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“Going to the Land of Barbarians”: Nation, Ethnicity, and the Female Body in Late Qing and Republican Travel Writing on the Yunnan-Burma Borderlands

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This paper studies several travel accounts featuring transcultural and transnational experiences in the Yunnan-Burma borderlands where the British, Chinese, French and various indigenous peoples encountered each other, including Yangwentun xiaoyin, an anonymous “ballad” circulated in late Qing and Republican Yunnan, Ai Wu’s (1904–92) early fiction based upon his wanderings in Yunnan and Burma from 1925 to 1931, and Xiao Qian’s (1910–99) utopian “travelogue” featuring a European couple’s futuristic travel to the area. These writings illustrate the intersection of issues of nation, ethnicity, and gender, which are intertwined with the discourse of barbarism: On the one hand, their authors often express anxiety over threats to China’s dominance in this area; on the other, frequently resorting to the discourse of barbarism, these accounts, tinged with Sino-centrism, often exoticize and barbarize other cultures, particularly indigenous groups. The eroticized and racialized female body constitutes a privileged site of representation in these writings: On the one hand, travel writings often make a distinction between Han Chinese women and indigenous women, treating the latter as exotic, seductive, dangerous, and/or primitive; on the other hand, as the need to build a strong, modernized multi-ethnic nation became increasingly urgent, Republican authors began to “universalize” the female body, Chinese or indigenous, treating both as threatened and exploited by the Western “newcomer,” and thus are (potential) allies sharing a nationalist, anti-imperialist cause.


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