Mao’s China was home to countless diarists, including the PLA soldier Lei Feng (1940–1962) whose famous diary recently appeared in print for the n-th time in the Complete Works of Lei Feng. Unlike in Europe, where the diary is typically regarded as a highly personal medium used to record the most intimate details of one’s private life, the Chinese diary in the age of Lei Feng tended to be nothing of the sort. Actually existing Maoism arguably influenced diary content in ways that may well have been similar to what happened in the Soviet Union. The diaries may all have been unique in the sense that they were written by unique individuals, but they were also – and even more so – uniquely “public” records. In Beijing in the early 1970s, when one’s Youth League branch secretary came knocking and wanted to glance at one’s diary in order to get a better sense of one’s current state of mind or the depth of one’s devotion to the anti-revisionist cause, turning him away was not really an option.
Historians of the PRC have paid relatively little attention to ordinary people’s “public diaries,” which is how Richard King and I referred to a sample diary from the Cultural Revolution in an article (PDF) in the now long defunct CCP Research Newsletter (No. 3, 1989). That particular diary, which was the first one either of us had ever had a chance to scrutinize and from which we also translated a few pages, will in due course be reproduced in full (and in colour!) as the fourth item on the list below. It was kept by a student at the Liuzhou Railroad No. 1 Middle School between July 1969 and July 1970. The first link below is to a diary kept by a woman by the name of Zhang Juhua – who is, it seems, a few years older and living somewhere in Jiangsu province – between November 1965 and March 1966. The second link is to a diary kept by a young man between February and August 1966 while attending a vocational school run by the Nanjing Electromagnetics Factory: the diary ends abruptly when the diarist quits school and leaves for north China on geming chuanlian at the start of the Cultural Revolution. The third link, finally, is to a diary kept by a young girl by the name of Lu Ming in Nanjing’s Yanmin No. 3 Middle School between December 1969 and April 1970. Who knows, the delightfully childish drawing of a girl on the inside cover of the diary may well be her self-portrait...
Many more original diaries of this kind are widely available in Chinese flea markets today. For some reason, unused pristine old diary books with nothing but blank pages in them have become popular collector’s items, driving up prices. Fortunately for students of history on a tight budget, tattered old diaries in which there is actual writing are by comparison frowned upon and tend as a result to be significantly cheaper. Relatively common in flea markets are diaries kept in the first half of the 1970s. Edited versions of diaries kept during the Cultural Revolution have in recent years begun to appear in print in Hong Kong, including 《红卫兵日记》 by a Red Guard from Peking University and 《清华文革亲历：孙维藩日记》by a Tsinghua University graduate. Special caution is called for when using such commercially published diaries, as they are likely to have been edited (and perhaps even “improved upon”). Certainly they can no longer be regarded as primary sources to history in the same way that an original diary can.
Everybody these days, it seems, knows about the excepts from the diary of Lei Feng and those of other “good guys” that the party propaganda apparatus wanted people to emulate in Mao’s China. Forgotten, on the other hand, are the excerpts from diaries said to have been kept by “bad guys” that also appeared in print – for example during the 1963–1966 Socialist Education Movement – and supposedly illustrated what kind of bad thoughts and undesirable ideas one was not meant to have. The last three links on this page are to examples of these inversions of the Lei Feng diary entries, the first one – “The Diary of a Criminal” – published in No. 12/1957 of People’s Public Security, a journal meant to be red by ordinary police officers, and the second one – “Excerpts from a Counter-Revolutionary Element’s Diary” – published in No. 22/1964 of the same journal. The third one, extracts from an “anti-party anti-socialist diary” kept by a young man from Shanxi, appeared in a collection of edifying stories entitled 《落水集》, also aimed at police officers, distributed “for official use only” in January 1964 by the Beijing municipal Bureau of Public Security.