Ma Jian


a much needed vagabond

[note: I’ve been reading an English translation]

The story: in 1983, aspiring artist Ma Jian works as a photographer for the propaganda department in Beijing. His life is becoming difficult: his wife has left him and taken the child; his girlfriend is with another man; the government is cracking down on his work as an artist. He decides to leave it all behind and go on a trip through the country.

Over the next three years, he roams freely all over China, making a living by selling his artworks and stories wherever he can. Then he returns to Beijing.

the “on the road” thing

This is a very personal book. It can even seem a bit self-absorbed at times. Sure, there is a portrait of China in it, a country that find itself at the watershed between Maoism and the reforms of the 1980s. But there is even more of Ma himself in this book.

He drifts around aimlessly, at times contemplating philosophical questions, at other times encountering women and getting into trouble with the law. There is crime and there is art, and everything revolves around Ma himself, a confused man in a confused country.

The book, with its poetic style and Ma’s search for himself at the center, reminded me a bit of Vikram Seth or Nicolas Bouvier, which is a good thing. But I can also understand people who say it reminds them of Jack Kerouac and his stream-of-consciousness writing, which isn’t so good.

what makes this good

So what’s the difference between Ma and Kerouac?

For one thing, Ma’s personal torment seems more relatable to me than that of Kerouac. In fact, sometimes Ma reminded me a bit of Charles Bukowski in the way that there appears to be a sense of fragility hidden within in his machismo.

Also, his storylines are much clearer. Ma the traveler might be adrift, but Ma the writer never is, and his book doesn’t get confusing or boring.

And finally, if you’re looking for an honest insider’s perspective into China in the early 1980s, this book is fantastic.

There is one instance where Ma talks about his feelings during a brief detour into Myanmar:

I hired a guide in Xuelin to smuggle me across the Burmese border. We looped around the official border post and sneaked into Burma at Zuodu. The exhilaration of leaving China was overwhelming. I felt like an escaped prisoner. I tore off some leaves for mementoes.”

I think China’s time of confusion isn’t over yet, and it needs people like Ma Jian who write books like this one. China needs more storytelling vagabonds.

who might want to read this one

Ma’s feat of roaming all over China in the 1980s is cool. His storytelling is great, his writing style is awesome, and some of his observations and insights are very valuable.

If you want to read about China during the early transformational years in the 1980s, or if you are simply looking for an entertaining travel story, this is what you need.

Also read: John Pomfret, for a different look at China from the same time