Literature in Translation: On Diary Keeping

My earliest and most vivid memory of my grandpa (爺爺 yéyé) has been this: “爸爸從三年級就開始寫日記。(Your dad has kept a diary since he was in third grade).” My grandpa is a proud father who raised a smart, hard-working, educated son. Since my dad was young, my grandpa made sure that my dad focused on school work, made sure that he ate well, and tried his best to provide my dad with everything he needed to succeed as an educated man. When my dad was in third grade, my grandpa told my dad to start keeping a diary. I asked my dad recently if there was a reason why grandpa made him do so, and he said he was only following what he was told and never asked why. He did however, benefit from this exercise as it created the foundation for his thinking and writing abilities.

I knew how proud my grandpa was for my dad’s diary keeping  because of how many times he told me that my dad did. When I became a third grader, being the eldest child, I had to continue on the “family legacy.” I, too, started keeping a diary. At first, I did so begrudgingly, with the purpose of simply having something to hand to my dad at the end of the day. But somehow, over the years, this chore became a habit, and by the time I was in seventh grade, I couldn’t live a day without writing in my diary. As a student in Taiwan, middle school was hard, with long hours of classes and studying, but even if I came home after 9 p.m. and still had more studying to do, I would rather stay up late than not write in my diary. It was how I released stress, how I recorded my life, and how I documented the changes I’ve been through over the years. Now as an adult, I continue to keep a journal. My entries are not always as detailed, but I do try my best to write a little each day.

I recently came across an article called “看見往日忽視的細節” (Noticing the Details We Missed from the Past) from 聯合報, a Taiwanese newspaper. The article documents the meeting of authors who participated in a diary series that Elite publishing house started. It talks about how the writers approached their commissioned diary publications and what went on through their minds as they recorded their daily lives for the public eye. Some take a non-personal approach, while others are more risky and reveal their personal selves. Below is my translation of the article. Enjoy!

“Seeing Details I Would Have Overlooked in the Past”

A Realistic Life Performance
At the beginning of the session, Yǔ​ Wénzhèng (宇文正) who had hosted numerous literary events in the past said that this really was a special discussion; she laughed as she expressed her relief for having finally published an essay collection, New Mom and Little Apple 《新媽和蘋果籽》, a “themed diary” that documents the process of pregnancy, and gave her  the ability to sit here and discuss this topic amongst other authors. Speaking of diary literature, the first books that  come to mind are books she read in her youth, Xú​ Zhì​mó‘s Diaries《徐志摩日記》, Zhū Tiān​xīn’s (朱天心) Jī Rǎng Gē 《擊壤歌》, and a journal written by a thirteen-year-old girl in hiding from the Nazis, Annie’s Diary. But what she was most curious about was where author Yǐndì (隱地) found the courage to publish a series of diaries by authors, and what his motivations were in publishing these diaries.

Yǐndì mentioned that the idea of keeping a diary and publishing it came from Liú Sēnyáo (劉森堯), and the implementation led to surprising rewards: “keeping a diary has kept me busy,” “keeping a diary has made me even more sensitive to my surroundings…seeing details I would have have overlooked in the past.” Since submitting his first article for publication forty years ago, Yǐndì has continued to write, without a break. In the past, he would on average publish one book every two years, but since he began keeping a diary in 2002, he’s published fourteen books over the past eight or nine years. The speed at which he writes had increased after his year-long “training” in diary keeping.

The year he kept a diary, whenever Yǐndì found that he was out of ideas, he would go see a movie or listen to a song, simply for the sake of writing in his diary; because of this, life was even more eventful, even more proactive. His diary entries are a true reflection of life, but are also a performance of life.

Not Real, Nor Fake
Xí Mùróng (席慕蓉 ) wrote at the beginning of her book 2006/Xi Murong 《2006/席慕蓉》 that: “This is not a real diary, but it also isn’t a fake one.” Contrary to Yǐndì’s frank, emotion-filled diary entries, Xí Mùróng admits that she did not write down anything that negatively described others. It’s not because she never complained about people, but because she only wants to keep the most precious aspects of life in her diaries.

In January of 2006, Xí Mùróng joined the effort of  the diary series (日記叢書) at the invitation of Elite Books [of Taiwan] (爾雅). She admitted that her joining of this effort wasn’t without selfish motivations:  that July marked the 800th year since Mongolia’s founding, and it would be wonderful to be able to participate in this important event while recording the experience in a diary. Xí Mùróng said: “2006 was the most complete year in my life.”

