written in Chinese by Liu Ding on March 2, 2020, in the midst of Covid-19 lockdown, Carol Yinghua Lu transl.

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Yesterday, China observed a national day of mourning for corona victims. Such a governmental order tried to pacify public anger over the suppression of the epidemic in the initial stage of the outbreak. People posted images of Dr. Li Wenlinag on online again and warned each other not to forget about his death and encouraged each other to keep pressing for transparency of information and freedom to speak.

During the ongoing lockdown, our family have been having daily conversations about many aspects of this outbreak. One of the discussions was on Dr. Li Wenliang shortly after his death. Today we share a perspective from a 12-year-old primary school student:

Speaking the Truth is a Responsibility

In December 2019, a highly infectious new coronavirus "COVID-19" broke out in Wuhan and spread to the whole country at an alarming rate. As of February 15, 66,519 people had been confirmed to be infected with the virus. As the number of positive cases grew rapidly, our family also felt more and more anxious and nervous, constantly worried about contracting the virus. February 7 was the most depressing day of all for me during the epidemic. My mother was so sad all day because of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. A few days later, I had a series of discussions with my mom about the doctor and his experience:

Me: Mom, do you have time? I want to ask you some questions about Dr. Li Wenliang.

Mom: Alright! What do you want to ask me?

Me: I am very curious. Why were you so saddened by Dr. Li death? As far as I know, he was an ophthalmologist who worked as a physician in Wuhan Central Hospital. He contracted the virus from an infected patient and one month later, he died from the disease. Although he was in the center of the epidemic area, he was not a front-line doctor who fought the virus. Why did his unfortunate death have such a huge impact on the society and trigger the media to write so many articles and reports on him?

What did he do?

Mother: When most people had no idea about the epidemic, Dr. Li issued a warning to a private Wechat group of his medical school classmates. He warned them against coronavirus infections, and asked the Wechat group members to advise their families and friends to take protective measures. What he did was based on his professional instinct and very wise. Unexpectedly, the police in Wuhan summoned him and gave him an admonition for "making false comments on the Internet." The police warned him that if he failed to learn from the admonition and continued to violate the law he would be prosecuted.

Me: What is a warning admonition?

Mother: A warning admonition is an oral scolding used to warn party members within the Communist Party. Dr. Li is a party member and so he received such a punishment within the party.

Me: Dr. Li told people the truth. He didn’t make any mistake, nor did he break any law. He was just acting out his responsibility as a doctor. Why did the police press him with a false charge and stop him from speaking the truth.

Mom: These policemen had intended to avoid panic that people might have towards virus and epidemic. It was understandable to a certain extent, but they shouldn’t have suppressed the truth with violence and hidden it from the public in order to maintain the appearance of social stability and tranquility. On the surface, such a "strategy" can prevent people from unnecessary panic, but in fact, such an approach only caused people to become victims of viruses and rumors.

Me: Actually, what I don’t quite understand is that these policemen are also ordinary people in daily life, and the consequence of their suppressing the truth is that they would probably become "victims" of the absence of truth too in their lives. These people do know that facts are irreversible. Why should they make such unnecessary efforts and sacrifices? Compared with the responsibilities of "speaking the truth" that Dr. Li and many of his colleagues shoulder, the responsibilities of the police are really absurd!

Mom: After news of Dr. Li ’s diagnosis with the virus infection became known, many reporters interviewed him. In one of the interviews, he said that it was more important that everyone should know the truth and it was not so important for him to have his apology from the authority. He also said: "A healthy society should not have only one voice." In my opinion, what prompted Dr. Li to articulate “his own voice” was not just his duty as a doctor to warn everyone against the dangers of viruses. It was also his conscience as an honest person that drove him to speak honestly.

Me: When I was small, you always told me to be an honest, fair, and accountable person. I often take it for granted that honesty is a natural inborn quality of a person. But Dr. Li’s experience makes me realize that “speaking the truth” is also a responsibility.

Mom: We must not only stay honest ourselves, but also try to help build a social system that encourages and protects "honesty."

Written in Chinese by Liu Qingshuo as a diary entry on February 15, 2020. Translated by Google and edited by Carol Yinghua Lu.

