Keeping a Diary in China: Memories for the Future

‘Memories for the Future’ 留给未来的回忆 by the oral historian Sang Ye 桑晔 was written for the catalogue produced to coincide with the exhibition of Yang Zhichao’s Chinese Bible 杨志超《中国圣经》, an installation curated by Claire Roberts for the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF Project 26), Paddington, Sydney, 14 May-1 August 2015. For more on Chinese Bible, see Geremie R Barmé, ‘In a Field of Red Ruins‘, also published by The China Story Journal.

Street art, Beijing, June 2015. Photograph by Lois Conner

Official street art (reproductions of traditional ink paintings on public utilities), Beijing, June 2015. Photograph by Lois Conner

This essay was translated by Jeff Crosby. We have included Chinese characters for names and quotations, and we gratefully acknowledge Sang Ye, SCAF, Claire Roberts and the translator for their kind permission to reproduce this work online. — The Editors


Chinese Bible is a precious harvest indeed. Yang Zhichao, the artist who has collected these 3,000 diaries and given them new life, along with the Shermans as the collectors of this artwork, have helped us to create miraculous connections between today’s world and the China of the past, giving us the opportunity to meet the original owners of these diaries.

An Unofficial History

The Chinese people often say that their country has 5,000 years of history. Throughout these many centuries, historical discourse has always belonged to the state. The authorities not only held dominion over the present, but also controlled the authoritative declarations regarding past events. Historical composition is the exclusive domain of authority and so China’s official revised history is splendid as well as solemn, as if each single word was irrefutable, each sentence a font of truth. But these great passages convey little more than a list of who succeeded whom, which dynasty overturned another, and which generals seized which cities. There is an acute lack of records regarding folk history. So many lives, innumerable as the sands of the Ganges, as they say, and it does seem that they are just grains of sand or specks of dust, washed away in the great flows of official history. Even if the official history stretched back for 10,000 years, there would still only be one person considered to be worth recording in the great ‘diary’ of Chinese history: the emperor, who would never write for himself. The imperial historians recorded every word and deed of the emperor, both great and small, creating a unique format for historical composition. Aside from the emperor, there is certainly no one else who can claim such importance.

But this exclusion of common people from historical composition, and their overall expulsion from historical accounts, did not keep China from becoming a great nation of diaries. The earliest records of what we would recognise as a diary can be traced back to 56 AD when Ma Dubo 马笃伯 of the Eastern Han dynasty wrote a daily account of his journey from the capital Luoyang to Mt Tai to perform a ritual offering on behalf of the emperor.[1] Other famous diaries that followed include the account by Song dynasty poet Lu You 陆游 of his travels from Zhejiang to Sichuan to take up an official post in 1170;[2] the account of geographer Xu Xiake’s 徐霞客 travels across southern China in 1642, as compiled and published by others;[3] and the diary begun in 1854, spanning some forty years and over a million words, by Qing dynasty writer Li Ciming 李慈鸣.[4] China’s contribution to this form must not be underestimated. Unfortunately, none of the shining examples above are private writings in the true sense. These so-called diarists were actually preparing to spread these words to the greater world, and often took up the duty of educating the masses, so we do not read of the true feelings of the writers, but instead see affected writing in the diary form.

Long ago in the fifth century BC, when China was in a state of chaotic disunity, Confucius began promoting the idea of selfless devotion to the public good. This standard of selflessness was at first only demanded of officials, but was later expanded into a basic ethic for scholars, and eventually penetrated into broader society. In this atmosphere, it appears it would be quite difficult for a purely private diary to exist. But after more than 2,000 years of promotion, this concept of selfless devotion to the public good began, in the Mao era, to undergo a shift in meaning. The term ‘public’ came to refer to the state, to the collective, while the private came to be understood as the affairs of the individual and the family. These two concepts fell into opposition, and there arose the need for a revolutionary campaign to ‘destroy the private for the public’ 破私立公. Now, the people had to follow the standards of ‘handing over your heart to the Party’ 向党交心 and ‘keeping a watchful eye on others’ 睁大警惕的眼睛. To hand one’s heart over to the Party, they had to ‘reveal all that is private with no fear of embarrassment’ 亮私不怕丑 and to ‘fight all privacy with no fear of pain’ 斗私不怕疼. This completely altered the private nature of people’s inner worlds. Likewise, that pair of ‘watchful eyes’ of course belonged only to the Party. The people now had the duty to assist big brother. The proletarian dictatorship was everywhere, leaving no space for privacy in the social environment.

