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