Ma Jian

Overall Rating: 9
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Author: Ma Jian (马建)
Title: Red Dust. A Path Through China
Time: 1983
Destination: China, Myanmar
Length: three years
Type: backpacking

[Note: I’ve been reading an English translation. I got a copied Chinese version once, but I can’t find it anymore.]

a much needed vagabond

The story: We’re in the early 1980s in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China. MJ is a 30-year-old aspiring artist who works as a photographer for the propaganda department. His life is becoming difficult: he has a wife, but they have separated, and she took the child; he has a girlfriend, but she is with another man; he does prominent work in art circles, but the government is cracking down on them. So he decides to leave it all behind and go on a trip through the country.

Over the next three years, he drifts all over the place, going almost everywhere in 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. There is a lot of China in the story, and it is an interesting China, one that is at the watershed between Maoism and the reforms of the 1980s. But there is even more of MJ himself in there.

He drifts around, sometimes seemingly without aim and sometimes looking for his religious beliefs; there are (emotionally abusive) encounters with women and run-ins with the law, there is crime and art, and everything revolves around MJ himself, a confused man in a confused country. The book, with its poetic style and MJ’s search for himself, 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 I hated with a passion.

what makes this good

So what’s the difference between MJ and Kerouac, what is it that makes MJ’s travel writing good in my opinion? Well, it’s not as blurred, MJ’s storylines are much clearer, and his personal torment seems more relatable to me than that of Kerouac. In fact, sometimes MJ seems a bit like Charles Bukowski in the way that you can make out a soft core in a shell of machismo. I liked it.

If you are looking for a good travel book to keep you entertained, this one isn’t bad. It doesn’t get boring. If you’re looking for a glimpse into China in the early 1980s, however, this book is fantastic.

There is one instance where he talks about 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 of some leaves for mementoes.” (p.283)

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

I gave it a 9/10. Maybe because of China.

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