The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
Field Notes

Journey to a “People's War”

Yangtze River at night, Chongqing. Photo by the author.
Yangtze River at night, Chongqing. Photo by the author.

Some years ago, I stopped in Wuhan on my way to somewhere else. The city looked unremarkable to me, another heavy, Chinese metropolis split in two by a dying river. I remember the owner of my hostel stopping by to take my payment and photocopy my passport. Afterwards, he left for dinner, and I did the same, walking down to the Yangtze to sit on its grassy banks. Much later that night, after a desultory trip to the squat toilet across the way, I found myself locked outside of my dorm room with no phone, no glasses, no wallet, and no keys. Wearing nothing but my underwear, I banged on all the hostel’s doors hoping to summon some other human. When no one appeared to help, I grabbed a towel off a clothesline, wrapped it around myself and set off into the alleyways of Wuhan, calling out in my rusty Mandarin: Ni Hao! You ren ma? Hello! Is anyone there?

A few people were out there, heading home after whatever their night had entailed, but all these figures kept a wary distance from me. Knowing how I looked and sounded, I couldn’t blame them for their reticence. I returned to the hostel and curled up in a corner of its courtyard to wait. When morning came, the owner showed up at last with his key. I recollected my clothes, my money, my vision—all these quotidian parts of a self—and left to catch my train.

When COVID-19 first began spreading late last year, I thought back to that strange night I spent in Wuhan, all the blurry shapes I tried following in the dark, those shapes which kept their distance. Like many of us, I have spent much of this year groping my way through time, trying to will myself back into the locked room of the normal. Arundhati Roy reminds me that it is exactly this dream for a lapsed normalcy which is dangerous right now. In her words, the pandemic is a “portal” out of this late-capitalist hell, a gateway we’re meant to walk or shamble or leap through in the name of creating new tomorrows.1 And so yes, if possible, if the time feels right: leave your apartment, go out into the streets, feel the sun across your skin and the reverb chant of the crowd. Roy’s parable of the portal calls for ethical voyaging as opposed to escapism, and yet I think of it as a travel narrative nonetheless, one in which the place we are heading is unclear, even utopian, but essential to hold fixed in our minds.

In 1938, the writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood went to China to co-write a book on the Second Sino-Japanese War. Journey to a War (1939) is a very different kind of travel story than Roy’s, one steeped in the racial and cultural logics of its time, but it too has helped me think about how to navigate our pandemical present. The book opens on a striking scene of passage. “Slowly our Western culture in full pomp progresses / Over the barren plains of a sea; somewhere ahead / A septic East, odd fowl and flowers, odder dresses,” writes Auden.2 In this poem, the social distance between West and East could not be clearer. Never mind all the goods, missionaries, artists, stories, and religions which have tied these spaces together across centuries. Never mind that Hong Kong, the writers’ first port-of-call in the East, is itself a colony of the British, or that most of the people the writers end up meeting on their trip are nervy European expats and footloose tourists like themselves.

Journey to a War is a book about the inconveniences of travel rather than the vagaries of war. Auden and Isherwood take aim at the local food (“Nothing is specifically either eatable or uneatable”); the service (“His English leaves much to be desired”); the women (“Most of the girls are attractive, but few are really beautiful”); and the architecture (“Nowhere anything civic at all”).3 Carried along by the interpretive skills of their Chinese manservant Chiang and the literal backs of their “coolie” chair bearers, the authors cover an impressive swath of the country during their six-month sojourn. Along the way, they interview Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, trade war stories with the photographer Robert Capa, and shop for jaunty Panama hats at all the local markets.

Yangtze Riverside, Wuhan. Photo by the author.
Yangtze Riverside, Wuhan. Photo by the author.

When the specter of war finally materializes, it does so at a safe distance. In Wuhan, which Isherwood describes as “the end of the world,” the writers don “smoked glasses” and lie down in the lawn of the British consulate to watch the Japanese bombers fly past, the aerial battle like a firework show far above.4 After the raid is over, the writers pay a “one-eyed crone” and her grandson to ferry them to the river’s other side, where they gaze upon the “terribly mutilated and very dirty” bodies of the recently deceased, corpses whose flesh had been “tattooed” by flying gravel and debris.5

One could of course indict the authors for their orientalizing gaze—how they write up the locals as both passive flowers and noble proletarians, animated by an “animal struggle for existence”—but what draws me to Journey to a War is how utterly Auden and Isherwood fail at occupying the role of reliable witnesses, and how they ultimately even own up to this failure.6 Arriving in China, the writers want to style themselves as neutral observers, similar to what Isherwood described, in Goodbye to Berlin, as a “camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”7 The book they end up producing is clearly a frazzled and partial account though, disrupted (and so made much more interesting) by the authors’ inability to write what seemed at first a simple story of anti-imperial struggle in the East. That is, the nefarious Japanese actors never really show their face, and most of the good guys we meet don’t seem to know what they are doing or where their allegiances even lie. What do you do when the crisis you’ve come to report on leaves you feeling more bored than scared? How do you write when people are dying everywhere around you, in city gutters and isolated villages, but your own little trip goes on unimpeded?

