Reportage, Ethnicity, and Feminine Subjectivities:
Ai Wu’s Journey to the South and Its “Sequels”

By Jie Guo

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no.2  (Fall 2019), pp. 1-40

Consisting of eight short pieces based on his wanderings in the Yunnan-Burma borderlands, Journey to the South (Nanxing ji; 1935) has remained Ai Wu’s (1904-1992) best-known work since its publication in the 1930s. In contrast, the two “sequels” to it, i.e., Second Journey to the South (Nanxing ji xupian; 1964) and New Journey to the South (Nanxing ji xinpian; 1983), which are based on Ai Wu’s visits to the area respectively in 1961-62 and 1981, have received little scholarly attention. Despite their shared geographic focus, these sequels adopt different narrative strategies. Featuring a narrator who reports, describes, and comments from the collective perspective, Second Journey to the South has typical features of literary reportage (baogao wenxue) that Charles Laughlin describes for us in his Chinese Reportage: The Aesthetics of Historical Experience (2002). In this collection Ai Wu places special emphasis on women, particularly women from non-Han backgrounds. Relying on the collective perspective typical of literary reportage, the narrator presents a series of formulaic accounts of how these women transform from victims of the “old society” into free, capable citizens of new China. Dominated by the discourse of “class struggle,” the collection downplays the question of ethnicity and sexuality. In contrast, New Journey to the South, which features Ai Wu’s visit to Yunnan after the Cultural Revolution, deliberately gives up the single, coherent collective perspective, which for Ai Wu is no longer adequate in order to capture the complex, traumatic experiences the characters, particularly women, suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Rather, by blending first- and third-person narrative modes, Ai Wu departs from the approaches of the 1960s’ collection in pursuit of new ways of representing individual characters’ personal negotiation of their national, ethnic, and gender identities.

Examining these three Nanxing collections side by side with each other through the lens of reportage, this study seeks to shed light on significant evolvements in Ai Wu’s long career. While Ai Wu is usually seen as a fiction writer, in order to achieve an adequate understanding of his literary and political legacy, we should go beyond this perception to examine the linkages between his work and the Chinese reportage tradition. Indeed, Ai Wu’s experiment with techniques that are often associated with reportage offers a valuable window into the Chinese reportage tradition as well as into Ai Wu studies.