It is only when you take control of your life that you know you are alive.

Red Dust, by Ma Jian

The line between novel and memoir can be a tricky one. As I write this, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Rcoom is shortlisted for the Booker. It’s been argued that it shouldn’t be eligible for that prize, and that it’s not a novel at all but simply a travelogue or memoir.

I’ve not read In a Strange Room yet, though I plan to. It’s not the only book though where that issue arises. Red Dust is a book by Chinese writer and dissident Ma Jian. Like In a Strange Room it’s a travel memoir that reads like a novel, which raises the question of which exactly it is. In a sense it’s both. Memory after all is unreliable and only Ma Jian knows how much of what he wrote is true.

In 1983 Ma Jian set out on a road trip across China. He spent three years travelling, frequently destitute and carrying with him only his forged papers, his camera and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This book is his account of those years.

My description above makes Red Dust sound like a more recent On the Road (or Down and Out in Beijing and Xian), but it’s much darker than that. Jian goes on a search for spiritual fulfilment, but what he finds only challenges his faith. What drives him out isn’t existential angst, but political pressure. This is not Eat, Pray, Love territory.

Jian is a painter and a propaganda worker (nobody in 1980s China lives by art alone). His social circle in Beijing consists of other painters, writers and poets but the social climate has turned against them and a new campaign against “Spiritual Pollution” has been launched. Jian is out of touch with the times, his paintings do not show “the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations”.

Jian’s book is unsparing about the brutalities of what he refers to openly as “communist tyranny”. There is a chilling early section where he is instructed to attend a “self-criticism” session at work. It goes poorly, and soon after he is interviewed by the police:

After lunch, as I sit at my desk reading my post, Director Zhang walks in and says, ‘You are wanted at the Public Security Bureau.’ I look round and see two policemen standing in the doorway. It is dawn three days later before I am finally released from the Western District Public Security Bureau. The officer who walks me to the gates says, ‘Don’t look so pleased with yourself. If we want to, we can make you slowly disappear.’

China then, and I believe now, has no freedom of internal travel. To leave Beijing Jian needs introduction papers that he can show to party officials as he travels. He forges some himself (he is after all an artist) and leaves Beijing. Soon after his wife denounces him as a political criminal and denies him access to his only child.

Jian’s journey takes him across China. He visits other artists and writers, stays with them and exchanges letters with friends back home. This is where the book’s key problem lies. There is a certain repetition in Jian arriving somewhere completely broke; getting put up by a friend; observing their domestic arrangements and the compromises they’ve each reached between their art and the state; and then heading on.

That repetitive element meant that there were times reading Red Dust when I quite simply got bored. As a rule, I have no stronger criticism of a book than that it bored me. Even so, I finished Red Dust and I’m glad I did. I think it’s worth reading, and with the caveat that at times it needs a bit of a push to get through I’d recommend it to others.

The reason that I’d recommend it is because it is utterly unsparing in its depiction of China. It captures a street-level ugliness and squalor that makes for difficult reading but at the same time it shows too the beauty of much of China. There is a contrast here between the country itself as a physical place, the character of some of its ordinary people, and against both the intolerance of the state and its officials.

There is sand in the air but the sky is still blue. In the middle of the traffic island a statue of a flying apsara plays a lute behind her back. She twists round with a beatific smile, one leg in the air, as horse-drawn carts, bicycles and buses circle around her. Apsaras are Buddhist nymphs who float through the air trailing garlands of diaphanous silk. Unlike Christian angels, they do not need wings to fly. The bright banner suspended between two telegraph poles behind her says FIRST CHILD: COIL, SECOND CHILD: ABORTION, THIRD CHILD: HYSTERECTOMY. The blood-red characters turn my stomach.

Ma Jian is not a wise traveller. More than once he sets out across a mountain pass or a desert without making remotely sensible preparations, and more than once he comes very close to dying. He runs out of money and ends up doing whatever work he can find, cutting hair in the street or labouring. He has occasional success with women, but his need to keep moving means that he has little by way of solid relationships.

Against this background Jian seeks to find some kind of meaning to his life. He is a Buddhist, and seeks out sacred sites in the hope of finding some kind of inspiration. Mostly he finds priests who charge for photos and either neglected sites or ones overrun with tourists. At one point he comments “When you work for the Party, you have to learn to falsify reality.” He looks for that reality in the wilderness, but finds it is merely uncomfortable, dangerous and lonely.