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April 10, 2020

A lion can hunt down an antelope, but can never capture a few small flies

On April 8, the mandatory 76-day lockdown was lifted on Wuhan. But at the moment, only 1000 people from Wuhan are allowed into Beijing every day. The rise in imported Covid-19 cases and asymptomatic patients in China over the past couple of weeks has brought a new wave of panic and uncertainty. On April 4, an imported case was reported to develop symptoms after arriving at home at the end of two-week quarantine. This was someone living in our neighborhood. The news came out like an explosive bomb dropped inside a wechat group shared by residents of our gated community. Neighbors expressed their anxiety and criticism of the patient for “infecting” the neighborhood. On April 7, another wechat message in this same group alerted everyone to the presence of someone returning from Wuhan to the community. In this wechat group of a few hundred members, all residents of our community, one of our neighbors asked a member of the community committee in charge of our neighborhood if there is any way to monitor the quarantine of a neighbor from Wuhan in her building in case her neighbor sneaked out during quarantine. In this message, she revealed the precise address of the quarantined neighbor, as detail as his room number. The community committee worker assured her that there was a small device implanted outside the door of this neighbor and would send alarms to her phone if this neighbor violated the mandate to be self-quarantined. A few other neighbors followed to commend such an approach.

A friend of ours, a non-Wuhan, non-Hubei Province native, just bought an apartment in Wuhan right before the Chinese New Year and as a result, acquired a residential ID from Wuhan as she’s just married to someone from the region. They were yet to receive the keys to the apartment. In the late January, her husband drove back to Hubei Province to check on their new apartment. And in the meantime, she left her rented apartment in the west of Beijing temporarily to spend the new year holiday with her parents who live in another part of Beijing. Since the lockdown began in Wuhan, she has not been able to leave her parents’ place or see her husband. Her Beijing landlord keeps on refusing her request to return to her rented home simply because she has a Wuhan ID. She has been warned that she would be forced into quarantine and had to pay for it once she set foot in the neighborhood, regardless of the fact that she has not set foot out of Beijing, or her parents’ home, all this time. Unlike the people who are returning from Wuhan and Hubei Province after the end of the lockdown, she is not registered in the bureaucratic system. As a result, she’s not eligible for the organized quarantine currently exercised on Wuhan returnees. She is stuck in a bureaucratic loophole. Neither can she lift the stigma of being a Wuhan ID holder at the moment, nor can she return to her home or her life in that matter.

During this ongoing epidemic, the spotlight has been much focused on the frontline of battling the virus yet the collateral damages and sufferings of this disaster unfold in so many different forms. Thanks to two Wuhan-based writers, Fang Fang and Xiao Yin, many of such experiences and emotions were made known in their daily accounts of being locked down in Wuhan. Initially, they both started simply by keeping a personal record of their own daily activities, their own observations and the ups and downs of their feelings. When they first posted their writings on social media, the response from the readers was so overwhelming that it became a daily ritual for Chinese readers all over China to stay up until midnight in order to read their latest updates. What they wrote was nothing remarkable. We learned about their shopping lists and daily routines, the news they read, the conversations they had with friends and family members on wechat, the aging dog of Fang Fang and the drinks that Xiao Yin shared with his buddies “on the cloud.” We found that in isolation, we were all the same, being scared and anxious, feeling trapped and constantly getting paranoid about our well-beings and at the same time sentimental about every small deed of kindness.

In her mid 60s and being a retired chairwoman of the Chinese Writers’ Association in Wuhan, Fang Fang had attracted much more attention to her live and balanced accounts of the experiences, impacts and problems of the epidemic in the city. Through her daily communications with friends working in local hospitals, we were exposed to some of the first-hand experience of the frontlines in Wuhan hospitals. We found consolation and courage in her optimism and words of wisdom. We mourned with her over the death of Dr. Li Wenliang and wept with her over the passing of a man in his fifties who was taken to the hospital by his 90-year-old mom, who left a note to encourage him to live and was still waiting for his safe return. And above all, we were heartened by her doggedness in questioning the accountability of those in every level of governmental bureaucratic system who were responsible for mishandling the epidemic. She basically declared a war against bureaucracy and the responsible parties and swore to pursue it until justice is installed.