Dangerous Thoughts

In 1956, private letters revealing ‘anti-Party and anti-people’s ideas on literature and arts’ 反党反人民文艺思想, written by art and literary critic Hu Feng (胡风 1902-1985), were handed over to authorities by an old friend, touching off a nationwide campaign to root out the ‘Hu Feng counter-revolutionary clique’ 胡风反党集团. Diaries found by police in Hu Feng’s home became important evidence and Hu Feng was condemned as a counter-revolutionary and sentenced to life in prison. He was linked to 2,100 people, only some of whom he actually knew, and all were persecuted to varying degrees.[5] Beginning with this case, it became the standard operation of this kind of campaign for authorities to search a suspect’s home, release their diary entries to the public, and then use said entries as evidence of ‘confession to counter-revolutionary activities’. The people completely lost the freedom of expression they once enjoyed in diaries, and the so called private realm was no more. Even worse, the reality of this diary disaster meant that it no longer mattered if one’s thought crimes had been committed in public. As long as they were written in the diary, then there existed irrefutable evidence right there on the page. Letters were also a source of such irrefutable evidence, but the diary was the real object of obsession for the authorities of the proletarian dictatorship. The sequential nature of the diary allowed them to more easily enter into the ‘dark inner counter-revolutionary world’ 反动黑暗的内心世界 of the writer, and facilitated expanded investigations into their accomplices.

Writer Xiao Jun (萧军 1907-1988) was a famous strongman among Chinese intellectuals. He was condemned in 1969 for his diary and while in detention he wrote a confessional entitled ‘Baring My Heart to the Party’ 向党交心, in which he stated:

When I wrote in my diary, I never considered showing it to anyone else, including my wife, and certainly never thought it would be taken from me to serve as evidence of a crime. If I had ever imagined what would happen today, perhaps I never would have written a diary, or perhaps I would not have written the truth. But what I want to say today is that regardless of how you obtained these diary entries, I admit that I wrote them myself. Go ahead and publish them. I have no regrets.


Over forty years later, in 2014, the Hong Kong office of Oxford University Press published Xiao Jun’s diaries in their entirety, totalling over 3,000 pages, including criticisms of leaders, expressions of friendship and enmity, and conflicts with his family. Xiao Dazhong 萧大忠, Xiao Jun’s grandson and the compiler of these diaries, said, ‘This will surely anger many people, but there is nothing I can do about that’ 显然会得罪很多人,但是我也没有办法.[7] He has shown remarkable courage, and lives up to the family name.

The poet Wu Mi (吴宓 1894-1978) began to worry about his ability to keep his diary private in 1950, and started following the principle that ‘Any diary entries or communications may one day eventually be published or read at an academic forum’ 任何日记或通信皆假定将要被登报,或将在学习会上被读出. He decided to self-censor: ‘When speaking with Zhang, I will assume that Wang, Li and Zhao are all present. In this way, I can likely avert disaster’ 与张谈话则假定王、李、赵都在座,如此办理,或可庶几避患. But even this man, who believed himself safe, was unable to escape the web of the proletarian dictatorship. In 1968, he was ordered to turn over his complete diary so that the government could record the many crimes documented within, and convict him as a counter-revolutionary. In 2006, Wu Mi’s daughter Wu Xuezhao 吴学昭  handed over his entire diary, consisting of some seven million words spanning from 1910 to 1974, to the Beijing-based Sanlian Publishing House, which printed it as a giant twenty-volume collection. However, ten of those volumes, namely the diary entries from after 1949, were blocked from publication by the national censors because of their untimely criticism of many people and events, and were only approved for ‘internal distribution’ 内部发行. Even though Wu Mi had assumed his words would ‘eventually be published or read at an academic forum’, they were still considered to contain ‘untimely criticism’ 褒贬太多不合时宜. It is enough to leave one speechless.