Jian leaves a Beijing which is a mix of unhappy memories, artistic frustrations and official repression. The desert is filled only with ghosts and fragments of sacred history that he keeps not quite being able to reach or see. He is tormented by the loss of access to his daughter and as his journey continues his friends’ back in Beijing’s lives move on so that he becomes increasingly distant from them. How can you travel like this for so long and remain able to connect with those you left behind?

Ma Jian is a talented writer, and his partner Flora Drew has produced an excellent translation. There are some fine descriptive passages and as I read the book the bad breath, foul odours, filth and squalor were all too easy to picture. It’s not just grime and misery though, there are passages also describing mountains, deserts and also ordinary life which are a pleasure to read.

On the third day I reach Luqu, a small village consisting of a few mud houses scattered along a straight stretch of road. There are trucks parked on the verge and horses tied to posts. I step into the village shop, buy a fizzy orange and sit drinking it on a large sack of flour by the doorway. Tibetan herders stream in to buy chillies, tea, oil, cigarettes. When it comes to settling the bill they empty their money onto the counter, let the shopkeeper take what he needs, then stuff the remainder into their pockets.

In the end though, it is not the description of Tibetan herders that stays with me. When Jian reaches Tibet he finds it ruled by a priest class filled with illiterates many of whom seem to have little interest beyond filling their bellies. He expects something better there than what he left in mainland China, but in both places everyday life is subject to the whims of a self-appointed group that seems both out of touch and profoundly ignorant.

There is one other challenge in reading Red Dust that is worth mentioning, besides the occasional feel of repetition I referred to earlier. As discussed above, Jian is very good at description. The problem is that often what he has to describe is horrific. I can’t speak to how true any of the book’s contents remain, well over thirty years have passed since this journey after all. That said, some parts definitely remain distinctly relevant today:

Public executions take place throughout China in the run-up to National Day. I have grown up reading these death notices and have attended several executions. I once watched an army truck stop, a young man called Lu Zhongjian come out, handcuffed, and two soldiers escort him away. When he started to scream, they slung a metal wire over his mouth and tugged it back, slicing through his face. Then they kicked him to the ground and shot three bullets into his head. His legs flailed and his shoe flew into the air. A year later I married his girlfriend. I only found out they had been lovers when I discovered his death notice hidden at the back of Guoping’s drawer.

I’ve omitted quotes about flies crawling from food served in a restaurant, or worst of all about the truly horrific abortion procedures for unmarried mothers.

Even with those omissions, I’ve quoted a lot from this one. That’s partly because of the breadth of territory it covers, partly because I read it on a Kindle and it was a bit too easy to select quotes, and partly because I’m blogging it over a fortnight after finishing it (I find it harder to concisely capture a book if time has passed).

I’m going to end though on one final quote, which I think sums up Jian’s journey. In a Western book of this kind we would expect Jian to have some sort of personal revelation, some spiritual reward. Jian is searching for reality, and so feels no need to provide the reader with any such comforting myth.

‘Sorry, which way is the bathroom?’ I push the table towards Wu Jian and squeeze out. The elderly neighbours are chatting in the cool of the dark corridor. I find a relatively clean corner of the latrines, pull down my trousers and scratch my thighs. A lump of someone’s fresh turd steams by my feet. I look at the city through the cracked window pane, and know that every room is crammed with bodies and each body is dripping with sweat. I feel a longing for the empty grasslands and the cruel deserts. At least the air was clean there. Now that I have sunk into this steaming city, everything seems familiar and ordinary.

Red Dust. While writing this I also found an interesting interview with Ma Jian, which is here.


Filed under Chinese, Jian, Ma, Travel writing

28 responses to “It is only when you take control of your life that you know you are alive.

  1. This didn’t quite fit in the review, but I thought it interesting how reading several Chinese books in quick succession has helped them shed light on each other.

    Red Dust is a very familiar reference to a Chinese reader (I believe). Not so to me. Ma Jian at one point has this bit of dialogue:

    ‘Sentient beings, lost in the red dust of the world, …”

    Which in the context of a search for Buddhist truth does shed some light. Death of a Red Heroine though had this passage:

    what is the red dust?”
    “Just this mundane world, where the ordinary folk like us live.”

