‘A Madman’s Diary’ in the Age of the Pandemic: The Case of Zhang Zhan

Ai Xiaoming, December 27, 2020

Zhang Zhan (张展), a lawyer who practiced in Shanghai, went to Wuhan in early February, determined to document the coronavirus outbreak in the city that was the epicenter of what would soon become a pandemic around the world. In the three months she stayed in the city, she made 122 posts on YouTube. It was not a coincidence that her first post was “My Claim for the Right of Free Speech.” Zhang Zhan was arrested in May, brought back to Shanghai, indicted in September on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” China’s all-in-one charge for suppressing dissent. She is being tried on Monday, December 28, in Shanghai.

The following is a translation of 疫情时代的狂人日记 — 关于张展, an article by Professor Ai Xiaoming, who lives in Wuhan. — The Editors

Zhang Zhan’s first YouTube post on Feb. 7: My claim for the right of free speech

Today is Christmas Eve, but I haven’t said “Merry Christmas” to a single soul. Because on this day, at this place, at this moment, I cannot help but think of one person, one woman, one Christian: Zhang Zhan (张展).

She has been on a hunger strike since June of this summer, and has been kept alive through forced nasal feeding. She is shackled and both hands bound with restraining straps. During the torture she faces, in the words of 709 lawyer Li Heping (李和平, who knows something about torture), “one second is like 10,000 years.” For those of us who have never suffered like her, what can we do to help?

Today is Thursday, and Zhang Zhan’s lawyer Zhang Keke (张科科) is on his way to Shanghai. Next Monday the trial starts, and Zhang Zhan will be judged. Until now, as far as I know, no one in the position of responsibility has been tried for the spread of the epidemic and the loss of people’s lives and property, so why should a volunteer, who has been on hunger strike for almost six months because she pled “not guilty,” be criminalized, and why should prosecutors recommend she be sentenced to four or five years in prison?

It is impossible to control my anger when thinking about all this, although anger is also a sort of “luxury,” I suppose. People are accustomed to accepting disasters calmly, but, despite such calmness, there is still no stopping the cruelty and ruthlessness of this force that wants to sentence a volunteer who risked her life to five years in prison, just because of something she said.

Lu Xun (鲁迅) wrote in A Madman’s Diary: Everything requires careful consideration if one is to understand it. In ancient times, as I recollect, people often ate human beings, but I am rather hazy about it. I tried to look this up, but my history has no chronology, and scrawled all over each page are the words: “Virtue and Morality.” Since I could not sleep anyway, I read intently half the night, until I began to see words between the lines, the whole book being filled with the two words — “Eat people.”

Lu Xun lived in an evil age, to say the least; but not one so evil that Lu Xun would be put on trial and punished for his words. Lu Xun’s ravings covered past, present, and future, but no one said he was provoking trouble.

I’ve read Zhang Zhan’s words and have been following her situation. If you want to say that Zhang Zhan is at fault, I can only say that Zhang Zhan’s fault was to be born in the wrong era. She is a person, not of the present, but of the future — she lives the way Chinese people should live in the future: she laughs merrily and curses with feeling, dares to love and to hate. When I read her scattered writings, back when the epidemic was spreading, I already knew that she was more heroic, more carefree, more incisive, more unconcerned about her life and death than Fang Fang (方方)[1]. What kind of person could be like her? Andersen wrote about the child who told the truth [that the emperor had no clothes]; Zhang Zhan is that child. She is too pure, unable to tolerate impurities in her soul, and unwilling to back down before the barriers set by reality. She persists in her purity and sincerity, qualities that are not possessed by modern Chinese people. She really should not have been born in the 1980’s, she was born at least 40 or 50 years too soon.

Had she been born 10 years in the future, let’s say, in 2030; when she reached her current age in 2068, 48 years, nearly half a century into the future, would Zhang Zhan’s commentary have been prosecuted? Would she have been recommended for a sentence of four to five years? There’s a question I’d like to put to the prosecutors who wrote the indictment — What legacy are you leaving your children by proposing such a sentence in the face of Zhang Zhan’s candid thinking and honest writing? Because as your children live through the next twenty, thirty, fifty years, will they agree with your indictment?

