This review first appeared on Vulpes Libris where I write a guest review on the first wednesday of every month.
Read: September/October 2009
The essence of good travel writing lies in duality: in the balance between the external journey through a physical landscape and the personal journey which takes place alongside it. It is not enough simply to travel through a country meeting people and visiting places, then recounting anecdotes so as to shed light on the nature and culture of that society. To do so is to forever remain an outsider looking in. Rather the best travel writing interrelates the landscapes, cultures and people to the parallel emotional journey of the writer so that the terrain of one moulds, shifts, and reacts with that of the other.
So it is with Red Dust, a book subtitled ‘A Path Through China’ but as much a tale of Ma Jian’s quest to find himself as an artist and a man as anything else. Because of this, his panoramic, three year tour of China provides a wonderful insight into the nature of that vast country and the people who live there. Through it all, from the emotional highs and moments of tranquillity surrounded by outstanding natural beauty to the lonely lows, near death experiences and horrendous acts of barbarism, he retains a clear perspective and reports what he sees and feels in a remarkably impartial manner. He is honest about his faults and those of his country, unapologetic about their successes. His is a search for answers to three specific questions: who is Ma Jian? what is China? And how do they relate to each other.
It all begins in 1983 as Ma turns thirty. Recently divorced, his ex-wife is now seeking custody of their daughter; his current girlfriend is sleeping with another man. By day he works in the Foreign Propaganda Department in Beijing, photographing the country in order to create books of images which will be presented to foreign diplomats. At night he moves in an artistic milieu of painters and poets whose gatherings have to take place quietly under cover of darkness to avoid detection by the police. These gatherings consist of lots of impotent jokes – a kid asks his dad, “Dad, why do we have a picture of Chairman Mao but no picture of the Communist Party?” And his dad says, “Because the Communist Party isn’t human” –poetry recitals, camaraderie, and life drawing exercises. All of which means that despite his best efforts Ma is very much on the state radar. With his long hair, gregarious lifestyle and denim jeans he does not fit the standards expected of a healthy young socialist. Economic development may be beginning to open up the country but with the newly launched Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution he can feel the authorities breathing down his neck.
"Everything is starting to change. China feels like an old tin of beans that having lain in the dark for forty years, is beginning to burst at the seems…Six years have passed since the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the cultural revolution. Deng Xiaoping is back in power, calling for ‘Four Modernisations’, private enterprise and foreign investment. He has liberated the economy, but continues to clamp down on all forms of dissent. When the activist Wei Jingsheng said the Four Modernisations were meaningless without the Fifth – democracy – he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to fifteen years in jail."
Despite artistic promise he does not have the political astuteness that is required of someone in his line of work. He causes a furore when failing to notice a patch of flaking paint in the foreground of a photo of Yangzi Bridge in Nanjing. He receives a heated ticking off when he chooses a yellow font on the front cover of a magazine. “You are trying to suggest that we are a federation of pornographic trade unions!” exclaims the irate section head of his work unit. It is all told with straight faced satire, an absurd situation which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so terrible.
Creatively stagnant, restless, and fearing arrest any day, he resigns his job and spends most of his money on a train ticket to the westernmost border of China. It is a journey which requires some forgery but which would have been near impossible only a few years earlier. And so begins his three year shoestring budget, 13,000mile plus tour of China. He survives thanks to the kindness of those he meets, and by making a bit of money by selling short stories and poems, or doing odd jobs in cities he passes through. Much of the time he walks vast distances alone. Sometimes he goes days without eating, or months without washing. He is absurdly ill-prepared for the journeys he takes, and seems unwilling to learn that it is not wise to set off across a desert at night with only a compass, small back pack and a couple of bottles of water. He treats his escapades with almost flippant disregard, yet his survival instinct and slippery loner tendencies demonstrate a man of rare tenacity. He is a man existing for existences sake, travelling for the sake of travelling, searching for himself everywhere he goes without a plan of where to go next. He is an engaging, amazing, enthralling character.
Most travelogues are written by foreigners travelling the country with a purpose in mind, usually to uncover the hidden heart of a place so as to advance understanding of it. It is so refreshing to view China from the inside, from a native who has spent their whole life there and yet still finds shocks and surprises on an almost daily basis. Ma Jian has the cultural understanding of a native but the wide eyed amazement of an outsider: he is both. He gives us an insight into how an educated Han is perceived in different areas of the country, from indigenous tribes of the Burmese border to the intellectuals he meets along the way. And because he is travelling in a country where people do not travel, he remains perpetually on the outside of life, viewed with amazement, welcome and distrust wherever he goes.
It is not a criticism per se, but it is his footloose approach to his travels which I found most difficult about Red Dust. It is not the most purposeful of books to read, there is no narrative arc or sense of where it is going at all. While it is subtitled ‘A Path Through China’ Red Dust would perhaps be better conceived as ‘Paths around and around China.’ It sat by my bedside for almost a month as I read five or ten pages per night before bed without ever becoming fully engaged. It reads as an endless series of encounters set within a greater spiritual journey but which has no discernable sense of progress. He is in search of Buddhist enlightenment and dreams of travelling to Tibet but never seems to make much effort to get there. His wanderings are captured in an anecdote he recounts when visiting a village in remote South Western China. There they tell him about an American pilot who landed there in the 1940s and was kept as a slave by the local tribe for 9 years before finally escaping and going home.
"The American pilot was able to stay here all those years because he had a goal in life: he wanted to go home. I have no such goal, so I must keep walking."
So it is. The lack of purpose is the greatest strength and most awkward weakness of this fascinating, though not always easy to read, book. There is an occasional tension between past and present tenses which irritated me and provided another barrier to a smooth reading experience. But in the end, he does learn something of himself. At last, after nearly three years of travelling and an enthrallingly terrifying journey through the borderlands of Burma he reaches Tibet. There he seeks Buddhist enlightenment only to find disappointment. Buddhism, he concludes, cannot solve the problems of man. “From now on I will hold to no faith. I can only strive to save myself. Man is beyond salvation.” The answers he has sought throughout his travels do not exist. It is the most enthralling, poignant and rewarding part of the book. It rectifies any flaws in the structure and leaves you with a cathartic sense of culmination, or the start of a new passage in his life. His journey has come full circle. The answer to the great myth of life has taken the form of another question. And all he can do is hope.
"In the middle of the night I lie awake on the metal bed under two thin quilts, shivering with cold. A wind howls through the rain and snow outside. This stinking body no longer belongs to me, my mind is as empty as a plastic bag caught in the high wind. Suddenly, I think of Beijing, and realise that although it is crammed with police, at least there is a bed and pillow waiting for me there. I came to Tibet hoping to find answers to all my unasked questions, but I have discovered that even when the questions are clear, there are no clear answers. I am sick of travelling. I need to hold onto something familiar, even if it is just a tea cup. I cannot survive in the wilds – nature is infinite but my life has bounds. I need to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women. I left Beijing because I wanted to be alone and to forge my own path, but I know now that no path is solitary, we all tread across other people’s beginnings and ends. I have stopped here, not because the Himalayas stand in the way, but because my inward journey has reached its end. In fact, we all tread a path – the gold-digger, the coil-remover, Myima who left her turquoise behind and rose to the sky. We are just travelling in different directions, that’s all."
7 out of 10