Xiao Yin, in his early 50s and teaching civil engineering in Wuhan University, found himself too distressed and disturbed by what was happening around him to carry on writing poetry. Instead, he began to note down the changing policies regarding Wuhan, the desperation, death and different kinds of struggles of Wuhan people, and the changing seasons of Wuhan outside his window. It was started as his way to keep track of time and make sense of this unprecedented disaster unfolding in front of him. In his writings, we learned about the six-year old boy who lived alone for days and survived on biscuits besides his grandpa who died of COVID-19. When the little boy was found by community committee workers and asked why he didn’t get out to ask for help, he said his grandpa had warned him about the danger of virus outside. We read with a heavy heart the man who recovered from COVID-19, only to return to an empty house where everyone else in his family had died of the disease. He ended up hanging himself outside of his building. COVID-19 didn’t kill him but sadness of his lost family did. We learned about the tremendous efforts of volunteers to support residents and hospital staff at times of difficulty. We learned about Xiao Yin’s own frustrations, anger, and reflections on the reality. His narrative prose was direct, highly controlled, solemn yet provocative.

Both Fang Fang and Xiao Yin were light towers in the darkness of Wuhan during the epidemic. They have managed to capture the everyday scenes in Wuhan during the three months of lockdown. What they wrote was no grand theories or self-righteous statements, but the daily experiences and aspects of daily lives and struggles. They have not tried to offer any theoretical explanation or provide any conceptual framework to interpret the reality. Instead, they have confronted the reality head on by sketching everything in detail, not underestimating the significance of every single event. Many of us have shed tears over the heart-breaking stories of real life characters in their writings and gained glimpses into the agonies and difficulties of Wuhan people in the face of Covid-19 and its subsequent damage. Above all, we cherish their writings because they have both articulated a clear sense of what is right and expose what is wrong at a critical time like this. At this moment, more confusing than Covid-19 is the mixed-up state of ethics in China, which is almost as life-threatening to our intellectual and emotional well-being as the virus is to our body. Moral values and ethical principles have been a long-forgotten subject in our society. This is manifested through the presence of criticism and personal attacks against them on the Internet.

Their fierce and persistent criticism of the government has led to frequent censoring and removal of their writings from the Internet. And to keep on posting, they picked their words carefully to dodge censorship and switched to different platforms for posting. Throughout the 76-day lockdown of Wuhan, Fang Fang wrote a totality of 60 dairies and Xiao Yin kept writing every single day from January 22 until March 28. After the announcement of the date when the lockdown on Wuhan would be lifted, he has slowed down but continued to write. We could read in their writings a determined cry for justice to be done for the wronged, the underprivileged, the deprived and the dead, for accountability for the wrong-doing, and a profound sense of sorrow.

But there is no shortage of critics for their writings. Fang Fang’s writings, in particular, have drawn many online assaults. They slated her for profiting from the epidemic by criticizing the government and speculating that she was being supported and bribed by foreign forces. Just recently, her 60 entries of diaries have been translated into English and German and will be published soon outside of China. Such “success” has triggered an overwhelming wave of online raids against her.

Throughout this epidemic, we have never witnessed a more open and intense clash between political positions and ideological sidings as this one. Often, common senses are lost to political narratives and seemingly logical reasoning. But Xiao Yin and Fang Fang saw that coming and ferociously and fearlessly fought for a space where individual humanity, due justice, compassion and moral integrity can be recognized, discussed, protected and valued. In this country, moral intelligence has been sidetracked by the discourse of national development and pride. The dearth of moral principles in the society driven by pragmatism and competition has led to so many loopholes and illnesses. Qingshuo has written in his diary, “A lion can hunt down an antelope, but can never capture a few small flies.”

In the face of such a transformative moment in history, it’s absolutely a fight to take side for. It is our moral responsibility to resist the state’s overwriting of the lost lives, damaged families and compromised livelihood, with a celebration of national victory over the virus. This should not turn into a contest to offer a better interpretation of the virus-struck reality with more profound and complex theoretical and intellectual bearings, it should first be an account of humanity to be remembered with heart, humbleness, grief and to be passed on to our future generations.

Take care and stay patient,
From Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu

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April 18, 2020

Today is the 78th day of our self-isolation in Beijing from January 31, since we fully recognized the danger of COVID-19 and the necessity to protect ourselves and our loved ones from it by staying away from the crowds. It’s been a weird experience lately since the lockdown in Wuhan has been lifted on April 8. It was an official sign of the so-called victory of China’s fight against COVID-19. Compared with all the other affected areas across the world, we seem to be moving away from the immediate danger and the desperation of COVID-19, but we keep receiving information and updates from all sources about unexpected, hidden, and potential threats of new infections. As of last night, a new case of chain infections appeared in Harbin and led to the removal of 18 officials being held accountable for mismanagement. The severity of prospective risk weighs on each of us. We can not even be qualified as “COVID-19 survivors” yet because the beast hasn’t really left the room. We’ve been constantly reminded that it’s just lurking somewhere, ready to attack at any moment. But as “would-be survivors,” it’s also a mental effort to keep staying alert, staying patient and staying motivated in order to fulfill one’s daily activities and commitments such as continuing writing this series of letters.

