Red Dust Ma Jian Analysis Essay

In 1983, at the age of thirty, dissident artist Ma Jian finds himself divorced by his wife, separated from his daughter, betrayed by his girlfriend, facing arrest for “Spiritual Pollution,” and severely disillusioned with the confines of life in Beijing. So with little more than a change of clothes and two bars of soap, Ma takes off to immerse himself in the remotest partsIn 1983, at the age of thirty, dissident artist Ma Jian finds himself divorced by his wife, separated from his daughter, betrayed by his girlfriend, facing arrest for “Spiritual Pollution,” and severely disillusioned with the confines of life in Beijing. So with little more than a change of clothes and two bars of soap, Ma takes off to immerse himself in the remotest parts of China. His journey would last three years and take him through smog-choked cities and mountain villages, from scenes of barbarity to havens of tranquility. Remarkably written and subtly moving, the result is an insight into the teeming contradictions of China that only a man who was both insider and outsider in his own country could have written.

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Paperback, 336 pages

Published November 12th 2002 by Anchor (first published 2001)

An extraordinary—and offbeat—insider’s account of life in post-Mao, pre-Tiananmen China.

Born in 1953, Ma Jian had a wife, a child, and a good job working as an artist and propagandist for a government trade-union organization. But he wasn’t satisfied living in a China that “feels like an old tin of beans that having lain in the dark for forty years, [and] is beginning to burst at the seams.” Unwisely, he let his disaffection be known by growing his hair long, hanging out with dissident artists, and having a fling or two. His actions caught up with him: his wife divorced him, while his section heads brought him in for endless, surreal self-criticism sessions—one deputy accusing him of using a splotch of yellow paint to “suggest that we are a federation of pornographic trade unions.” Ma took an unlikely course by simply walking away, traveling hobo-style through the western desert, down to the China Sea coast, and eventually to Tibet, where he kept out of trouble with the oppressed, Chinese-detesting locals by passing himself off as a citizen of Hong Kong. Spinning a single narrative, he collects notes on all he saw and did. Always a step ahead of the law, always with a fresh eye, blending in with the crowd, he was able to see things forbidden to Western travelers, from out-of-the-way oases to sometimes unpleasant scenes of daily life (“I went in and ordered a bowl of mutton noodles. They were quite filling, but I kept thinking of the sheep’s head I saw bubbling in the pot”). Out among the cutthroats, brigands, shamans, and rural unemployed, Ma kept clear of the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution for three years, living a grand life of adventure.

How he managed eventually to wander back into Beijing and resume a more or less ordinary life is a matter, presumably, for another book—one that readers will eagerly await.

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