    Which is a lot more illuminating. The original source is the Chinese classic Dreams of a Red Chamber, which is discussed quite a lot by the characters in Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Cao’s assistant’s wife is a fan).

    Also, Death of a Red Heroine is of course about the murder of a National Model Worker. Red Dust has at one point this passage, which sheds additional light on DoaRH:

    “I remember coming to Chengdu a few years ago to interview a model worker. His room was so small I had to create a living room in a corner of his factory and take the pictures there.”

    One of the real rewards of reading these Chinese books together has been the way each has helped me understand the other. It helps them become not just an assortment of novels, short stories and memoirs but a body of literature with common sources and inspirations. Of course, having read a bare handful means I will understand very little, but I think it has helped me understand more than I otherwise would have.

  2. Another point of similarity of course is that in Death of a Red Heroine Inspector Cao is a poet who becomes a policeman because jobs are assigned and nobody lives by art alone. In Red Dust, the fact that all the artists and writers also have day jobs is a key element.

    Generally, Red Dust reflects very well on the research in Death of a Red Heroine.

  3. While this sounds haunting, I don’t think I’ll read it. Did the book touch on organ transplants at all? I wondered that when the author mentioned the young man shot in the streets.

    Good point about the merging of memoir and novel–I know I’ve read something that matches that description.

  4. Not as I recall Guy, thankfully. The abortion sequence I cut was truly horrible so organ transplants wouldn’t have been much fun. There are parts of this which make very hard reading. I suspect he’d have included that if he could but he probably didn’t encounter it.

    Yes, they can be very thin lines. Personally from what I’ve seen of it I’d be very happy with the Galgut as a Booker winner. It doesn’t seem a memoir in the classic sense, it clearly has a novelistic quality.

  5. I’ve edited the post to insert the picture, which I forgot originally.

    Don’t be enticed or put off by the Wild Swans quote on the front. They have nothing in common. I suspect that either that was the only other book about China the blurb writer knew or they were seriously pressed for space in their review and needed some radical shorthand to get across an idea of what it was about.

  6. I’m scheduled to read the Galgut book for Mostly Fiction. I’m not much of a follower of theBooker, but even with my small familiarity with that prize, it seems an odd choice for a contender.

  7. leroyhunter

    Quite a life Ma Jian has had. I like the cover as well (bar the blurb).

    Like Guy I’m not sure if this is one I’m rushing out for Max, the other Chinese work you’ve covered attracts me more.

    I should also say that the Galgut book is in no way a memoir: there’s no confusion on that point at all. It’s beautifully crafted fiction and that was crystal clear to me reading it. I find the whole memoir/fiction thing a red herring (in this case), although if someone wanted to argue it was 3 (longish) short stories rather then a novel they might be able to make a case.

    I’m fascinated to see what you both make of it…

  8. I’d probably suggest reading the others first myself to be honest Leroy. I’m pleased I read this and I did find it rewarding (particularly in the context of my other reading) but I can certainly see why others might not rush out.

    The Galgut/memoir thing I mentioned as I’ve seen it raised. Until I saw others raise it though it hadn’t even occurred to me to see it as other than a novel. I’ve read the first few pages and if I’d been looking for a memoir I’d have felt quite let down. As a novel though, it looks tremendous.

  9. Great review, Max, but like the others, I’ll probably not rush out to read it in preference for other books. I’ve read a few novels – and one or two memoirs – by Chinese writers and they can be quite scary, really, in terms of the lack of freedom and all that attends that.

    BTW: I totally agree with this comment you made “(I find it harder to concisely capture a book if time has passed)”. I find the same…you would think that after time the “essence” of a work would sink in so you can cut to the chase but it doesn’t seem to work that way for me either.

  10. LaurencePritchard


    I think I’ll give this a go.

    Have you read any of the novels? I think there’s a short story collection The Noodle Maker too.

  11. Hi WG. Scary is right. The Chinese fiction I’ve been reading is often both bleak and rather brutal. I’ve enjoyed it, but not always easy reading.

    Laurence, this is my first. The interview I link to at the end of my review above talks a lot about The Noodle Maker though. I actually wonder if it wouldn’t be a better place to start with him. The description reminds me rather of elements of I Love Dollars which if you’re reading this may also be worth your reading.