If that was the case for famous figures, the common people of course faced a much more tragic fate when they were said to be ‘condemned by their diaries’. Beijing worker Yu Luoke (遇罗克 1942-1970) was arrested for a speech he gave, and then his diary was used as evidence for counter-revolutionary crimes before he was sentenced to death.[8] Shanghai professional Wang Shenyou (王申酉 1945–1977) was subjected to a struggle session for refusing to turn over his diary. Then, after a secret investigation turned up passages in his diary that spoke against the great leader Mao Zedong, he was imprisoned before being sentenced to death.[9] The diary of Li Jiulian (李九莲 1946-1977), a worker from Jiangxi, was surreptitiously read by her boyfriend, who discovered that she had written ideas that went against those of the Cultural Revolution. She was arrested by the authorities and sentenced to death for counter-revolutionary crimes.[10]

The Death of Private Life

In those dark, bloody times, there would of course emerge fabricated diaries that fit the needs of revolutionary education. For example, there was Lei Feng (雷锋 1940-1962), that apt pupil of Chairman Mao, who wrote: ‘We must be warm like springtime towards our comrades, scorching hot like summer towards our work, blow away the leaves of individualism like the autumn winds, and brutally cold like the winter towards class enemies’ 对同志要像春天一样的温暖,对工作要像夏天一样的火热,对个人主义要像秋风扫落叶一样,对阶级敌人要像严冬一样的冷酷无情.[11] Mao Zedong’s good cadre Men He (门合 1928-1967) wrote: ‘All of my thoughts are for Chairman Mao, all of my actions are in service of Chairman Mao. All of my movements follow Chairman Mao closely. All that I do is for Chairman Mao’ 一切想着毛主席、一切服从毛主席、一切紧跟毛主席、一切为着毛主席.[12] Chairman Mao’s good warrior Liu Yingjun (刘英俊 1945-1966) wrote that he had ‘Infinite loyalty, infinite passion, infinite faith and infinite worship of Chairman Mao’ 对毛主席无限忠诚、无限热爱、无限信仰、无限崇拜.[13]

When mainstream ideology comes to dominate the core psychology of the majority, private writing that deviates from public discourse is not only highly dangerous, it is virtually impossible, and so, during the Mao Zedong era, political correctness and selflessness became a universal phenomenon in virtually every diary. Thus, the words of Marx and Lenin and the quotations of Chairman Mao were dutifully copied down, word-for-word, by diary-writers. Whether they actually subscribed to these ideas is another matter. Today, at the very least, they show us the level of politicisation of social life at the time. The sweeping ideas on such themes as ‘endeavours’, ‘direction’, ‘struggle’, ‘ideals’, ‘paths’ and ‘faith’ are not necessarily insincere. To a certain extent, they formed the spirit, atmosphere and dreams of China in those times. Even diary entries about love were full of content about struggle and will, and would even cite moving phrases by Chairman Mao. This, too, was not necessarily exaggeration. The spiritual lives of many young people were this serious and that dull.

In such a time, to continue to write purely private diaries ‘truly required courage, but more importantly, required the conditions to conceal them’. The literary editor Chang Dan, who wrote a diary attacking the reality of the day, said:

What I write is simply for future memory, but I cannot see the future, because I cannot see hope. Writing in this way is a method of self-isolation, a method of hiding from the brutal reality, and so there is not much dissenting text, because I have no need to constantly discuss with myself. Though I already understand the answer to life, I have not given up my passion. Perhaps this is the true significance of writing in this way.


According to Chang Dan, what matters most is maintaining one’s independent stance to the end. This seemingly absurd explanation actually leaves me astounded.

Social Samples

Chinese Bible gives us a record of the teeming masses of a nation, presenting us with once-decayed stories. In the several decades covered by these diaries, China was more than once dyed in red, and as a result, these diaries contain their own independent worlds — independent worlds with spectacular scenery.

The diaries in this artwork are not all private diaries. Many of them are work records, student notebooks, report drafts, meeting minutes, documents and ledgers. But even the dullest of accounts has unique value today, because we can see a piece of the past within them. For instance, on 1 November 1959, in Beijing, one had to show the birth certificate of a child before being allowed to buy a kilogram of eggs for the mother; beginning on 1 January 1960, one had to use ration coupons to purchase any food, including vegetables; the history of rice coupons did not end until August 1992. Even the formulaically written work records are of value. They not only serve as samples from the unified environment of public discourse; they also make it possible for us to understand the poverty and context of those extraordinary times. And although we do not know what the repetitive markings on the illegible signs mean, the motive behind writing them, or if they were written out of fear, faith, habit or as a convenient form of shorthand, we do know that they meant something to the original owner — metaphorical records concealed to avoid trouble, stories told only to the self with no expectation of communication. In this sense, that in itself is enough.

