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Ai Wu (艾芜) was born Tang Daogeng (汤道耕) on June 20, 1904 in Xinfan, Sichuan Province and studied at Sichuan No. 1 Normal School in Chengdu. As an adolescent he had hoped to attend Beijing University and take part in the progressive social movements brewing in the capital at the time, but was unable to raise the required funds.

Disillusioned with the education system, and with an arranged marriage looming, he left Chengdu and hitch-hiked south to Kunming, determined to, “go into the world and rely on my own hands and labour.” From Yunnan he travelled further south, to Xishuangbanna, from where he crossed without visa or passport into Burma and wandered on to Rangoon. Whilst in Burma, encouraged by a local monk he wrote his first story before he was arrested and deported by the British authorities.

This journey, often spent in the company of beggars, horse thieves, and other such vagrant personalities, became the source of his first and most important work, Journey to the South (南行记 Nanxing Ji). Filled with vivid descriptions of life on the road, the world of small border towns and the people he met along the way, the book was widely read and established Ai Wu’s reputation as a writer.

One of the main reasons for the book’s popularity was Ai Wu’s stylistic commitment to objective observation, something which was very different to the books which had preceded it.

In 1932 Ai Wu, along with Sha Ding, wrote to the writer Lu Xun asking for advice on how best to write about the things that they had experienced, the people they had met and the events which were taking place in the world around them.

“We have written several short stories with the following themes: one of us specialises in using satirical techniques to show both the apparent and the hidden weaknesses of the petty bourgeois youth with whom he is familiar; the other specialises in taking lower class figures of his acquaintance, figures washed aside by the great currents of modern times, and depicting in his works their intense yearning for life and their vague impulse to revolt under the heavy burden of life. We wonder, can works of such content be said finally to make some kind of contribution to the the present time? At first we hesitate, and even after we pick up the pen we falter.”


“Although we have read a few works by the proletarian writers, we don’t want to take a few fictitious characters and have them stand up and make revolution; we prefer to seize on a few familiar models and depict them truthfully.”      

Lu Xun and His Legacy by Leo Ou-fan Lee,University of California Press, 1985, Pages 43 & 45

Lu Xun advised them to “declass” themselves and to “be at one” with the people around them, regardless of their position in society. He hoped they would be able to, “gradually overcome their own life and consciousness and see a new road.”

As evidenced by this correspondence, Ai Wu’s intention when writing Journey to the South was to avoid subjectivism in order to completely “declass” himself. His narrative alter ego in the book plays a very restrained role in an attempt to completely identify with the protagonists in the stories. In, A Lesson in Life, the first of the stories in the book, the narrator; arriving in Kunming in a hungry and penniless state, undergoes an initiation into the world of these protagonists thus qualifying the narrator of the later stories to speak of, “We whom the world has abandoned.”

The style and subject matter of Journey to the South, avoided the distortion of reality often used in satire and any loftiness of tone. Ai Wu simply presented life and the society around him as it was, including its imperfections, thus making the book accessible to a much wider readership because the majority rather than the minority could relate to the world found within its pages.

Journey to the South by Ai Wu may not be well known or widely available in the West either in Chinese or English, but its influence can be seen in the work of many modern Chinese writers, especially that of Liao Yiwu (廖亦武).

“Journey to the South isn’t as famous as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which helped define America’s Beat Generation, but for my generation of Chinese it had much the same effect. ‘Go south, further south’ was for years a popular mantra among my friends; now it is debased as a motivational slogan.

In the 1980s, I dated a girl who read Journey to the South with tears slipping down her cheeks. She re-read the book on the night before she broke up with me and then followed the path mapped by Ai. She went south, further south, and was arrested by border police. She spent six months in a detention centre, where she endured the abuse and harassment of fellow inmates, most of whom were prostitutes and drug dealers. She returned to Chengdu, but only to better plan her next journey south. She sold everything she had and used the cash to bribe a private guide from a Dai village to take her across the border.”

