Abstract: The figure of the traveller has long been used to explore material and spiritual changes in China. Xu Zechen, an increasingly well-known writer and editor in Beijing, writes of migrants moving from the countryside to the capital city, referred to as his jingpiao (“Drifting through the capital”) series. In these short stories Xu has built up an extensive, complex network of the meanings behind travel and the figure of the traveller. Travel is linked to the image of floating, and is associated with a combination of subversion, marginality, moral agency and the creation of new networks. In this way, Xu’s works continue to explore a series of themes that have preoccupied writers in post-reform China.
This article demonstrates this through the close reading of two short stories: “Running through Zhongguancun” and “Xi Xia”. It also shows that, for all of the attempts at subversion, Xu’s male protagonists comply with surprisingly conservative ideals of masculinity. The result of this is that women remain voiceless victims of the city, unable to participate in any of the agency that travel might bring. This article provides the first English-language analysis and close reading of Xu Zechen’s work. It argues that, as we begin to parse out the ways in which travel and travellers feature in contemporary Chinese fiction, we must also take masculinity and its representations into account. More broadly, it stands as an argument for considering constructions and performances of masculinity within any explorations of transgression and agency in Chinese literature, something that has been surprisingly overlooked.
Keywords: Postsocialist fiction; migrant literature; urban literature; mobility; the traveller; agency; morality; masculinity; floating.