At this very moment, no school is in sight yet for most students in Beijing. Yesterday, the class of Qingshuo’s had a 15-minute zoom meeting. Everyone got to see all of their teacher and classmates for the first time since the end of last semester. It sent Qingshuo over the moon for the rest of the day. This winter holiday that started in the beginning of January has stretched to what seems like an indefinite one. He’s lonely and eager to see friends and teachers, as he wrote in the following diary entry back in March. At the end of their zoom meeting, their teacher showed them through the screen a five-leaf lilac that she found on campus, to cheer them up. She told them that this was a sign of luck.


*A five-leaf lilac found on campus of Qingshuo’s school in Beijing, photo by Ms. Liu *

Lilac in Plague

In March, the sky in Beijing is very blue, with strong winds, and there is only a thin cloud in the sky, curled up in the sky. The winter jasmine in the garden of our residential complex has withered, but the lilac has blossomed quietly and tremblingly. This is our third month of living in the shadow of the new coronavirus.

In late January, our family went to my mother’s hometown for the Spring Festival holiday. Since then, the news of the epidemic has drifted into the house like wisps of smoke through the mouths of my father and mother. From the “South China Seafood Market” to “Wuhan’s lockdown” to “Hubei’s number of diagnosed cases surges” … Although we were enveloped by these sad messages, the good times of the New Year and our family reunion seemed to be just as usual. It wasn’t until the end of January when we took a plane back to Beijing from our hometown, and took a taxi to race through the empty city, that I started to realize that this epidemic has turned into a storm, with lightning and thunder, making us feel hopeless, uneasy and anxious. Soon after returning to Beijing, worse news came one after another, from “the unfortunate death of Dr. Li” to “the spread of the epidemic in various countries across the world.”

Since February 1, our entire family has lived a very organized and intense daily life. Every day, my mom revises her doctoral thesis, my father works on his research and artworks, and I study school curriculum in the morning and practice the piano for nearly five hours in the afternoon. Although this way of living is very efficient, it still makes me feel depressed and bored. It makes me miss my school and classmates even more.

Today, my school sent us a notice, changing the original broadcast class to an online format. I was very disappointed because it meant that the possibility of going back to school in the next month was almost zero. Since returning to Beijing, we have stayed at home for over two months and throughout this time, the news of the epidemic has teased me all the time. At one moment, I was cheered up by the news of “Hubei Zero Increase,” anticipating to return to class in two weeks and to see my classmates. At another moment, the news statement that the epidemic may last for two years shattered my hope of returning to school to pieces.

Now, I am leaning by the window of my room, my mind being full of images of my schoolmates and teachers. I fantasize that I am leaning by the window near the entrance of the school classroom. Behind me, there is filled with the noise of students in the classroom. The lively playground is right in front of my sight, some playing basketball, some playing with jumping ropes. On the side, several teachers sit on the audience seats, chatting, and the lilac beside the school gate smiling heartily. When I come around from my drifting thoughts, what I can see is only the lilacs in the community garden below my window. The light purple flame of her branches sway lightly amid the white magnolia flowers.

Written in Chinese by Liu Qingshuo as a diary entry on March 30, 2020. Translated by Google and edited by Carol Yinghua Lu.

April 30, 2020

As summer arrives, all the purple iris flowers in the garden of our residential compound have blossomed. Drawing by Liu Ding.

Today, we are writing with some good news, finally!

Yesterday at 5pm, as we were riding an empty subway line home from an empty mall in the east of Beijing, news of Beijing lowering its emergency response measures to “level II” from “level 1” popped up in our phones. In the last three months of semi-isolation at home, our son’s feet have grown so much but of course none of us had noticed it until the day before yesterday, he went to the playground for two hours and came back with blisters on his feet. We took him to the shopping mall to get him some new shoes and found that he had grown from Size 7 to Size 8.5. Usually, this shopping mall would have been a lot busier but it’s now quiet and empty.