The Wuhan epidemic appears to be a thing of the past, but, for many families, the story is not yet over: If we’re to hold anyone accountable, how many people and institutions bear significant responsibility? The chastising and punishment of the eight whistle blowers, the live national TV coverage of their punishment for “disinformation,” the names of the doctors for whom the public mourned, the helpless cries and breakdowns over the heartbreaking deaths of their loved ones — which of these is the responsibility of an ordinary citizen, Zhang Zhan?

Of course, Zhang Zhan can also be said to be anything but ordinary.

She traveled against the current to Wuhan, lived on instant noodles for a month, and walked through the shellshocked city with total disregard for her personal safety. She is Lu Xun’s madman, or the kind of wanderer seen in 19th century Europe. She walked a narrow path between the conflicting demands of freedom, individuality, and society, experiencing a broken life and soulful struggle, at odds with the rules of reality and with public opinion of all stripes, running, falling, crashing through fences, being called a “shrew.”

Well, she is really a shrew in the eyes of this arbitrary power — she is shrewish because she is straightforward. However, her shrewishness is really only all-in persistence. Her questioning, her ardent desire for an ideal world, was invariably paid for with sacrifice, with her life, painting an image of a free and bold personality.

How can such a person be said to be a contemporary Chinese? She is clearly a child who is not supposed to be born and live for decades yet. How can such a crisis-ridden, stumbling, broken, chaotic, ugly, fractured generation be worthy of the purity, affection, and sacrifice of this life? How can we sick, broken, cowardly, weak, life-sucking thieves, receive her sacrifice?

Yet she persists like a thorn, isolated, rare, small, and yet indestructible. She will not change even if she is sentenced to ten years, let alone four or five, because she has already put her own life on the line. Those of you who hold the gavel, facing your contemporaries, perhaps your peers, and the same legal professionals (Zhang Zhan was a lawyer), you can naturally find legal grounds to convict another legal professional, a peer and a citizen. However, if you have a scrap of good sense, and examine your consciences, it is impossible not to understand that Zhang Zhan’s crime is simply that she was born thirty years too soon. Or, in other words, her “crime” is that she loves China and life more than you, the prosecutors and the judges.

For my benighted countrymen, stuck in the swamp of today, ground under the heel of the Party’s political purges, one after another, for more than half a century, I cannot fathom how Zhang Zhan could burst from such filth, as pure as an angel this night, thinking what no one dares to think, saying what no one dares to say. Oh, I was wrong, what then is a human being? If Zhang Zhan is a human being, if what she thinks is the way of a human being, how can all those who flee before her sharp observations and solution-seeking writing be human? Might it be that most of us are still a ways from evolving past half-beast? Is it even possible that those who still consider “food as first necessity” as some kind of positive belief and do not hope for both “bread and freedom” are not half- or wholly beast?

Zhang Zhan is not an ordinary person, not by the standards of ordinary Chinese people. Therefore, one can also say that she is the author and protagonist of a 21st century version of A Madman’s Diary. Therefore, Zhang Zhan’s trial is shameful, and her sentence is even more shameful. But shame is the status quo, and all that is needed is cringing acceptance and praise; provided that one’s stomach is full and one’s mind empty.

Zhang Zhan, the madwoman, the shrew, is going to be tried on Monday. She has been on hunger strike for six months, as weak as a reed in the wind, with half a feed tube dangling from her nasal cavity, and her hands so tightly bound that the pain is hard to bear. To this, I can only hold back my grief and pray silently the century-old concluding words of A Madman’s Diary:

“Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men?”

Save this child.

Wuhan, December 24, 2020

[1] Fang Fang (方方) is a prominent writer in Wuhan whose Wuhan Diary (《武汉日记》) was read by millions before she was vilified by the state media.


She Chronicled China’s Crisis. Now She Is Accused of Spreading Lies. New York Times, Dec. 25, 2020.

Chinese citizen journalist detained for reporting on Wuhan coronavirus outbreak “may not survive”, December 11, 2020.

The Regret of Wuhan: How China Missed the Critical Window for Controlling the Coronavirus Outbreak, China Change, Feb. 9, 2020.

3 responses to “‘A Madman’s Diary’ in the Age of the Pandemic: The Case of Zhang Zhan”

  1. […] article was first published on China Change website onDecember 27, […]

  2. […] ChinaChange, que é outro “órgão de direitos humanos” em Washington DC, também divulgou nota sobre Zhang […]

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