A little history and context:
Wuhan is actually three cities, melded into one. The city gets its name from the first characters of each = 武Wu(chang昌) + 汉Han(kou口) & 汉Han(yang阳) , and has been continuously inhabited for over 3,500 years with a long legacy of poetry and intellectual output. It’s a major hub in central China, and the capital of Hubei province, sprawling over the confluence of two major rivers, Chang Jiang 长江 and Huang He 黄河, and many railways. As a result, Wuhan absorbed the diverse cultures sailors and business people brought from around the country. In the 19th century, European colonizing powers carved out concessions to gain access to this important trade city, controlling parts of the riverfront to extract profits after the opium wars. The area industrialized around that time, becoming a center for steel, iron, and coal production that still power the area’s economy to this day. In 1911, Sun Yat Sen led the Wuchang Uprising to overthrow the emperor, leading to the collapse of China’s imperial system, so in many ways, Wuhan is the home of modern China.In late 2019, an infectious coronavirus started spreading around Wuhan. In the weeks and months after the virus was first discovered, all of Wuhan went through the collective trauma of a then-unknown disease spreading rapidly, losing loved ones and launching the city into seemingly endless chaos and confusion. Nevertheless, amid death and desperation, Wuhanese people reconnected with the strength of community and supported each other through the four months under lockdown. For a more detailed account of life on the ground in Wuhan during the pandemic, read our interview with a Wuhanese doctor in our coronavirus guide to staying safe & calm (written in early February 2020 and updated regularly since.)
As the pandemic advanced across the globe, the impact of COVID-19 extended beyond the virus itself. Elsewhere in China, discrimination against Wuhanese people spread as hotels refused stranded tourists from Wuhan, people cursed at cars whose license plates start with 鄂 (Hubei). Nevertheless, as a city known for its hospitality and inclusiveness, Wuhan also received kindness and solidarity from people in China and around the world. Hashtags like 武汉加油 (Go Wuhan!) trended on Weibo, and food bloggers showed support by posting their version of Wuhan’s signature food, 热干面, the delicious hot dry noodles.
So, what’s the city of Wuhan actually like?
Well, today, it’s a rough, industrial city, oppressively hot and humid in the summertime and shrouded in a haze of pollution nearly year round. Catastrophic floods wrecked the city periodically, displacing hundreds of thousand people. As the KMT capital from 1927 onward through the start of the People’s Republic, the city was routinely bombed by Communist, Japanese, Soviet, and American air forces, starting fires that burned down most of the city in 1944. In-fighting continued under communist rule as well, and it was a major site of student protests in 1989. Although the construction of the Three Gorges Dam was designed to mitigate the threat of future floods, heavy rains repeatedly wreak havoc on the city every few years. This battled-scared city has been through a lot, which earned Wuhanese people a lasting reputation as combative and rebellious folks. In 2011, a Wuhan university student threw a shoe at the creator of China’s internet censorship apparatus — it’s a pretty punk place.
Wuhan is a tough city of 19 million people with a thriving underground culture, where the chic IFT café storefront with a wang hong cat hides the Indie Fellas Tattoo parlor in the back. Leather punk bands like AV Okubo and SMZB got their start in town, and SMZB’s band members started and run Wuhan Prison and Vox Livehouse, Wuhan’s main music venues for over a decade. Microneme, a space also running since 2008, is an energetic hybrid venue that hosts parties, rooftop film screenings, workshops, art projects and a bookstore. As the city grows and the local government tries to convince the over one million higher education students from the area’s 35 universities to stay on after graduation, some of Wuhan’s counter-culture is coming above ground. The Jump the East Lake 跳东湖 happening started as a protest against the paving over of Wuhan’s hundreds of lakes, is now a corporate-backed DMX and extreme sports festival each August. Taggers and street artists who used to stake out abandoned buildings to create massive works are now invited by the local arts high school for campus commissions. And while a newer generation of indie bands like Chinese Football play Vox regularly, and other small underground club venues like The Cellar are starting to shape up a techno and electronic scene, the Hubei government is putting their support behind massive events like VAC Vision & Color’s electronic music festivals started in 2018.
In 2014, Wuhan’s visual art scene started picked up the pace with the opening of the 403 Arts District in a converted boiler factory, where great galleries like Surplus Space showcasing emerging artists. That same year, multiple new museum and studio complexes backed by real estate developments also opened their doors: the United Art Museum turned the surrounding area into a “Creative Captial” with studio space and housing for over 40 artists, including mr.d.mouse and Wu Jing, and the K11 shopping mall opened an artist village, recently relocated in 2017. Long-standing institutions like the Wuhan Art Museum and recently renovated colonial-era buildings like The Big House Contemporary Art Center are also major venues for contemporary art exhibitions. Many graduates from one of the country’s best art schools, the Hubei Institute of Fine Art, are choosing to stay in town, drawn by affordable studio spaces and increasing support for local artists.
In 2016, the city officially passed environmental resolutions to expand green space, becoming a “sponge city” to mitigate floods and turn the formerly industrial waterfront into lush parks. Wuhan is rapidly building upon its coarse and gritty foundations, surpassing its reputation for spicy duck necks and hot dry noodles to establish a new presence as a forward-looking central creative capital.
Many people outside of China might not have heard of Wuhan before the pandemic, and as new waves of xenophobia, white supremacy, and bigotry spread across the US and around the world, it is helpful to remember that viruses don’t care about borders and that people on the ground are never to blame. We hope this guide conveys our deep mutual love and care for the people of this city who weathered the pandemic with an enormous amount of courage and sacrifice. Maybe this guide and video will play a small part to combat baseless biases and discrimination, and through these words and images, you’ll see the Wuhan we know: an amazing city with a fierce, revolutionary, and creative side.
This video guide was directed, filmed, and edited by Li-Lian Ahlskog Hou, and written by Kira Simon-Kennedy & Mandy You.
Many thanks to all our friends in Wuhan for sharing their takes on the city they call home, and to the British Council China for their support in developing these resources. Like all of our resources, this guide is a work-in-progress and will be updated regularly. Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and recommendations!