When arriving at the gate of our residential compound, we were only asked to have our temperature taken, without having to show the special entry permit that were previously required to present for entry. So the news was real and almost immediately in effect. In the early evening, we received a message from our son’s school to attend an online parents’ meeting the next day. As it turned out, the meeting held at 2pm this afternoon was about the procedure for this year’s primary school graduates to enroll into middle schools. This is a very stressful moment for parents like us, with a child about to graduate from primary school. We have to face the uncertainty of governmental policies regarding school admissions, which change every year. To make it worse, the measures are only announced a few weeks prior to when the admission process kicks off, which always leaves parents in great panic. With today’s meeting, we were pulled back into this very cruel reality where kids had to compete hard for schools and the rules were never transparent. COVID-19 has kept the kids from returning to school but has not changed the challenges of schooling in China.

Museums in Beijing, too, received permission to open their doors to the public during the Labor Day Holiday, which runs from tomorrow through May 6. This happy news has caught many institutions unprepared too. There is only one day to get ready for reopening the institutions, let alone putting up a show if there wasn’t any in place. For three months now, we have been discussing and exploring possibilities to experiment with flexible exhibition formats that could engage a smaller audience or no audience at all over a course of time. Suddenly, we need to rethink our strategies but can we adjust that quickly?

When you’re about to break out of emergency mode, there is almost a hesitation to return to the way things were, for so many different reasons. This sense of hesitation also caught us unexpected. We are suddenly hit by a sense of melancholy, knowing that the day our son could return to school would just come as abruptly. The daily routine we have established since the beginning of the emergency will change and all the challenges and troubles that had existed prior to COVID-19 never really disappeared. They were just waiting for us to encounter them again head-on. This might just be one of the most distinct symptoms of post-COVID-19, knowing that the world hasn’t become a better place. We also know kids grow and feet outgrow shoes, we just have to adjust again and buy bigger shoes.

We know for sure that the same good news will arrive for all of you too and hope that this news of ours brings some light to you.

Take care,
Liu Ding & Carol Yinghua Lu
Beijing

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June 8, 2020

Liu Ding, The Ghost Under the Star-studded Sky, 2017, Painting on C-print, 110 x 122 cm

From our last post in this space, five weeks have passed and there have been many changes. Restrictions on lockdowns in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are being eased day by day. In the past two weeks, there have been off-line lectures and opening activities held in museums and art spaces, almost like before. Since June 1, we could finally have our adult life back during the day as our son went back to school following an unprecedented five-month “holiday” from school. He was so thrilled to be out of home and back in class that he hardly complains about the fact that all of them have to keep their masks on for seven hours a day at school. To maintain social distancing, only two students per class are allowed to visit the bathroom at once and only two allowed to refill their water bottles, under the supervision of their teachers. It means that all their teachers are so pre-occupied with keeping up with all the precautional measures that no one can actually teach the class. As a result, the students are back in the classroom watching videos of pre-recorded lectures just like having on-line class at home in the previous months. The only difference is that they are physically in class. One should never underestimate the need of human contacts. While having their masks on and being forbidden by their teachers to get close to each other, they have devised a way to “talk” with each other still, by passing each other written messages and exchanging the notes “secretly.” It’s human instinct to find ways to circumvent and survive obstacles and to try re-installing any kind of normality as much as possible.

It’s everyone’s intention to return to normality but normality does have a very different meaning to every individual. For the three of us specifically, normality means having our son at school and having our working lives back to a certain extent. There are still things to improve such as wishing that kids could soon let go of masks and have real lessons at school but it is something that we can anticipate. Yet we should not lose sight of things and lives that have been changed and affected drastically during COVID-19 and remain unresolved.

A colleague and friend of ours is a Chinese native with an Australian passport. She visited Europe for two weeks in January and returned to Hong Kong on January 30. She had a flight to fly back from Hong Kong to Beijing on January 31. Concerned about being exposed to infection on flights, she was waiting for things to become better before she could embark on the journey home. This temporary wait has now extended to five months of being a house-guest at a friend’s home in Hong Kong. Days are still passing with no prospect of the restrictions on entries of foreign passport holders into China being lifted anytime soon. For her, normality would mean to return to her place of residence and work in Beijing.

Another friend of ours, stuck in Philadelphia since January as well, failed to return home at the peaks of the consecutive outbreaks of COVID-19 epidemic in China and the USA. During this time, she lost her husband, who died of terminal cancer in April in China. She wanted to return to arrange his funeral but she has no idea if the flights she’s booked herself on would be cancelled again. The escalating Sino-American conflicts are not just affecting economies or political outlooks in both countries, they are making the home-coming journeys of millions of Chinese students studying in the USA harder than ever. She’s among the many who has a home that’s nearly impossible to return to at the moment.

