By Eric Abrahamsen, published

It was originally Gordon Fairclough’s article in the online WSJ that got me thinking about road-trip literature in China, and now on top of that, wouldn’t you know, it happens to be the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s On The Road. On The Road is one of a few discrete chunks of foreign literature (others include the works of Borges and Milan Kundera) that, for various reasons of historical accident, floated across the sea and became trendy here. There are readers who wouldn’t know Hemingway’s beard if it turned up in their soup, but by god they could point out Vesuvio Cafe on a SF street map.

Fairclough’s article mentions a growing road-trip literature in China, and cites “‘Go the Distance Now,’ a book chronicling five years spent traveling around China by car.” One travelogue does not a road-trip literature make, but it started me thinking – Kerouac’s popularity must point to some kind of latent interest in this sort of thing, and really, China is the perfect country for road literature. It’s obscenely large, for one. It sports unbelievable geographical and cultural diversity (anyone who believes in the homogeneity of the Chinese, including the Chinese themselves, needs to take a road trip). It’s traditional culture encourages stasis, and trepidation about venturing away from home. The place is ripe for some maverick to demonstrate the heady joys of having the wind in your hair. Actually, a fair number of younger, middle-class adventurers are discovering that for themselves, but as far as I know they have yet to find their bible.

So what have we got? Journey to the West aside, Ma Jian’s Red Dust is probably the closest thing there is to a road-side portrait of China. But it’s an awfully political book, and I wonder how many people actually read it inside the country. Xu Xing’s You Can Have Whatever’s Left, a picaresque about a couple of rogues wandering the country, definitely qualifies. I suppose even Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain counts, although that struck me less as road literature and more as one man’s tiresome journey through his own angst-ridden impotence (ahem).

How about it? What am I missing?


# 1.   

I read Kerouac's On the Road in freshman year of high school, a little too early to appreciate the spirit behind the verbosity. I should give it another try. As regards Chinese travel literature, I think it's some of the best Chinese literature in general. These days, it suffers from a recurring problem in Chinese letters: canonized classics overshadow the newer works of the Open Reform era.

The classics are formative in their own right. Qu Yuan's Li Sao and Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West make the object of travel the quest for spiritual enlightenment, in which the physical space traversed is subordinate to symbolic landscapes. I find this still characterises many modern travelogues. Xu Xiake's "kaozheng" geographical treatises then set a new tone in the late Ming, though when I flipped through a chapter or two at a Kunming bookstore, I found that he combined fact-gathering with a quite personal diary style. According to Charles Laughlin's "Chinese Reportage" (Ch.1 is all about travel lit), Xu's obj/subj admixture had some influence on travel writing in the late imperial and Republican periods, esp on guys like Qu Qiubai and Liang Qichao when they toured Russia and the States. They reported what they saw and experienced in personal terms, but always in search of a panacea, capitalism, socialism or other, for their “sick” homeland.

My favorite travelogues (call me a Chinese lit teacher's manequin) still have to be Lao She's. He sketches the beginnings of Chinese tourism in Yunnan, where you could already rent a car in Kunming for a weekend get-away to touristy Dali during the Japanese occupation! Another essay I loved was Lao She’s cruise trip from Paris to Singapore: some French showgirls en route to Shanghai kept the whole ship entertained for weeks on end with their flirtatious song and dance, while Lao She and his China buddies smoked and played cards, vexed by these vixens; of course, there’s the patriotic bit afterwards, where Lao She teaches literature to Singaporean merchant kids and hangs out with a “diligent” Chinese diaspora building a “new China”, probably the bit of the essay contemporary China scholars prefer to focus on.

Red Dust isn’t a bit read, though quite dated at this point, and the other was quite the bohemian standout. Recently, NPR’s former China correspondent Rob Gifford documented his travels along China’s Route 312; don’t know why I bought that one, given that the Financial Times reviewed it, usually not a good sign of quality. A little more genuine perhaps, is the blogging world, where China’s new “bobos” tell of their journeys to Xinjiang, Hangzhou etc. If you look close enough, the ghosts of past travel writers reappear there.

Cheers from a SOAS grad

IKW, September 10, 2007, 2:50p.m.

# 2.   

Interesting – I didn't know all that about Lao She (I'll admit to a certain contemporary bias) and I'd love to read those accounts. There's something wonderful about the idea of a grand old talent uprooting himself to have a peer around the country. I had a mental image of the loner rebel, but maybe that's a hair past the line of cultural relativism. Thanks for writing, and for the recommendations!

Eric Abrahamsen, September 12, 2007, 10:45a.m.

# 3.   

I wonder if there should be a distinction made between travel lit., which China has plenty of, and road-trip lit., which I would think would be very recent. I once met a driver who said he got his license back in the early 80s, and made his living then driving trucks up to the northeast and back. I asked how the roads were back then, and he said they were horrible - I can only imagine.

Jeff, September 22, 2007, 1:17a.m.


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