Murong Xuecun's Deadly Quiet City is composed of narratives that the book's author collected from ordinary people in Wuhan between December, 2019 and April, 2020.
Murong Xuecun is the pen name of the Chinese writer Hua Qun, who credits a phone call with the academic and writer Clive Hamilton with prompting him to travel to Wuhan.
He remained in Wuhan until early May, meeting with residents of the city who had survived the pandemic, and talking with them about their experiences. The people Xuecun interviewed include a doctor, a middle school teacher, a woman who lost her only child to COVID 19, a hospital cleaner who lost her husband, a motorcycle taxi driver, and a woman who came to Wuhan to expose the duplicity of the Chinese Communist Party, among others.
Deadly Quiet City reminds the reader of what the early months of the pandemic were like, and the strangeness that it engendered. One of the most bizarre scenes in the book occurs when an ordinary resident of Wuhan, Wang Gangcheng, returns to a hospital after surviving coronavirus for a check-up.
He is asked to wait to see a doctor, because - according to a nurse - "the doctors are busy issuing death certificates". After she says this, she "walks over to her colleagues, and, in the cold hospital corridor filled with the smell of disinfectant, the nurses, dressed up like aliens, sing and dance to the beat of happy music while filming a video for Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok". Gangcheng doesn't know what to make of the spectacle.
While the virus itself inspires fear, the more problematic presence in the book is the Chinese Communist Party. The people Xuecun speaks to blame the Party for the delayed response and the lack of information about the virus in the early days of the outbreak. Again and again, people try to be admitted for treatment, or obtain answers about their relatives' deaths, or attempt to move ageing parents to safety. These efforts are repeatedly blocked by officials.
For example, Yang Min's daughter contracts coronavirus when she goes to hospital for chemotherapy treatment. Yang Min argues that if she and her daughter, a breast cancer survivor, had been warned, then her daughter would have protected herself with a mask, or delayed her chemotherapy. In attempting to make a complaint, Yang Min wants to follow the "normal procedure" and speak to her neighbourhood committee, but is ignored. Her social media posts, like those of others in the book, disappear, and she is trolled online. Distraught about the lack of a hearing for her complaints, she walks down the street carrying a portrait of her daughter and sits in the compound of the Communist Party's Wuhan committee. She is then placed under house arrest.
Resistance or public disquiet about the handling of the virus by the Party is met with tightened control over social media posts, house arrest and, in the case of some activists, disappearance. While the virus itself inspires fear and the loss of relatives to the illness results in profound grief, what is striking about the accounts is their focus on the actions of the Chinese government. To highlight the Chinese Communist Party's response to the first cases of the virus, the book includes an editor's note by Clive Hamilton which details the events that occurred from 18 November, 2019, to 19 May, 2020: an expanded timeline which emphasises attempts at suppression of information (and COVID) in China, as well as responses on the part of other nations.
Other books that comprise oral histories about international crises, such as Svetlana Alexievich's Chernobyl Prayer, which is about the experiences of survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, work to capture the voices of those the author has interviewed. The translators of Alexievich's "epic novels" work to render these voices distinctively. Xuecun's book is not as focused on the voices of those to whom he has spoken. Although the book has been translated from Mandarin, the translator has elected to remain anonymous. The book was also written under pressure: the author, who now resides in the UK, was evading the attention of the administration, while the narratives contain material which would be considered sensitive by the Party.
Deadly Quiet City lacks the lyricism of some other collections of oral history, but reveals much about the daily lives of ordinary citizens in Wuhan: the struggle of people to survive on a day-to-day basis, before and after the pandemic, and the rules that govern people's lives about where they can reside and the jobs that are open to them. It reveals much about life in contemporary China, and serves to reinforce the importance of international support for democracy, and a free press.
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