Slanted Personal Perspectives
Yǔ​ Wénzhèng compared everyone’s diaries: Yǐndì’s diaries recorded life, food, and also included some examination of current affairs, which are often filled with biting criticism; Xí Mùróng is like a traveler, recording the footprints of her travels in her diaries; and Chén Yùhóng’s ( 陳育虹 ) 2010/Chen Yuhong 《2010/陳育虹》is strongly thematic. In citing an array of literature, her entries embody the style and feel of poetry, a good means for introducing young readers to literature.

Chén Yùhóng said she knew from the outset that her writings would constitute a journal and not a private diary. With the  knowledge that her diary was to become published and public, she knew that there would be some reservations; but also because it was indeed a diary, it didn’t need to follow a specific format, so she could write about whatever that came to mind. Her writings followed the flow of time. Besides memoranda, writings on travels, and her thoughts, current affairs were a large component in her diary. She believed that keeping a diary is like writing poetry in that it must be topical. She laughed when she said that after finally completing her year-long diary entries, she suddenly felt as if she could live life casually and realized what a great motivator diary keeping could be.

In response to the debate on whether the diaries are  “real or fake,” she quoted Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Although these diaries are real, they also have a personal slant.

Write it However You Want
Professor Liáng Xīnróng (梁欣榮), an expert of Western literature, summarized the different styles of diaries he’s read. Puritans routinely wrote diaries addressed God; these entries were serious in tone but tedious to read. Benjamin Franklin, whose diaries were published [in his autobiography] as the first diary literature, only wrote about his good side and it thus became known as “President of Ethics” in the genre. Some people on the other hand, such as Heiner Müller, was unreserved in revealing everything, even descriptive expressions of lust

Liáng Xīnróng said that for a while, he had also kept a diary to keep track of his life by recording the meaningful moments. Through diary keeping, he was able to reflect and be more introspective. At one point, he even left a pen by his bedside and recorded every detail in thirty or so of his dreams, the movements, the colors, all sorts of minute details. Although he no longer keeps a diary, he still spends thirty minutes before bed reflecting on the day—it’s always as if he’s living the day all over again.

At this point of the discussion, Yǐndì began to encourage the participants, both old and new members, to keep a diary. He said that people tend to feel nostalgic about good memories from the past, and by keeping a diary, one will have the means to revisit these memories in the future. Not only so, keeping a diary can strengthen one’s writing skills; young writers also can use diary keeping as a way to explore different subject matters. Xí Mùróng mentioned that when she saw the amber moon on one of her walks along the Gobi desert, she was inspired to draw the horizon and the moon in her journal. But when she returned, all she saw in her journal was a squiggly line with a circle on top. Fortunately there are words [to accompany her drawing], which helped her to remember the sight of the rising moon. Chén Yùhóng concluded by saying that maybe one day when a person passes away, people will not ask whether he left a will, but whether he kept a diary. Yǔ​ Wénzhèng closed the discussion by encouraging everyone to start a diary.

Original Chinese article was from D3 of 聯合報副刊 dated May 6, 2012.


  1. 座談 (zuò​tán)- Discussion, informal.
  2. 主題日記 (zhǔ​ tí rì ​jì)- Themed diary.
  3. 日記文學 (rì ​jì wén ​xué)- Diary literature.
  4. 付梓 (fù​ zǐ)- 引申為印刷書籍。To send (a manuscript) off to a press or printers.
  5. 眾家 (zhòng jiā)- All families, everyone.
  6. 針砭  (zhēn ​biān)- Literal: needle made of stone. In ancient times, stone-made needles were used to treat illnesses (acupuncture). Now the phrase is used to mean the act of encouraging a person to change for the better. 針砭時事 would mean to criticize or comment on current affairs.
  7. 手札 (shǒu zhá)- Personal notes or journal.
  8. 套公式 (tào gōng ​shì)- To fit into a formula.
  9. 見機行事 (jiàn​ jī ​xíng​ shì)- To act on opportunities/ to play by the ear.
  10. 驅動力 (qū​ dòng ​lì)- Driving force.
  11. 琥珀色 (hǔ​ pò sè)- Amber color.
  12. 收穫 (shōu​ huò)- Literal: to harvest. Used to define gains and rewards.
  13. 創作 (chuàng ​zuò)- To create, to write, to produce (creative work).
  14. 積極 ( jī​ jí)- Active, proactive, positive (outlook).
  15. 率真 (shuài ​zhēn)- Frank, sincere.
  16. 叢書 (cóng​ shū)- Book series or collections.
  17. 辛辣 (xīn ​là)- Spicy. Figuratively meaning biting criticism.
  18. 檢討 (jiǎn​ tǎo)-  Self-criticism, review
  19. 幸好 (xìng​ hǎo)- Fortunately.
  20. 備忘錄 (bèi​ wàng​ lù)- Memorandum; written reminders.