Red Dust: A Path Through China

by Ma Jian
Red Dust: A Path Through China
ISBN 0375420592
  • Author:
    Ma Jian
  • Title:
    Red Dust: A Path Through China
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    1742 kb
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1983 Ma Jian, a photographer, painter, poet, and writer, set out for the most remote and roughest parts of China. Dispirited and fearful, accused at work of having “a sluggish mentality,” confronted with a failed marriage, an estranged young daughter, and a girlfriend involved with another man, he abandons Beijing and a life he can no longer endure. Red Dust is the account of his travels, a remarkably written and subtly moving journey toward understanding.

A dropout, a fugitive from the police, a Buddhist in search of enlightenment, Ma Jian embarks on a three-year trek that takes him from the deepest south to the western provinces and Tibet, journeying across deserts, over mountains, through icy rivers. And as he travels to increasingly remote areas, his circumstances become increasingly straitened: He stays in filthy inns, sleeping four to a plank bed, learning to wait until his companions fall asleep and then lying on top of them. To support himself, he buys a pair of scissors and becomes a roadside barber, sells scouring powder as tooth whitener, lives by his wits posing as an enlightened religious man.

His sense of humor and sanity keep him intact—”Danger is not exciting,” he tells a friend, “it’s just proof of your incompetence.” The greatest hardship he faces is disappointment—or perhaps his own honesty. Tibet offers no enlightenment (“Is Buddha saving man or is man saving Buddha?” he asks); his own restlessness undermines his yearning for love. Ma Jian’s portrait of his country provides no understanding of its enigmas, no neat generalizations, no sweeping predictions. It simply reminds us of China’s scale, its shadows, and, ultimately, its otherness.

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