Ai Xiaoming and the Quarantine Counter-Diary

By Thomas ChenMarch 12, 2021

Ai Xiaoming and the Quarantine Counter-Diary
THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK has spawned the resurgence of one literary form above all: the diary. Under variously imposed quarantines, people all over the world have turned to self-writing and recording to deal with the unprecedented state of isolation.

The “lockdown diary” first surged in China, when the city of Wuhan went into lockdown in late January 2020. The most famous example is the one posted online by the award-winning author Fang Fang, who grew up in Wuhan. 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. [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. Ai Xiaoming is a prolific filmmaker of over two dozen documentaries. 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. Born and raised in Wuhan, she was there when COVID-19 erupted and trapped her in the city.

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. [1] But the most salient feature of her diary is arguably its self-reflexivity. 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. This reflexivity is missing from most other published diaries. What is its significance, one year after its publication? 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. Most importantly, Ai illuminates the different meanings — and stakes — of pursuing a public diary versus a private one.

Traditionally, the diary is the most private of literary forms. 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. This inner conversation is also oriented toward the future. A key motive for diary writing, Ai claims, is self-perfection. We try to write our ideal selves into being. Our images in the distance, forward and back, beckon and scold and shape our day-to-day present. 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. It is where we vent and spill our guts, where we scribble our most intimate secrets. 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. Only thus fortified can the writing flow without restraint. As a consequence of its instinct for freedom, Ai asserts that every diary is consciously or unconsciously opposed to thought dictatorship. By the same logic, the diary as a literary form is most threatened in times of dictatorship. For in such circumstances, the private as a realm of unbridled speech and thought constitutes a challenge to public authority. Diary writing itself becomes a suspicious act: You have something to hide. You possess words that cannot be openly uttered. You harbor ideas that are deleterious to society. When the public devolves from a realm of clamorous voices into one loud voice, then the private necessarily dwindles and disappears.

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. Because he belonged to a “good” class — proletariat — his life was spared. The lives of many other “reactionary” diarists were not. 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. The famous diary of Lei Feng (1940–’62), a People’s Liberation Army soldier, was “public” in multiple ways. 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. Lei Feng himself actively showed his diary to others, or left it open for others to read: he had nothing to hide. 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. 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. 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. No uncensored original of this most canonized of diaries has ever been made public.

Just as Lei Feng’s diary is characterized by its censorship, so, Ai argues, is Fang Fang’s diary. 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. In her March 11 entry, Ai offers her own metaphor, fitting for someone under quarantine at home. Censorship is the glass door separating her balcony from her living room. You may think there is nothing between you and the fresh air outdoors, until one day you crash into the glass. “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. 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. Her WeChat account would be entirely shut down on March 25.

Her case is far from unique. Many netizens, for reasons often unbeknownst to themselves, have provoked not so much the wrath as the banality of censorship. But censorship’s repressiveness — the taking down of posts, the blocking of websites — complements its propagative capacities. 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. 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. 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.

Chinese writers face this dilemma. 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 danger of drawer literature is disengagement from the public at present. The danger of shackled writing is words becoming worthless, or worse, reproducing authorized discourse.

Only through the lens of this dilemma, according to Ai, can one evaluate Chinese lockdown diaries, including Fang Fang’s. Fang Fang, after all, is a writer within the system. 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. By contrast, many others who covered the pandemic, especially citizen journalists, have simply been disappeared. 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). Many have sacrificed more, have spoken out more. 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. That is the measure of Fang Fang’s intervention.

For Ai, Fang Fang’s prose as instantiated in her diary is mediocre. The fact that her diary has garnered so much attention is itself a sign of the illness of the times. But Ai does not detract from her efforts. 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. 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. The public as a whole would be transformed. 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. This transformation would bring about the day when everyone, not just those with “permits,” can write in the open.

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. In her writing as in her filmmaking, she limns a third path besides the marginalized private and the mainstream public. She has chosen not to compromise with censorship. And so, in addition to domestic platforms, she distributes her work across overseas venues, all the while documenting the overlooked in contemporary China. How can she preserve her freedom? For her, freedom is precisely not carved from the private, but consists in a commitment to the public.


Thomas Chen is an assistant professor of Chinese at Lehigh University. His book Made in Censorship: The Tiananmen Movement in Chinese Literature and Film is under contract with Columbia University Press.


Banner image: "Huiming road ,Wuhan during 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak" by Painjet is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.


[1] An excerpt in English translation is published in New Left Review 122 (March/April 2020) ( Her diary in Chinese can be found on the Hong Kong–hosted Matters website (

LARB Contributor

Thomas Chen is an assistant professor of Chinese at Lehigh University. His book Made in Censorship: The Tiananmen Movement in Chinese Literature and Film is under contract with Columbia University Press.


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