  12. Here is my problem with this kind of Chinese literature (and it certainly is not a comment on this particular author or book). The Western world only wants to publish literature from dissidents who have left the country and obviously have a negative point of view. While I appreciate the value of that perspective, I think it is very incomplete — does anyone think George Galloway presents a fair picture of the UK? But he is every bit as representative as these dissident writers (and yes I see a US agenda in promoting them) are.

    That’s why I will give this book a miss. I am much more interested in the works of those who still live there.

  13. The difficulty is Kevin, frequently the reason they’ve left is because they wrote books like this while there. Ma Jian left China when China banned his books. To continue writing he had to leave.

    That said, Zhu Wen who wrote I Love Dollars is I think still there (though I could be wrong) and while highly critical isn’t a dissident writer. He was part of a literary movement, a radical one but not one that was (to my knowledge, I’ve only investigated so far) the subject of major repression.

    He’s now a respected film director, so if you’re looking for internal voices he I think probably is one and his fiction is internal fiction rather than external dissident fiction. For all that, his take on China isn’t a world away from Ma Jian’s.

    I’m reminded slightly of Soviet era Russian fiction. What we got abroad was dissident fiction, but in part that’s because most who wrote fiction internally that didn’t serve a propaganda purpose fared poorly (it caused huge problems for Soviet SF, after all the future was utopian, fictional alternatives suggested you weren’t a believer). My impression is that until relatively recently, in China you were a state writer or a dissident writer, few other choices existed.

  14. All that said, if there are Chinese Rachel Cusks or Chinese Michael Chabons then absolutely, we know nothing of them and for reasons that are in part political (and in part laziness and in part commercial pressure from reader expectations) we won’t know anything about them any time soon.

    Perhaps in 10 or 20 years, but first there needs I suspect to be a breakthrough Chinese writer. A Chinese Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto who sees a widespread Western readership and sparks interest to see what else is happening. That too though is difficult when there is such an existing expectation of what Chinese fiction is, Japanese fiction was more of an unknown which in some ways made breaking through probably easier.

    I would still mention Zhu Wen though, his biggest influence to me seemed to be Kafka, which is as close as we’ll get for some while to someone driven to write for reasons that aren’t inherently political (or no more political than Kafka, which was I suppose quite political).

  15. Max: Both your comments make a lot of sense — I think the second in particular strikes a responsive chord with me. After all, I can hardly complain about a one-sided view when in fact there is only one side writing (and I certainly accept your point that leaving the country was a price that had to be paid). So I guess my concern is that there is an incomplete picture being presented, as good as the elements of it are. That is not anyone’s fault — at the moment, it is all that there is.

  16. i’ve read this along with his the noodle maker last year and found both interesting. while i don’t agree with his political stance, i must laud his attempt at depicting the other side of china’s reentry into the axis of global capitalism.

  17. How did the Noodle Maker hold up as a work of fiction Karlo?

  18. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Elizabeth von Arnim « Whispering Gums

  19. You say that his journey is spurred on by political unrest and not existential angst (existangst?) so I’m wondering, as a reader who keeps a copy of it by his bedside like some do the bible, where does Leaves of Grass enter into the picture? Is this detail purely color or does Jian interact with Whitman in some sort of thematic way?

    Pardon me if the question is a little beside the point.

  20. Brendan,

    It’s not just colour, it’s referred to frequently and as a source of inspiration. I had too many quotes for this piece, so I dropped a couple where he refers to Leaves since I’d already mentioned it.

    The spur for leaving is more complex than I probably implied here. There is political unrest and he does become the focus of it, but he’s already unhappy. He’s not unique in being targeted by the authorities, but his reaction is unique.

    So in a sense it’s the combination of angst and unrest that drives him out. He’s already unsatisfied with his world and perhaps his art, he’s already restless and unfulfilled and then he becomes the subject of potentially dangerous political criticism. It’s all of that which sends him on his journey, though he’s fortunate it did since if he’d stayed he might well have been executed.

    Thanks for the question.

  21. So glad you told me via Twitter you’d read this. I’ve had this one on the wishlist for awhile. I’m reading his novel Beijing Coma at the moment, and even though it is intricately detailed, perhaps unnecessarily so, I’m finding it absolutely fascinating. It essentially covers the pro-democracy student movement in the 1980s, with the pivotal event being the Tiananmen Square massacre. The story is told from the point of view of a student shot in the head who is now lying in a coma – quite a literary feat to carry off, really.

