On the Chinese Road

5 minute read

The 1980s were an idealistic time for China, as it woke from the nightmare and isolation of the Cultural Revolution. The intellectual Elite, filled with new hopes and wild ideas of how the country’s energies should be directed, were at the forefront of the era’s wide-eyed activismfrom the formation of China’s first art associations, like the No Name Group, to the Tiananmen student protests of 1989.

Red Dust (Pantheon Books; 304 pages), written by iconoclastic writer, poet and painter Ma Jian, is set in this fascinating, fast-changing period. Honest, raw and insightful, this edgy and unsettling meditation is the Chinese equivalent of the Beat Generation’s American voyage of discovery, On the Road.

Like Nobel prizewinner Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain, Red Dust is part travelogue, part memoir and part fiction (despite its classification as a travel book on many lists). Both tales follow a somewhat self-absorbed Chinese intellectual as he traverses China in search of freedom and the meaning of life. Each book’s antiheroGao or Ma has romantic encounters with various women, meets people from all walks of life and struggles to survive the harsh conditions of both rural travel and government repression.

The similarity ends there. Ma has long been known as a rebel within China. In 1987, when a magazine printed his novella Show the Coating on Your Tongue about incest and sex in Tibet, it caused so much controversy the publication was temporarily shut down. If the voice of Soul Mountain is detached, aesthetic and Zen-like, the voice of Red Dust is outraged, bold, agitatedthe discontented riffs of a Chinese Jack Kerouac. Despite their differing styles, Gao has called Ma “one of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.”

When Red Dust opens, in 1983, Ma is confronting a crisis as he nears 30. Reeling from a bitter divorce, accused at work of being a “questionable youth” and spied on by his neighbors, the avant-garde malcontent feels imprisoned and confused. He grows his hair, quits his job and abandons Beijing. With little more than a change of clothes, two bars of soap, a notebook, a camera and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, he embarks on a three-year trek that takes him through embittered minority tribal villages and the least-traveled rural regions of China, teeming with corruption and pettiness. He stays in small sleazy inns, fights lice and sleeps four to a plank bed, learning to wait until his companions fall asleep before lying on top of them for a more comfortable rest. In spite of the hardship, Ma hopes that travel will help him “clear his mind” and “get a whole picture” of China. Journeying across deserts, over mountains and through icy rivers, Ma goes “as far away as possible, scatters (himself) across the wilds, spends (his) newfound freedom” in a country where free movement itself is a luxury.

During his travels, Ma stays with friendsother intellectuals and artistswho are equally disillusioned and cynical about Chinese life. They share with him their frustration at not being able to publish freely and their alienation from a system that leaves them unable to control their fate. Says one, referring to the country’s elderly rulers: “In the communist world, the older you get, the more you’re worth.” Another complains of China’s soullessness: “Perhaps when people have no ideals, money can only buy oblivion, not freedom.”

Red Dust chronicles a free spirit’s quest for truth and love in a rigid, unemotional society. “My beginning and end are just points on the road,” Ma says. “It’s the journey itself that matters.” The book begins and ends with Ma’s home on a barren Beijing alley. Near the end of his tale, Ma tells a young man on a tour bus: “I live in Beijing myself, in a small house on Nanxiao Lane.” This is the only moment in the book that he sounds homesick for a place he increasingly realizes will never be home again. Even if his tiny house has remained the same, Ma has not. “I am leaving the wilds and returning to the dirty crowds of the city,” he muses. “But I am not afraid of them any more. They cannot hurt me now. I have changed.” (Shortly after his return, Ma emigrated to Hong Kong and now resides in London.)

Handsomely translated by Ma’s girlfriend, Flora Drew, Red Dust joins an increasing number of Chinese titles available in English. For decades, Chinese were depicted only in works by Asian-American authors such as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, who viewed China from an American perspective. But since the late 1980s, when many Chinese writers and intellectuals fled to exile overseas, Chinese-born, English-writing authors like Ha Jin, Anchee Min and Jung Chang have offered views of China as insiders and outsiders. Thanks to the commercial success of their pioneering efforts, equally prominent Chinese writers who first won acclaim in their homeland like Gao, now a resident of Paris, and Princeton-based Su Xiaokang are also widely available to English-language readers. The publication of Red Dust is a welcome addition to this increasingly nuanced portrait of Chinese life and art.

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