Red Dust

by Ma Jian

44 Reviews
A book surrounded by dinosaurs

Review: Red Dust (2001), by Ma Jian. Arrangement by Francis Tann. June 2021.

Reading time: 4 minutes

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June 30th at 3:32pm

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The writing of certain types of intellectuals is elusive.

Scattered. Indefinite. A little odd.

Ma Jian is one such intellectual. Red Dust, a memoir of his travels through communist China in the mid 1980s, is not a bourgeois book. It is neither clear, nor conventional, nor exciting, but, strangely, it's enjoyable.

Ma doesn't take a picture of himself standing on the Great Wall, arms outstretched in fake joy.

Ma (his last name) doesn't take pictures of himself standing on the Great Wall, arms outstretched in fake joy. This isn't China's hidden gems, complete with travel hacks to get you checking items off your Far East bucket list!

Background on this series is here.

We do see what it's like to travel like a local, though, albeit one who occasionally sleeps in trees. We learn that the water of Sugan Lake in southwestern China might be fatal if you drink more than a few mouthfuls, or if you have bad breath, orange soda makes it all go away after you have sex in a park.

A book surrounded by dinosaurs

The pincers reminded Francis of the ends of the roof on the cover.

A book surrounded by dinosaurs

Ma slept in a tree and was awakened, he thinks, by bears.

More important, Red Dust shows us a man witnessing slow disintegration almost everywhere he looks: himself, his family, his career, and the country. They're all falling apart in some way.

I... think. Whether it's the translation, the culture of Deng Xiaoping's China, or Ma's intellectual, narrative voice, I'm not always 100% sure what's going on.

Begin in Beijing

We meet the author as a thirty-something journalist - propagandist, more accurately - in the capital. He takes photographs and writes articles for Workers of China and Workers' Daily.

A divorced father of one, he sees his daughter rarely. In his private time, he writes poetry and short stories, reads Western literature, and hosts parties for artists and critics. He's also surveilled and interrogated by the Public Security Bureau for his "spiritual pollution."

"The scrambled eggs I ordered are riddled with flies. I ask the waitress when the eggs were cooked. She says yesterday, so I tell her to bloody well heat them up again."

Ma eventually decides to leave Beijing. Typical for this book, the idea is introduced, but not explored in any meaningful way. Ma's airy brevity is the opposite of the first half of Eat Pray Love, where Liz Gilbert explores every contour of the thoughts and fears running through her head. Ma's vague explanations tend to be equally exasperating.

Tragedy precipitates Ma's actual departure. A dancer whom he may have loved is stabbed and almost dies. He acknowledges he is "blank and numb" as he visits her in the hospital.

The next day, the author is on a train to Urumqi. He later admits, "I don't know where I'm going, I just know I had to leave."

He goes everywhere

Up, down, and around the country he goes - for three years, often on foot - through cities like Chengdu, Qingdao, and Shenzen, countless villages, and uninhabited spaces. Unless you are familiar with Chinese geography, the localities blur together quickly.

A book surrounded by dinosaurs

Ma claims his dead grandfather helped him along his journey.

A pattern soon emerges: Ma arrives in a village with no plans or prior communications. He visits the local propagandist, a party functionary, or an old friend, and they provide him with a room in their home or a hostel. He shares a meal with his host, talks about poetry or life in Beijing, and goes to sleep in a dirty bed.

The next day, he visits a tourist site or market, reads his mail, writes, and maybe works an odd job. (At various times, he cuts hair, makes couches, and sells scarves or tooth powder.)

"The room warms up once the door is closed, but the smell of charcoal smoke and dirty feet is so strong I have to soak my nostrils in tiger lotion."

And Stays Busy

Ma does other things, too. He gives lectures at a couple of universities. He admires his female friends, and his male friends' wives. He pushes a bike across the desert, and the tires explode from the heat. He learns vivid details of the horrors of country doctor abortions. He is mugged, then befriends the thieves in order to beat them senseless. He visits a leper colony. He's accused of espionage and escapes from his second-floor holding room in the middle of the night. While visiting a tomb, the educated fool pees in the wind and, yes, it's blown right back into his face.

