After the lockdown in Wuhan, 76 cultural "warriors" remained at their posts for nearly two months to take care of the city's historic treasures during its darkest days of the outbreak, Wang Kaihao reports.
Like many other residents in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and the city hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, Fang Qin read the news on Jan 23 that his city was locked down to control the spread of the virus on WeChat while he was having breakfast.
After the brief shock subsided, Fang, who is director of the Hubei Provincial Museum, one of the key provincial-level museums in China, ordered that it be closed to the public.
"I didn't expect it to last so long, though," he tells China Daily via telephone.
As the initial announcement on the institution's official website indicated, the optimistic director originally planned to keep the facility closed until Lantern Festival on Feb 8.
However, as the atmosphere in Wuhan became tense, Fang instantly knew it was far from enough to just shut the venue to the public.
The Hubei Provincial Museum is home to 240,000 cultural relics, many of which were unearthed during the archaeological excavations of recent decades. Among them, a set of 65 bronze chime bells, which dates back 2,400 years to the time of Marquis Yi of the Zeng state, is probably the museum's best globally known exhibit. The instruments are evidence of a highly developed vassal state, which is absent in any surviving historical recording.
When President Xi Jinping met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wuhan in 2018, the two state leaders spent some time visiting the museum, which reflects the importance of its collection. On that occasion, Fang was their tour guide.
The top-level artifacts require extraordinary security.
According to Fang, every day under normal circumstances, about 200 museum workers are on rotation to stay overnight in the museum to secure the warehouses, patrol, deal with fire risks, the electricity and the water supply, as well as other maintenance positions. Surveillance cameras keep a close eye on the Marquis Yi chime bells and other key exhibits around the clock, usually monitored by staff on duty.
Fang, 51, is an archaeology expert who was able to decode the history of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), thanks to the chime bells and other recently unearthed relics.
However, he is now in a "state of war", fighting to safeguard the museum staff from novel coronavirus and prevent theft or fire.
"Many employees live near the museum and go back home every day," Fang says. "It's too dangerous for so many people to be exposed to public spaces outside every day."
Consequently, after discussions with colleagues, he cut the number of essential overnight personnel down to 75 and declared a "total shutdown" on Jan 27, meaning not a single employee on duty was allowed to leave the museum and no one else was allowed in.
Fang calls them the"75 warriors".
Most of the "warriors" are voluntary, but some were reluctant at first.
"After all, people have their families to take care of," Fang says. "I am deeply touched that some employees said 'yes' when we asked for their help."
Xu Yong, for example, is one of three employees who are taking turns to watch over some of the museum's facilities at night. At the last moment, before the total shutdown went into effect, he decided to remain at his post without telling his family beforehand because he knew they would not agree.
Xu says his 18-year-old son seems to have grown up overnight, because the teenager, who had seldom done any housework, has begun cooking dinner and taking care of other family members during this crisis.
Fang could not join his colleagues during the earliest days of the shutdown because there was a confirmed case among the attendees of a conference he had attended. Staying at home for a 14-day quarantine period, he was always online to keep abreast of the goings-on at the museum.
However, once the two-week quarantine was lifted, a healthy Fang decided to return to the museum on Feb 13, becoming not just the only exception to his shutdown rule, but "the 76th warrior".
"It is the front line," he says. "Our museum is next to hospitals. Ambulance sirens keep roaring. For us, they sound like flying bullets, and we have to be like fighters."
Employees have to spray sanitizer all around the museum, especially the front doors, twice a day. Food bought from outside also requires disinfecting.
"The museum is a confined space," Fang explains. "We know that if one person should get infected, it would become an avalanche."
However, the "76 warriors" soon ran out of ammunition-masks and sanitizers. Fortunately, museums from across the nation, and even overseas, offered support to Fang.
For example, the National Museum of China in Beijing donated 5,000 masks, the Shanghai Museum offered 4,000 and the national council of museums in the Republic of Korea sent 1,000.
Fang recalls that he was saddened to hear that several of his employees outside the museum were suspected of contracting COVID-19, but, fortunately, tests found them all to be virus free.
"It seems easy for me to tell you now," Fang says. "But there were many such psychological challenges. We were on the edge of being crushed by bad emotions. The only way out was to just keep going."
About 60 of the employees, who were not part of the cadre inside the museum, took up voluntary roles in their own neighborhoods to help short-handed community workers.
Fang keeps a diary these days to carefully record every donation he receives during the crisis, noting that writing the entries about the status of the epidemic and the details of his daily work is a good way to avoid panic and keep confidence.
A sense of humor is probably his biggest source of optimism.
Bai Jie, head of the capital museum in Beijing, asked whether any help was needed, Fang records in his diary. Fang replied: "As someone living (by the Yangtze River), can you imagine how it feels that
we haven't eaten fish for so many days?"
Nearly 800 tins of canned fish arrived shortly afterward, which Fang says "not only satisfied our cravings, but also cheered people up".
"We immediately gave every employee a tin," Fang writes. "We're so happy!"
Hainan Museum sent a cargo of vegetables and fruits.
"You know how difficult it is to drive such a long way just to provide us with nutrition?" Fang asks, rhetorically. "We are in a shutdown, but we're not alone in the war."
As more masks kept arriving at his museum, Fang says they had enough spare to support the other museums in Wuhan, where supplies were also lacking.
One day, Fang found it was too warm to still wear his down jacket when he stepped outdoors, so he went online and bought a lighter coat.
With the arrival of spring also comes the return of some online-shopping services and the turning point of the war against the virus.
On March 17, Day 50 of a total shutdown at the museum, no new case of COVID-19 was reported in the city. The rigid restrictions were partially lifted and some employees could return home.
It was then that Fang told his friends-the museum operators who offered him such great help-for the first time that he had locked himself down inside the museum for more than a month.
"If I had told anyone, many more phone calls would have followed and they would have worried about me," he explains. "But I needed to focus on doing my job."
Fang chooses to continue spending every day in the museum.
"I'll stay here until the day we open the doors again," he says.
No specific date has been set to reopen the Hubei Provincial Museum, but silver linings have appeared. Galleries of the museum, which had been immersed in darkness for two months, were lit up again on Sunday.
A livestreamed broadcast was shown on several online platforms that morning, offering a virtual tour of the national treasures housed at the museum. The chime bells of Marquis Yi, safe and sound, appeared to the public once more, albeit through a myriad of screens.
Fang tells China Daily that almost 8 million people tuned in to the livestream during the one-hour digital tour. In contrast, the museum attracted just 2 million visits in the whole of 2019.
"The only feedback we can give to people is to offer even better exhibitions and services in the future," he says, his voice cracking with emotion.
Hubei provincial authorities declared on Tuesday that Wuhan's lockdown will end on April 8.
Fang has already taken on a new mission, even before the all-clear is fully sounded.
On March 18, the National Cultural Heritage Administration released a notice guiding the nation's museums to collect artifacts related to the outbreak of COVID-19 as "representative witnesses" of history.
Fang has drafted a long list of the items that he wants to collect, including medications, testing kits, personal letters, mourning cards for the perished, pamphlets and public service posters and banners offering advice about how to stem the spread of the virus, among other varieties.
"Probably, many items we used during our shutdown can be collected as well," Fang says.
His diary, though not handwritten but in digital form, has already been received by a museum in Beijing, he reveals.