Go South, Further South by Liao Yiwu, Asia Literary Review, Vol. 15, Spring 2010

Links to books by, or featuring work by Ai Wu:

Banana Vale by Ai Wu

Wild Bull Village (Chinese short stories) by Ai Wu & Others

Three Exotic Views of Southeast Asia: The Travel Narratives of Isabella Bird, Max Dauthendey and Ai Wu, 1850-1930


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Street Literature – Broadsides

Before the Internet, mobile phones, TV, radio and newspapers, ordinary people had to rely on street literature to find out what was happening in the world. Broadsides, the most popular form of street literature, first began to appear in the 16th century.

Broadsides were large printed sheets plastered predominantly on the walls of houses, alleyways and ale-houses. At first they were used mainly for the printing of royal proclamations, acts, and official notices. Later they became a vehicle for political agitation and what we refer to now as ‘popular culture’, such as scaffold speeches, news (factual and not-so-factual) and ballads and songs that could be read (or sometimes sung) aloud, their subject matter as varied, colourful and bawdy as many of the places where they were posted.

In the early 19th century, the mechanisation of the printing industry significantly increased the production of all types of street literature, copies of which were usually sold for a penny or half-penny in London with broadsides of ballads being amongst the most popular. Broadsides were also folded twice to make small pamphlets or chapbooks and ‘garlands’ (chapbooks of songs).

But by the middle of the century, newspapers, which had been around since the mid 17th century, had become cheaper and were therefore affordable to the majority of society which they hadn’t been before. This, along with the runaway success of ‘penny dreadfuls’ (serialised stories), saw the popularity of broadsides and other types of street literature start to diminish.

Now that most members of the general public were more literate, they were no longer willing to accept the lower quality of reporting and production of some of the broadside printers, as that penny that could only purchase a broadside ballad before, could now buy a part issue of a novel, a cheap newspaper or a weekly magazine.

A fantastic collection of old Scottish broadsides, from which the photos above come, can be found at The Word on the Street – The National Library of Scotland’s online collection of nearly 1,800 broadsides letting you, “see for yourself what ‘the word on the street’ was in Scotland between 1650 and 1910. Crime, politics, romance, emigration, humour, tragedy, royalty and superstitions – all these and more are here”.

Broadsides didn’t disappear though, as we’re sure you well know. Throughout the late 19th century and on through the 20th  and 21st century they have continued to be used by thousands of known and unknown artists and activists throughout the world to put their art and views out there in the public arena. Along with their children; pamphlets and chapbooks, long may broadsides live and thrive in the streets which gave birth to them.

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Chap*Books

Chap*Books

Chap*Books is a space dedicated to the under-appreciated art form of the chapbook which has been of significant importance in the launching of many fine authors.

This excellent blog reviews and promotes the chapbooks and small collections published by small presses that the contributors have purchased, found or been given along the way. A few of the many featured are pictured above and below.

Recently, the good people at Chap*Books wrote a piece about Spring Wanderings by J. H. Martin and we would like to say thank you, not just for the kind words about the book, but for the solidarity shown by Chap*Books in promoting and supporting the work of lesser known writers and small press publications not only on their blog but also by posting reviews on Amazon and other on-line retail outlets.

“I found this book in an antique shop in rural PA about a month ago. It’s a beautifully made book that by my calculations ought to be a “chapbook” but isn’t. …

The poetry itself is beautiful and mysterious. It reflects the country that the work is about (China).” Read more


“Each chapbook is a story in itself – the publisher, the poet/author, the designer/illustrator – each has a story and a history. Along the way, I have found many tales and yarns. Some fascinating and others truly pitiful. Part of the reason I write this admittedly infrequent blog is that these authors – these publishers – these people need to be remembered in some fashion. Their chapbooks alone acknowledge their existence as people. Their names live on, however delicately, through their “thin slivers of nothing” (the weight of a chapbook when stacked on a shelf with various TOMES between)” Read more



