Ai Xiaoming and the Quarantine Counter-Diary

Only through the lens of this dilemma, according to Ai, can one evaluate Chinese lockdown diaries, including Fang Fang’s. Her WeChat account would be entirely shut down on March 25. Ai’s lockdown diary is a smorgasbord of literary and visual forms, from the standard chronicle accompanied by photos — of her tagging along volunteer groups delivering safety suits and feminine hygiene products to hospitals, of dealing with her father’s death — to a play in text messages, with poetry and painting thrown in. This inner conversation is also oriented toward the future. Her diary in Chinese can be found on the Hong Kong–hosted Matters website ( Lei Feng himself actively showed his diary to others, or left it open for others to read: he had nothing to hide. A key motive for diary writing, Ai claims, is self-perfection. No uncensored original of this most canonized of diaries has ever been made public. For the latter is not private but public writing as well, and as such, Fang Fang cannot but perform a shackled dance, in the writer Lu Xun’s famous metaphor. But because they lack the “permit” that Fang Fang still carries — attacked as she is in certain sectors of the state media and populace — they are vanished with impunity, never heard from again. This transformation would bring about the day when everyone, not just those with “permits,” can write in the open. The danger of shackled writing is words becoming worthless, or worse, reproducing authorized discourse. The most famous example is the one posted online by the award-winning author Fang Fang, who grew up in Wuhan. What is its significance, one year after its publication? Image has been cropped and desaturated. Many have sacrificed more, have spoken out more. Only thus fortified can the writing flow without restraint. This reflexivity is missing from most other published diaries. For her, freedom is precisely not carved from the private, but consists in a commitment to the public. The famous diary of Lei Feng (1940–’62), a People’s Liberation Army soldier, was “public” in multiple ways. “Even if you are brave and supremely skilled,” she writes, “a transparent glass wall surrounds you on all sides.”
Ai repeatedly crashed into that “transparent glass wall,” literally and figuratively. Between the first, Taishi Village (2005), which is about a local government trying to sell collective land to developers, and the most recent, Jiabiangou Elegy (2017), which revisits a labor reform camp during the massive famine of the late 1950s, her documentaries have concerned grassroots activists, violence against women, the AIDS epidemic, the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the plight of migrant workers. The danger of drawer literature is disengagement from the public at present. To persist in publishing despite and through censorship, to participate in the public realm as a citizen, is a necessary step in combating the illness. Most importantly, Ai illuminates the different meanings — and stakes — of pursuing a public diary versus a private one. When the public devolves from a realm of clamorous voices into one loud voice, then the private necessarily dwindles and disappears. Government and health officials who tried to hide the truth of the initial outbreak cannot be uncovered, but Wuhan residents connected with the Huanan Seafood Market can. [Editor’s note: For more on Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary, see the review that Chris Madden wrote for the Hong Kong Review of Books, a Los Angeles Review of Books channel, which appeared July 20, 2020, here:]
But another online diary from Wuhan is just as noteworthy. For Ai, Fang Fang’s prose as instantiated in her diary is mediocre. MARCH 12, 2021

THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK has spawned the resurgence of one literary form above all: the diary. She may have resigned as chair from the Hubei Writers Association, but as her diary makes amply clear, she still lives within the association’s housing compound; she still enjoys the perquisites of her former position and relationships. Ai Xiaoming is a prolific filmmaker of over two dozen documentaries. You may think there is nothing between you and the fresh air outdoors, until one day you crash into the glass. What is allowed into the public, what is broadcast in state media, what filters through one’s social media feed are just as much a product of the glass edifice of censorship. By the same logic, the diary as a literary form is most threatened in times of dictatorship. How can she preserve her freedom? His book Made in Censorship: The Tiananmen Movement in Chinese Literature and Film is under contract with Columbia University Press. But Ai does not detract from her efforts. Her diary, kept daily for 60 straight days and read by millions of people all over the country, was translated into English by Michael Berry and published as Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City. In place of the mandated messages of triumph — over COVID-19 as over liberal democracies — a panoply of voices would sing the multifaceted and complex truths of the pandemic. The “lockdown diary” first surged in China, when the city of Wuhan went into lockdown in late January 2020. ¤