  22. Others I’d recommend that I haven’t blogged yet (because I haven’t read them or haven’t finished them):

    Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. I got a Penguin Classics Kindle edition which contains some really useful introductory notes. Traditional folk/ghost/fox spirit tales, interesting stuff.

    Six Records of a Floating Life, by Shen Fu. This is non-fiction, but a classic. I got the Penguin Classics version on Kindle which again comes with very useful notes.

    And of course The Outlaws of the Water Margins, though it’s not as fun reading sadly as the classic TV show would suggest…

  23. Hi Max 🙂 I have one comment on your observation – “My impression is that until relatively recently, in China you were a state writer or a dissident writer, few other choices existed.” I think there were Chinese writers who explored different aspects of life through their literary works, without being a state writer (that is without writing propaganda for the Chinese government) and without being a dissident. One example is Ba Jin – his ‘Torrents’ trilogy which includes ‘The Family’, ‘Spring’ and ‘Autumn’ is quite famous and excellent. From a Russian perspective, I used to think that the only good writers from the Soviet era were dissident writers, but after learning a little bit of Russian and getting introduced to new writers, I have changed my opinion. For example three interesting writers I discovered were Sergei Dovlatov, Vasily Shukshin and Pavel Bazhov. Unfortunately their works are not widely translated (I read them in Russian), but they are all excellent. I personally think that readers generally feel that the literature of the Soviet era is not upto to the mark, because the best works of that era are not accessible to international readers and they are rarely available in translation.

  24. You raise a very interesting point actually. It’s very hard from outside to know if what we receive in terms of a country’s literature or film is representative, or representative just of our preconceptions.

    Recently for example a lot of social realist cinema has come out of Romania. Much of it is excellent. Does that mean that social realist cinema is in the ascendance in Romania, or does it just mean that those films sell in the UK and we don’t see their buddy cop films and romcoms? I honestly don’t know.

    As you note there was a time when Russian dissident literature was kind of trendy. I read, like many others, a lot of Solzhenitsyn. Was that literature representative of what was going on then in Russian fiction, or did it just reflect what we in the Cold War West wanted to hear? You’ve learned some Russian, and it sounds like there was more going on than we knew.

    Today with China the accepted narrative is one of oppression. The fiction we get, and the film by and large, is either about the horrors of communism or ancient, mythic, China. The horrors of communism are comforting, reassuring us that our perceptions are right and need no further examining. The mythic past is vivid and fantastic. An escapist, perhaps even Orientalist, dream.

    What was noticeable about I Love Dollars (parts of which did feel to me to be clearly aimed at a foreign audience) is that certain stories disregarded those narratives. Yes, it remains a book of social criticism which paints a deeply unflattering portrait of then contemporary China but it does so in the same way Adiga does for India in The White Tiger. It critiques, but it isn’t just misery tourism. The same could be said for Red Dust.

    A while back I saw a splendid exhibition of historical Chinese art. Some art was political, but often so allusively so that one had to read the notes to understand the points being made. They were wholly invisible to the untutored eye (and my eye in that context is definitely untutored). Other artists disregarded politics and dealt instead in themes of nature, court life or religion.

    Why would literature be different? And yet, the literature we get in translation reflects the comforting narratives of the grandiose distant past or the brutal recent past. Part of what is so refreshing about Six Records is to read another view. Shen Fu (I still remember his name) has his failings and his successes, but they are all at the personal level rather than the political.

    Anyway, I’m going on too long. Thank you for a very thought provoking comment.

  25. overlooked this exchange, but i remember finding the way noodle maker was written to be very raw. the seams that tied the different narratives together are too loose. i have an eye for black humor, but i found ma jian’s attempt here hackneyed, verging on the trivialization of his people’s sufferings. i guess ma jian was attempting too much pyrotechnic flashes? i because of all this, i found red dust more authentic than noodle maker.

  26. Interesting. So I read the better one then? I didn’t love Ma Jian so I don’t know if I’ll read more by him. It’s not ruled out, but it’s also far from certain.

  27. well, in my opinion, yes. reading mao would be more productive. haha

  28. Pingback: ‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian | Reading Matters

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