Ma, Jian 1953-
MA, Jian 1953-
PERSONAL: Born 1953, in Quingdao, China.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Pantheon Books, Knopf Publishing Group, 299 Park Ave., New York, NY 10171-0002.
CAREER: Painter, writer, poet, and photographer.
Red Dust: A Path through China, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Until 1983 Chinese writer Ma Jian was a photographer in the propaganda department of the Chinese government. Six years after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the backlash of the opening of China's economy took the form of repression of all political dissent.
Ma was also a painter, a writer, and a poet who let his disaffection be known by wearing jeans, growing his hair long, and hanging out with like-minded intellectuals to discuss politics, art, and literature. This aroused censure from his section heads, who asked him to write a "self-criticism" for the Campaign against Spiritual Pollution. This was followed by a series of disciplinary sessions and the breakup of his marriage. Ma responded to these circumstances by illegally leaving his job and taking to the road to discover the China outside the walls of his native Beijing. Before buying a ticket for Urumqi and the Chinese "Wild West," Ma took Buddhist vows.
As a dropout, a fugitive from the police, and a Buddhist in search of enlightenment, Ma spent the next three years wandering China, armed only with a notebook, a camera, a change of clothes and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He made himself fake letters of recommendation and paid his way by writing articles, painting pictures, giving an occasional lecture, or passing himself off as a fortuneteller, hair dresser, toothpaste seller, or sofa-maker. For part of his travels he slept and ate free of charge with the help of a network of dissident poets and artists, but for the most part Ma relied upon his own resources to survive in the most distant parts of China.
Ma often abandoned public transportation and sojourned in small villages and mud houses in Gansu, staying with Kazak nomads in a tent, crossing the desert to reach the Qinghai lake or finding a route though the jungle to see the Li people of Hainan Island. Once or twice, he lost his way and came close to death.
"Red dust" is a Buddhist term for the veil of materialism that keeps a man from enlightenment. Throughout his memoir Red Dust: A Path through China, Ma attempts to lift this veil of illusion in order to find himself and the real China. But it is a voyage of disappointment, disgust, and disorientation. Rural China is medieval, almost primitive, in its cruelty and backwardness. Urban China is overcrowded and reeking of jealousy, body odor, and corrupt politics. "When a man's spirit is in chains," writes Ma, "he loses all respect for nature."
At the end of his journey Ma wearied of the road. "I need to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women," he writes. Shortly after returning to Beijing, he moved to Hong Kong and then on to London.
Frank Dikötter, in the Times Literary Supplement, commented that "Ma Jian has an undeniable talent for bringing China to life, from the primeval jungle, with a canopy resembling a deserted cathedral, to the moths glowing under the dirty ceiling light of a cramped room filled with sweating bodies. Red Dust ... [provides] an unforgettable sense of what it is like to live in China since the death of Mao." Jonathan Spence, in The Search for Modern China, wrote that "In this skillfully constructed, picaresque memoir, Ma Jian takes us on an absorbing tour of the emotional, intellectual and sexual travails of China's Beat generation in the early 1980s. Red Dust is full of surprising insights into the China that emerged, for better or worse, after the death of Mao."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Ma Jian, Red Dust, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Spence, Jonathan, The Search for Modern China, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
Booklist, December 1,2001, Allen Weakland, review of Red Dust: A Path through China, p. 626.
Geographical, July, 2001, Anna Sansom, review of Red Dust, p. 80.
Guardian, (London, England), June 10, 2001, Phillip Marsden, review of Red Dust, p. 6.
Kirkus Review, September 15, 2001, review of RedDust, p. 1340.
New York Times, November 4, 2001, Barbara Crossette, review of Red Dust, p. 37.
Observer, June 1, 2001, Philip Marsden, review of Red Dust.
Times Literary Supplement, July 27, 2001, Frank Dikötter, review of Red Dust, p. 6.
Washington Post, November 4, 2001, Andrew J. Nathan, review of Red Dust, p.T13.*