Throughout his travels, Ma notes his physical ailments and discomforts. Ulcers in his throat, dust and dirt that he chokes on, frostbite, extreme weight loss, diarrhea and fever from bad yak butter, flea and mosquito bites - at times, it's as if China itself, its very air and soil, is attacking him.

In five pages near the end of Red Dust, some crazy shit happens. Like, survive the torrents of a raging river, almost fall off a cliff, have the spirit of your dead grandfather shine a fireball to light the way kind of shit. But this burst of excitement is the exception, not the rule.

Gina Says:

  • I've hit my limit of hearing about the smell of dirty feet.
  • If you start stocking up on orange Fanta, I'm going to know something's up.
  • I'm not upset that I missed China in the 80s.

Eventually, the author ends up in Nepal.

He hates Nepal

Ma understands why the natives dislike the Han Chinese, even though their aggression annoys him.

As a Buddhist, he finds the venality of the clergy off-putting, and some parts of the theology philosophically inadequate. After attending a "sky burial," where vultures devour the deceased's body, Ma is ready to leave. He has also abandoned Buddhism. "I will hold to no faith," he tells us.

Ma's vague explanations tend to be equally exasperating.

The Weird Passages

In addition to the backward state of Deng's China, another challenge for the reader is to wade through Ma's observations. They can be strange, pompous, revolting, and funny all at the same time.

  • In a hostel: "The room warms up once the door is closed, but the smell of charcoal smoke and dirty feet is so strong I have to soak my nostrils in tiger lotion. The man in the purple jumper sells peacock feathers for a living. He says business is bad."
  • At a restaurant: "The scrambled eggs I ordered are riddled with flies. I ask the waitress when the eggs were cooked. She says yesterday, so I tell her to bloody well heat them up again."
  • At one of his lectures, in an intellectual's wet dream of a declaration which sounds cool but is absurd: "Love can only exist in death, because only death is eternal."

The Fleeting People

The book contains a list of Ma's friends, but they are difficult to place in context and thus, for me at least, difficult to recall. The author has a similar problem, particularly with the women he encountered: "My memories start to slip away," he says toward the end. "The names... drift through my mind, but I cannot put faces to them."

An old map of a part of China

These maps could have been more helpful.

A book surrounded by dinosaurs

Ma almost dies crossing a desert.

Then Ma makes a significant admission - not surprising, but, because of his impressionist self-analysis, not expected, either: "If one of [those women] still loved me, I would not have to live this vagrant life."

He has even chosen one, but it's too late; a letter informs him she has moved to America. "I had planned to travel to Hangzhou next week," he laments, "and tell her... I am ready to give her all of my love."

Return to Beijing

As his bus leaves Lhasa for the capital, Ma acknowledges he is "returning to the dirty crowd of the city." But, he says, "I am not afraid of them anymore. They cannot hurt me now. I have changed."

Ma never seemed particularly afraid of cities or crowds, however. He liked to jog in Beijing, and he maintained his composure impressively when interrogated by the Public Security Bureau before his trip. Ma has an affinity for breezy platitudes. I gave him a pass on this one.

In other ways, though, his travels do affect him: he abandons Buddhism and falls in love, even if the woman does not love him back. Those are not insignificant changes.

Whether it's the translation, the culture of Deng Xiaoping's China, or Ma's narrative voice, I'm not always 100% sure what's happening.

The most important change is that Ma is one step closer to true clarity.

During a lecture to the Guiyang Teachers' Book Club, earlier in the book, Ma is asked about the classic novel A Dream of Red Mansions . He replies, "When [our dream life] shatters, we wake up and see through the red dust of illusion."

On the bus, the author is excited to return home to Beijing and its famous red houses - but sometime between the late 80s and 1997, when China takes possession of Hong Kong, his dream life shatters. He sees through the red dust of communist illusion and leaves for England, where he currently lives.

Ma's books are now banned in China, and he is barred from visiting his homeland.

Click here to list the 44 Reviews which have already been published.

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