In this skillfully constructed
(London) Financial Times
If you have time to read only one book on China this year, choose Red Dust.
Red Dust is a tour de force, a powerfully picaresque cross between the sort of travel book any Western author would give his eye-teeth to write and a disturbing confession. Ma's dissidence is at once idiosyncratic and conservative. He does not want China propelled into an American future; he seeks greater freedoms but refuses to believe such freedoms add up to anything much in the material world.
This is a beautiful, disturbing read -- a new Wild Swans. It is a wonderful book -- part Matsuo Basho, part Jung Chang, part allegory -- one of those rare travelogues that manages to transcend its subject and evoke the leaf-blown qualities of a peripatetic life. Red Dust is at once a sustained poetic meditation and a portrait of a continent-sized nation in flux. From its pages China's landscape emerges with filmic clarity. Ma Jian's Chinese journey and his writing are an exhilarating combination.
Ma Jian's writing is a revelation, an insider's account of a country permeated in every paragraph by a rebel's sensitivity. His writing has a picaresque quality, unforgettably conjuring images of a continually changing landscape where the only constant is hardship, struggle, and ideological confusion.
In 1983, squirming under constant government scrutiny and mourning a failed marriage, writer and photographer Jian abandons his home in Beijing to journey to China's western border with little more than a change of clothes, two bars of soap, a notebook, a camera and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It is the beginning of an arduous three-year voyage that takes him not only through little-traveled regions of China, Myanmar and Tibet, but through a careful examination of what it means to be a Buddhist, to live in post-Mao China and to exist in his own skin. A skilled storyteller, Jian narrates in prose that is spare and often beautiful his encounters with people who live in a region that "even today... is a place of banishment, populated by political prisoners, descendents of Turkic migrants, and the ghosts of buried cities." From the night he spends crammed under a bus seat next to a pile of dirty socks and clucking hens to his escape from Chinese militiamen who mistake him for a Burmese spy, Jian tells a powerful story that is no mere travelogue. Indeed, his journey exposes him to so many risks getting bitten by sheepdogs in the grasslands along the Yellow River, drinking foul lake water that knocks him unconscious that the sheer number of life-threatening incidents begins to dull their impact. Still, Jian offers a revealing, riveting portrait of a Chinese citizen who seeks truth and honesty in a society in which such a quest can be grounds for punishment. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Although billed as a travelog, this perceptive memoir represents a spiritual as much as a geographical journey. In the early 1980s, Jian, a writer, poet, painter, and photographer, became dispirited with his work and personal life in Beijing and set out on a three-year voyage across some of China's most remote areas in an attempt to learn about himself by learning more about his homeland. On the journey through China to Tibet, he visited mountains, deserts, lakes, Buddhist monasteries, a leprosy camp, overpopulated cities, and small villages, encountering unusual as well as straightforward characters along the way. This book, which has not been published in China, is an attempt to portray post-Mao China as seen through the eyes of a wandering man. And the one-man viewpoint interwoven throughout is certainly an important part of its appeal. Clearly not a conventional travel book for tourists contemplating a trip to China, this insightful and heartfelt rendition of China's far-flung landscapes is recommended for all libraries, especially those with specialized collections on China and Asia. Melinda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, CO Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
An extraordinary-and offbeat-insider's account of life in post-Mao, pre-Tiananmen China. Born in 1953, Ma Jian had a wife, a child, and a good job working as an artist and propagandist for a government trade-union organization. But he wasn't satisfied living in a China that "feels like an old tin of beans that having lain in the dark for forty years, [and] is beginning to burst at the seams." Unwisely, he let his disaffection be known by growing his hair long, hanging out with dissident artists, and having a fling or two. His actions caught up with him: his wife divorced him, while his section heads brought him in for endless, surreal self-criticism sessions-one deputy accusing him of using a splotch of yellow paint to "suggest that we are a federation of pornographic trade unions." Ma took an unlikely course by simply walking away, traveling hobo-style through the western desert, down to the China Sea coast, and eventually to Tibet, where he kept out of trouble with the oppressed, Chinese-detesting locals by passing himself off as a citizen of Hong Kong. Spinning a single narrative, he collects notes on all he saw and did. Always a step ahead of the law, always with a fresh eye, blending in with the crowd, he was able to see things forbidden to Western travelers, from out-of-the-way oases to sometimes unpleasant scenes of daily life ("I went in and ordered a bowl of mutton noodles. They were quite filling, but I kept thinking of the sheep's head I saw bubbling in the pot"). Out among the cutthroats, brigands, shamans, and rural unemployed, Ma kept clear of the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution for three years, living a grand life of adventure. How he managed eventually to wanderback into Beijing and resume a more or less ordinary life is a matter, presumably, for another book-one that readers will eagerly await.
From the Publisher
“Honest, raw, insightful. . . . The Chinese equivalent of On the Road.” –Time
“[Ma’s] powers of description make every page buzz with life. . . . Someone who could rank among the great travel writers.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A Sino-beatnik travelogue, [and] a fascinating search for self.” –Mother Jones
“Red Dust is a tour de force, a powerfully picaresque cross between the sort of travel book any Western author would give his eye-teeth to write, and a disturbing confession.” –The Independent (UK)
“Ma captures the feel of wandering off China’s beaten track, which is to say most of the country, far from the tour buses and souvenir stands.” –Los Angeles Times