The old stories of the past continue to unfold today, perhaps under a new guise, or perhaps exactly the same as before. The latest edition of Diary of Lei Feng came out in 2013 and has kept up with the times, with nice binding, and a plastic cover, like a copy of Playboy. The package also includes a complimentary blank diary from the Beijing Shangpin Tiandi Company. This modernised Diary of Lei Feng carries the inscription:

So that more readers can better understand Lei Feng, and understand and carry the Lei Feng spirit, we give you this complimentary blank diary to encourage readers to carry on the diary of Lei Feng and spread his spirit. We will collect outstanding diaries from our readers, and will give awards for the best diaries. These diaries will be published in a book titled Our Lei Feng Diaries. They will be published in your own handwriting to preserve the style of these diaries while also putting your calligraphic skills on display.


This diary collection is clearly written for others to see; a red revolutionary diary that runs counter to the very nature of diaries. But society has indeed progressed a bit. For this manipulative competition designed to spread a certain spirit, the organisers at least had to pay material rewards in the form of award money and commissions, provide an opportunity for people to show off their calligraphy, and find a company to provide a free diary.

At virtually the same time, a man named Cheng Hao 程浩 died in Xinjiang from congenital heart disease on 21 August 2013. He was twenty years old. Because of his illness, he did not go to school, nor did he ever travel, but he left behind a diary of roughly a hundred-thousand words. A child of the internet age, he of course published this diary on an anonymous blog, which he called Castle: The Monologue of the Duke 城堡:伯爵的独白.[16] His diary began on 22 September 2009. The next day, he complained about the strict controls placed on the internet in Xinjiang. He wanted to watch the Chinese version of Ugly Betty, but was unable to open the link. He complained again on 9 October. Remarks made in the United States by Rebiya Kadeer, a leader of the Xinjiang independence movement, had led to local restrictions on the internet. The 11 October entry has more frustrations: ‘The internet was already restricted, but now even those limited internet resources have left me due to unpaid bills’ 本来就通讯受限,现在连仅有的网络资源也因为欠费而离我远去了. However, he concedes, ‘If I must say something good, it is that Mama should be getting her salary soon. It may not be much, but it should cover our debts, and if it does, I think relations will improve with grandfather’s family’ 如果非说好事的话倒不是没有,妈妈的工资好像快拿到了,虽然可能不多,但应该可以还完债,如果还了债,我想妈妈和姥爷家的关系也能和平点… … . Cheng Hao carried on this monologue in the mental castle he built. But these possibly painful stories are nothing more than this duke’s record of reality for himself. This world appears all the more unremarkable for its sincerity.

Chinese Bible is successful because it conveys to us the details of the littlest lives and deaths in China during those times, giving us an opportunity to look in upon ourselves. We may even discover stories of our own that have been forgotten or concealed. When it comes to the trajectory of life, there is no insurmountable difference between us and them. We are the same. Of course, this is a different topic, but Chinese Bible still has many other different topics in store for us.



[1] 《封禅仪记》,马笃伯著,载《汉官六种·汉官仪》,中华书局,北京,2008.

[2] 《入蜀记》,陆游著,载《陆游集》,中华书局,北京,1976.

[3] 《徐霞客游记》,徐宏祖著,上海古籍出版社,上海,1980.

[4] 《越缦堂日记》,李慈铭著,广陵书社,扬州,2004.


[6] 《延安日记(1940—1945)》,萧军著,牛津大学出版社,香港,2013年版;《东北日记》,萧军著,牛津大学出版社,香港,2014年版;《日记补遗》,萧军著,牛津大学出版社,香港,2014.

[7] 《吴宓日记》,吴宓著,三联书店,北京,1999年;《吴宓日记续编》,吴宓著,三联书店,北京,2006年内部发行.

[8] 《遇罗克遗作与回忆》,徐晓等编,中国文联出版社,北京,1999;《我家》,遇罗克著,中国社会科学出版社,2000.

[9] 施平,《王申酉昭雪记》,《南方周末》,2004年1月30日;金凤,《他,倒在了“两个凡是”的枪口下》,《我们都经历过的日子》,北京十月文艺出版社,2001.

[10] 《中国的眸子》,胡平著,人民文学出版社,北京,2005.

[11] 《雷锋日记》,雷锋著,解放军文艺出版社,北京,1963.

[12] 《无限忠于毛主席的好干部 —— 门合》,北京出版社编辑组编,人民出版社,北京,1968.

[13] 《刘英俊日记》,刘英俊著,辽宁人民出版社,沈阳,1966.

[14] Sang Ye in conversation with Chang Dan, Harbin, 1986, unpublished interview.

[15] 《雷锋日记》,雷锋著,北方出版社,哈尔滨,2013年版.

[16] 《城堡:伯爵的独白》.