‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

Red-dust

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.

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4 thoughts on “‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

  1. Oh, your two problems with this book are exactly the problems I had with it as well. And personally, I find the first fault very hard to dismiss.

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  2. In fiction, I don’t mind narrative voices of unlikable characters, but in non-fiction it’s a bit harder to deal with. In Jian’s novel Beijing Coma the main character has a really arrogant voice, but I put that down to his youth and it kind of worked when set against his mother who is eccentric and kooky. But then when I started reading Red Dust I realised Jian was pretty much using the same voice and it was a bit harder to dismiss…

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  3. Thanks for the link/pingback. Interesting I didn’t talk about the arrogance/sexism in my review, because as soon as I read it in yours I remembered it. Presumably the issue of repetition swamped it for me when I was writing up the piece, and it’s emerged since more in memory.

    Kimbofo’s right that an unlikable voice is more of a problem in non-fiction. They become our travelling companion, and if they’re not pleasant to travel with the trip becomes a chore.

    Still, interesting. I think from that period of my reading the short story collection I Love Dollars stands up better.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Max. I read this book so long ago now… I went through a China phase in late 2010 when I took redundancy and did a little travelling… so it’s nice to be reminded of this book once again. I’ve not read his short story collection, but have it on my incredibly long wishlist. Have you ever read Beijing Coma? That was certainly a memorable book…

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