Observer Review: Red Dust By Ma Jian Essay, Research Paper
Dust of a nationRed Dust: A Path Through ChinaMa JianChatto & Windus ?12, pp324On 18 August 1983 the Chinese poet and painter Ma Jian turns 30. His ex-wife has just pronounced him a political criminal and forbidden him to see his daughter. His girlfriend has taken up with a convict and betrayed him to the police. His painting is no good: ‘Not one of his paintings,’ notes a colleague, ‘conveys the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations.’ He has long hair and wears denim. The director of his work unit condemns him in front of his fellows: ‘His lax, free-wheeling lifestyle… shows all the signs of the Spiritual Pollution the central authorities have been telling us about.’ The noose is tightening around young Ma. Arrests and executions are on the increase. Time for prudence, it would seem, for some corrective behaviour. Instead, Ma Jian takes to the road. He packs his camera, some rice coupons, a little money and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and for three years wanders the hinterland of China. Red Dust is the account of these travels. 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. The journey is by no means easy. The traveller’s troubles are here in spades – illness, flea bites, extreme cold and extreme heat, hunger, exhaustion, the police. He is robbed. He is attacked by dogs. In the wastes of the Chaidam Basin he is forced to drink his own urine to survive. Three days lost in the Gobi drives him to the brink of madness. At one point, on the very edge of China, he narrowly escapes being washed down the Salween river to the waiting guns of two sets of border guards – his own and those of the Burmese. But the greatest of all the traveller’s hardships is disappointment. Before he left Beijing, Ma Jian took his Buddhist vows. The goal of all his wanderings is that vast, open-roofed temple of the Tibetan plateau. There he finds a people corrupted and embittered by occupation. When the Dalai Lama fled into exile, he remarks, he must have taken the best lamas with him. Worse, as a Han, Ma is the object of the Tibetans’ own hatred. He even questions his own claims to be a Buddhist. He is weary of the road. At the end of his journey he says: ‘I need to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women.’ He now lives in London with Flora Drew, who has expertly translated his book. Red Dust is at once a sustained poetic meditation and a portrait of a nation – a continent-sized nation – in flux. From its pages China’s landscape emerges with filmic clarity. Images are snapped, building frame by frame into an impression of dizzying strangeness. The human landscape is no less alien. Ma Jian rolls from place to place, a loose cog in the rapidly overheating machine of Deng’s People’s Republic. In each town trade is increasing. Everyone is selling something – rope, cats, last year’s calendars, next week’s brides. Ma survives his odyssey by joining in. He buys scissors and a comb and becomes a roadside hair-cutter. In Yanan – where a generation or so earlier Chairman Mao completed his own 6,000-mile Long March – Ma makes little wraps of scouring powder, slips a bribe to the street inspector and sells them as ‘Miracle Teeth Whitener’. The whole nation, he senses, is ’starting to shake, like a kettle coming to the boil’. In its roguishness and its spiritual questing, Red Dust owes something to Meetings with Remarkable Men. But whereas Gurdjieff begins by specifically condemning all those who labour at prose style, Ma Jian paints his scenes with a deceptive and delicate artistry. At times he pushes at the bounds of credibility. The figure of 200,000 executions during the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution looks high. There is a moment when, lost in the jungle and hounded by militiamen, he is saved by a hovering ball of fire that leads him 12 miles to safety. But these flights of fancy are rare. Ma Jian’s Chinese journey and his writing are an exhilarating combination. In the past decade or so, China has become the wild card in the pack of nations. Red Dust provides no answers to its enigmas, no neat generalisations, no sweeping predictions. It simply succeeds in flashing a torchlight at the mountain – reminding us of the country’s scale, its shadows and its otherness. Above all, it is a dissident’s tale, a rite of passage from protest to pragmatism. On his travels Ma encounters Maoists, Daoists, Confucianists and Buddhists. He experiments with qi gong. In the province of Gansu he becomes resident sage to a family, and throughout his journey he offers a series of authorial asides full of quiet wisdom. But in a country about to exchange the crippling convictions of its leaders for the empty promises of the market, he remains a doubter. His scepticism and irony make his musings palatable to a Western ear. It is no surprise that he could no longer live in China.