[1] An excerpt in English translation is published in New Left Review 122 (March/April 2020) ( And so, in addition to domestic platforms, she distributes her work across overseas venues, all the while documenting the overlooked in contemporary China. Just as Lei Feng’s diary is characterized by its censorship, so, Ai argues, is Fang Fang’s diary. The top-down command to spread “positive energy” and to express “gratitude” toward the Chinese Communist Party’s vanquishment of the coronavirus — this, too, comprises censorship. Diary writing itself becomes a suspicious act: You have something to hide.   The very first edition in 1963 already contained ellipses designating deleted parts, with subsequent editions sometimes supplying what was previously deleted or making new deletions entirely, all tailored to the political exigencies of the day. By contrast, many others who covered the pandemic, especially citizen journalists, have simply been disappeared. Ai’s counter-diary, as I call it, puts the very phenomenon of “lockdown diaries” into perspective, so that the reader can appreciate not only their content but also their form. Even though it was edited and published as a volume after Lei Feng’s death from a work accident, excerpts were already published as early as 1959. In her writing as in her filmmaking, she limns a third path besides the marginalized private and the mainstream public. Under variously imposed quarantines, people all over the world have turned to self-writing and recording to deal with the unprecedented state of isolation. But censorship’s repressiveness — the taking down of posts, the blocking of websites — complements its propagative capacities. That is the measure of Fang Fang’s intervention. Either they write as they wish but privately or for the future — the so-called literature of the drawer — or they keep what Ai calls their “permit,” that is, they publish openly but circumscribe what and how they write. The diarist engages not so much in a monologue as in an internal dialogue between and among various selves: the self wielding the pen in the moment, past selves spanning from earlier in the day to years or decades before. ¤
Thomas Chen is an assistant professor of Chinese at Lehigh University. Their names cannot be even mentioned in the media, much less their writings circulated and commented upon by millions of readers (as happened with Fang Fang’s writing). We guard these words even from our dearest, not simply to shield against the discovery and judgment by others, but more to protect that precious freedom from encroachment. You possess words that cannot be openly uttered. ¤
Banner image: “Huiming road ,Wuhan during 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak” by Painjet is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Many netizens, for reasons often unbeknownst to themselves, have provoked not so much the wrath as the banality of censorship. She relates the censorship of what she writes as she writes, noting in the March 11 entry that her previous entries from March 8 and 9, were removed from her WeChat social media platform. It is where we vent and spill our guts, where we scribble our most intimate secrets. Born and raised in Wuhan, she was there when COVID-19 erupted and trapped her in the city. As Ai writes in her March 8 entry, “keeping a diary could prove fatal.”
In contradistinction to the private diary made involuntarily public, Ai then gives the exemplar of the purposely public diary during the Maoist period. We try to write our ideal selves into being. Even for this paragon of selflessness, however, his diary could not be published without official mediation: Lei Feng’s diary has never appeared in its entirety. Fang Fang, after all, is a writer within the system. In her March 11 entry, Ai offers her own metaphor, fitting for someone under quarantine at home. If more people do what Fang Fang and other citizen journalists have done, then not only would Fang Fang’s diary be enhanced, but so would Chinese reporting at large. Censorship is the glass door separating her balcony from her living room. Ai Xiaoming herself is an incorrigible practitioner of what she preaches, an indefatigable citizen reporter and counter-diarist who records the disadvantaged and the disappeared. The lives of many other “reactionary” diarists were not. Chinese writers face this dilemma. Because he belonged to a “good” class — proletariat — his life was spared. Our images in the distance, forward and back, beckon and scold and shape our day-to-day present. Her case is far from unique. As a consequence of its instinct for freedom, Ai asserts that every diary is consciously or unconsciously opposed to thought dictatorship. In fact, the diary conducted a constant “struggle” against practices and notions of the private, carried out in the form of a ledger of all the good deeds the soldier did, such as darning a comrade’s socks or shoveling manure for villagers. [1] But the most salient feature of her diary is arguably its self-reflexivity. For in such circumstances, the private as a realm of unbridled speech and thought constitutes a challenge to public authority. The public as a whole would be transformed. You harbor ideas that are deleterious to society. She has chosen not to compromise with censorship. Traditionally, the diary is the most private of literary forms. Drawing on her experience as a professor of Chinese literature and women’s studies for two decades at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Ai Xiaoming analyzes the diary as a genre of writing, self-consciously commenting on her own praxis. Ai situates her own diary in the history of diary writing in the People’s Republic of China under Mao, citing the example of a young worker, Li Jianfeng, whose “reactionary” diary was exposed during the Cultural Revolution. In the diary, our various selves are planned and panned, revised and reaffirmed. In addition to its temporal dimensions, the diary is the quintessential space of privacy and therefore freedom. The fact that her diary has garnered so much attention is itself a sign of the illness of the times.