Our empathy and imagination are always confined by the extent of our actual experiences. In late May, the Chinese premier Li Keqiang revealed that 600 million people live with a monthly income of RMB 1000 (equivalent of USD 141) in China. Many were shocked by the realization as the news has long ignored such a silent majority. What kind of normality do these people live with and what kind of normality will they return to? These are questions that people like us who have a certain access to knowledge, Internet, mobility and privilege can not really answer, although our sense of insecurity might be just of the same level as them. With the current closing of national borders, in the name of confining the number of inbound COVID-19 infections, both the internet and mobility are things that are gradually becoming something of the past. We do not even know when we might lose the Internet connections entirely. This is why some people suggest that we are perhaps reliving moments of the 1950s in China, when self-isolation was conceived and practiced as a way to generate national pride and subjectivity.

In 1933, Chinese writer Lu Xun wrote in his short essay “Ode to the Night” (Yesong) the following words:

People’s words and deeds often appear different during the day and at night, under the sun and in front of the lights. The night is the mysterious heavenly cloth woven by nature, covering all people, making them warm, at ease, and unknowingly gradually removing the artificial masks and clothes, and wrapping it in the boundless black-like big pieces.

The night was over, and the people got up carefully and came out; it was the couple, just as they were before five or six o’clock. From then on it was lively and noisy. But behind the high wall, in the middle of the building, in the deep boudoir, in the black prison, in the guest room, and in the secret office, there is still an amazingly real darkness.

In the light of the day, the rush is the dark decoration, the gold cover on the jar of human meat sauce, and the cream on the ghost’s face. Only night is honest. I love night and wrote “Ode to the Night” at night.

What Lu Xun taught us in this powerful text, which is still relevant and especially so today is that after opening our eyes, we should still have eyes that can watch the night. When we talk about post-COVID-19, we should all train ourselves to watch the night. Let us do not just fixate on things that are changing quickly but keep our eyes on things that need to be changed, urgently, for the better.

Let’s fight against separation!
Liu Ding & Carol Yinghua Lu

The Last Entry
September 12, 2020


Autumn in Beijing

This last entry was prompted by an invitation from Markus Heidingsfelder to submit these entries written sporadically across a span of nearly three months to a book project dedicated to accounts of and reflections on COVID-19. This has given us a chance to review what we have put down. And we find our own words genuine and truthful to our experiences and thoughts and feel extremely fortunate to have kept such a record.

Three months have passed since we stopped updating this blog. Since then, schools, one of the most important things in our life, have been reopened across China. Face masks are a must at school all day but everyone, both students and parents, is happy to resume learning and a peaceful order at home. Most places recommence their usual practices. Autumn time in Beijing presents us with some of the most gorgeous days and a short drive to the outskirts of the city takes one to forests of towering and handsome persimmon trees. Access to most places is finally relaxed and traveling inside of China, except to Xinjiang, is quite unbound now. As we rejoice such free access, we soon find ourselves completely dependent on health code apps, which register and reveal our itineraries and determine if one is a contagion risk or not. There is no way to avoid it at all. In a way, each of us is completely exposed under such a health tracking code system. We have nearly survived one crisis via perhaps yet another pending crisis but there is really not much a choice. What will come next? The return of the epidemic with the pending of winter as predicted by medical experts? The fear is in the air. A kind of famine as a result of all the floods and major natural disasters hitting many parts of China this year? Stocking food now is advice shared among family members. A complete cutoff from many parts of the world? It’s not impossible.

As we are writing down these words, our friend, an Australian passport holder who has been stuck in Hong Kong since January 30th is finally making her way to reunite with her family in Shanghai. After several vain attempts, she finally received a visa to join family and is being taken into 14-day quarantine from the Shanghai airport. Another friend, whose son was born in America with an American passport, is hesitating about having her son giving up his American citizenship and moving back to China for good. In the past decade, her business and life has involved traveling back and forth between China and Canada and all of this is ending right now. There are countless confusions like this and nothing has prepared us for what is happening and what is to unfold ahead of us. This is a bleak prospect. At this moment, we are more than ever motivated to carry out what we have been doing all along, revisiting historical moments and stating the complexities of historical realities in the course of Chinese art. It’s not of irrelevance to the present but a must in order to face up to the current confusions.

Let’s fight against separation.

Liu Ding & Carol Yinghua Lu
Beijing