An informative article on the chapbook appeared in Jacket Magazine a few years back: Considering Chapbooks: A Brief History of the Little Book

“Distanced from its historical roots, the form of the chapbook found new life in the burgeoning world of modern poetry, in which pamphlets from the international Dada movement and beautifully designed works of Russian avant-garde poets set a new standard. Continuing through Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, the mimeo revolution of the 60s, the advent of photocopying and desktop publishing, and the production of PDF files containing the online equivalent, the chapbook now thrives in the esoteric though open space of contemporary poetry. … Whether comprised of an extended sequence, a series of short poems, or a single, longer work, the chapbook, in its momentary focusing and sculpting of the reader’s attention, is the perfect vehicle for poetry.”

Read the rest of this excellent article at Jacket Magazine



We strongly encourage those interested in literature, poetry and the arts to support their local poets and independent bookshops by picking up one of these collectable pieces of ephemera from time to time. In the words of one memorable review, chapbooks are “well worth a look, and at less than the price of a pint, what have you got to lose?”

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When you conceal your will from others, that is Thick.

When you impose your will on others, that is Black.

- Li Zongwu

In the West, Machiavelli’s book The Prince is probably the best known work on simulation and dissimulation. In Chinese culture however there is a rich and deep seam of literature on strategy and deception. Sun Zi’s Art of War is the most famous, but the more recent book, Thick Black Theory (厚黑学 – Hòuhēixué), written by Li Zongwu (李宗吾) in 1912, is possibly the most important when it comes to trying to understand the Chinese strategies of today.

Li Zongwu was a social philosopher and critic and his purpose in writing Thick Black Theory was to describe the symptoms of an illness, or, to be more precise, to bring into the light the cultural shadow which is known to all in Chinese society as “Thick face, black heart.”

The description “thick face, black heart” is used to describe what many, but by no means all, in Chinese society, whether they say so publicly or not, perceive to be the “must have” quality of Chinese people if they want to be successful, whether that be in society, business or politics.

“Thick face” is in essence a shield to protect a person from the criticism and negative opinions of others, thus preserving and thickening their own “face,” both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others, by refusing to accept the limitations or criticism that others have tried to impose or force upon them.

“Black heart” is the sword used to do battle with others as well as oneself. The black-hearted practitioner focuses their attention purely on their goals and ignores the possible cost to themselves or others. Together with this well-defined and honed killer instinct, the cutting edge of a practitioner’s sword is dispassion – to do battle without or, in spite of fear, and to be able to detach themselves completely from their own and others’ emotions so that their presence does not thwart or hinder them from achieving their ultimate goals.

In Thick Black Theory, the methods by which people use the idea of “thick face, black heart” to obtain and hold on to money, status and power, and how they use these to preserve their position and accumulate more are described in detail.

Li Zongwu’s original intention was to publish Thick Black Theory in a series of three articles in The Chengdu Daily in 1912. However, the official outrage and violent reaction caused after the first article was published led to a cancellation of the series. This series of three articles was later published several times between 1934 and 1936 in a single volume in Beijing by friends of Li Zongwu. Despite the controversial image of Chinese society that it portrayed, each edition sold out immediately before being banned by the government – a deliciously ironic fact given that in 1989; when the ban on the book was lifted, it was published by the Central Party School in Beijing. The book is now a consistent bestseller throughout mainland China, has been published in multiple editions and has spawned a whole sub-genre of “self-help” books, as well as in-depth studies of historical events and characters following the “thick black” premise.

It is important to remember that Li Zongwu’s work is purely an observation and study of “thick face, black heart,” and was never intended to be an endorsement of the amoral practices when mastered (which many non-practitioners would consider to be immoral) that the book describes. The irony that it is now used and reinterpreted as a manual for succeeding in business and society, only goes to show how prescient these observations were, both then and now, and how little has actually changed.

We will be presenting further articles on Thick Black Theory, and selected extracts from the works of Li Zongwu.

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