Susan Sontag writes that one of the common, false metaphors we apply to disease is that of war: illness figured as an all-out battle between the body and its microbial invaders.8 Journey to a War reverses this analogy. Writing of another air raid on Wuhan, Isherwood transforms the Japanese war planes into tiny pathogens: “It was as if a microscope had brought dramatically into focus the bacilli of a fatal disease. [The bombers] passed, bright, tiny, and deadly, infecting the night.”9 Reading this passage, it’s difficult for me not to think, in my presentist way, of Wuhan as it stood not so long ago: a city where the streets were again empty of traffic, where particles of a “fatal disease” laced the air, and where doctors and nurses had been redeployed as foot soldiers in Xi Jingping’s “People’s War” on COVID-19. Now that Wuhan and the rest of China have started to reopen, Beijing has turned the virus into a pretense for yet another power grab: imposing new “security” measures on a restive Hong Kong, reformatting phone apps into dragnets for biometric data, silencing or arresting internet dissidents, and dispatching policemen to monitor even the dead at their own funerals.

Having spent much of my life traveling to and from China, I’ve been wondering when such easy trans-Pacific travel might be tenable again. I’ve been wondering too if I want it to be tenable: that life of innocent passage. Near the end of Journey to a War, Isherwood writes from the hold of a ship that “a cabin port-hole is a picture-frame.” Both provide a static view that is as “romantic” as it is “false,” a view that Isherwood believes will eventually come to replace “all the subtle and chaotic impressions of the past months.”10 Writing I read about the ongoing crisis often traffics in such idyllic fossilizations. We yearn for the assumed objectivity of neutral observers. We seek to write or speak from that position of learned authority—our expert caps on, our telescopic vision extended even as our bodies stay idle inside. This is that “false” view, though, the one that shies away from all the compounding contradictions which seem to define this moment, the one that denies our own complicity and, in doing so, freezes this moment into one picturesque or horrifying view.

Not long after Isherwood’s musings on the port-hole, the writers arrive in Shanghai, their last stop of the trip. In the final pages of his travelogue, Isherwood reflects on the inability of any outsider to understand what goes on in the East. “And we ourselves, though we wear out our shoes walking the slums, though we take notes, though we are genuinely shocked and indignant, belong, unescapably, to the other world.” This “other world” he invokes is based in Shanghai’s foreign-owned concessions, a Westernized space of creature comforts and splendid debauchery. Confronted with this surreal split—a fissure he stops just short of calling by the name of colonialism—Isherwood writes that all the “liberal and humanitarian intellectual” can do is “wring his hands over all this and exclaim: 'Oh dear, things are so awful here—so complicated.’”11

Hankou train station, Wuhan. Photo by the author.
Hankou train station, Wuhan. Photo by the author.

It’s impossible to draw too neat a line from that “complicated” historical moment to this one, but when I think about these last few months, I think about Isherwood’s notion that there are two worlds to which we all “unescapably belong” and how enduring this sentiment can be. To call out China’s kleptocrats for covering up the early spread of COVID-19 or the continued, brutal suppression of dissidents is one thing, to suggest that America’s own version of a police-state is capable of treating its own citizens with care and justice is a myth these past few weeks have handily debunked. Now that the virus is arguably more associated with New York than Wuhan, now that protests have engulfed not just Hong Kong but Minneapolis (and so many spaces in between), we must consider why people in power on both sides of the Pacific insist on deferring responsibility to either a “septic” East or a canny, meddlesome West. We must set aside Isherwood’s image of two unassimilable worlds in order to focus on the shared features of our economic and political systems and how they’ve undone us. In other words, this moment should be viewed not just in terms of China and America or even viruses and humans, but in terms of a modernity released from all binary codes: all the portals we have built to circulate our weapons and our ideologies, our books and our clothes, our bodies and all the bodies we contain.

When the writer who wants to be a camera holds his shutter open for too long, what emerges, as even the most casual photographer could tell you, is an overexposed tangle of light and motion. Journey to a War ends in just such a jumble. The two travelers have made their way through a war-torn land, stood below “the monuments of an acquisitive society,” and seen their Western “refuge” revealed as a “sham.”12 At this point, a haunting sound starts to rise up from the streets of Shanghai. Auden doesn’t describe this sound in detail, though I hear it as a guttural lowing in the night, a call to embrace our never objective perspectives, to walk away from the port-hole’s illusion of distance and join the people congregating outside. This is the part of the book which haunts me, that part when Auden describes the “human cry,” that cry I think of as the collective gasp at a possible portal’s opening, that cry that says “’O teach me to outgrow my madness.’”13


1. Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020,

2. W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, Journey to a War (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 12.

3. Ibid. 220; 41; 148; 227.

4. Ibid. 162.

5. Ibid. 164-165.

6. Ibid. 225.

7. Christopher Isherwood, “Goodbye to Berlin,” in The Berlin Stories (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1954), 2.

8. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Picador, 2001).

9. Auden and Isherwood, Journey to a War, 62.

10. Ibid. 224.

11. Ibid. 242–243.

12. Ibid. 262

13. Ibid. 269.


Thomas Dai

is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is working towards his Ph.D. in American Studies at Brown.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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