I feel I have walked onto a stage. The people around me are absorbed in their parts, putting on this great show and nothing seems real. Every object looks like a prop. Since I have no part I am reduced to the role of spectator, but there is nowhere to sit, so I have to mingle with the actors in the stage. It is a terrible feeling. p.297
Ma Jian’s Red Dust, aptly subtitled “A Path Through China,” is dissident Chinese writer Ma Jian’s account of his travels across mainland China back in the 1980s. Ma Jian was then a Beijing-based painter who just turned thirty.
He had divorced his wife, was prevented from seeing his daughter, and all the while his girlfriend was seeing another man. His long hair and “artistic” friends were not really helping him with his troubles as the authorities labeled him a “decadent” element in their campaign against “Spiritual Pollution.”
His life, in short, was a mess – an overwhelming situation which leads him to leave everything behind. Ma Jian buys a train ticket to China’s westernmost end and begins a three-year soul-searching through China.
From the deserts and hinterland villages of China’s northwest he walks his way to Deng Xiaoping’s overpopulated capitalist enclaves in the south. He travels back towards the east coast, finds himself in the rainforests near the Burmese border, and finally ends up in Tibet.
With each step in the way, Ma Jian peppers his descriptions of the local landmarks and observations of the way of life of the Chinese people he meets, with his own at times humorous episodes with his “artistic” friends and the women he falls for (echoing Ma Jian’s Gogolesque treatment of the same material in his novella, The Noodle Maker).
Most important, however, is Ma Jian’s honest description of the changes in China after Mao’s death.
My first encounter with China came with my reading of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China back when I was in high school. The book centered on the American journalist’s observations while in the Chinese Red Army’s liberated base areas in 1936. Snow paints a picture of the radical changes they implemented especially in getting rid of feudal China. From interviews with Mao and his comrades, we get a vivid picture of the Long March and other difficulties they faced in their struggle for a progressive China.
In Red Dust we read how Chinese society was beset by rising inequality and intensified exploitation of millions only a decade after Mao’s policies were overturned. We see closeup the effects of the education and health services’ collapse on the people and how the authorities use the excesses of the Cultural Revolution to justify their following the capitalist road.
Though seen from cynical eyes, the book shows us of the difficulty of waging revolution. Winning it is hard enough. But it is only after victory, in the struggle for preserving and advancing the gains of the peasants and workers, that the real hardship begins. ■