Red Dust

Last week I finished reading photographer and writer Ma Jian’s memoir, Red Dust, which left me shivering in my Beijing hi-rise, shocked for the first time since I’ve been here, really, into remembering how different China, and even Beijing, was only twenty years ago, and inspired to create something as moving as this book. It is an existential self-portrait of this Chinese-born artist and free spirit, who, in the heated political climate of 1983, quits his job with the foreign propaganda bureau and evades arrest and possible execution while at the same time living out his wildest dreams by leaving Beijing to roam around the country for three years. He first buys a ticket for Urumqi, a city in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang province (where I hope to go next summer) and the farthest city in the world from the ocean, but disembarks the days-long train in Gansu province, two-thirds of the way there, to explore the Buddhist grottoes at Dunhuang. He wanders the deserts and strangely industrialized (by the oil industry) oases of that region for a long time, before swinging down through Qinghai, almost dying, and crossing through Sichuan to Chengdu on virtually the same route I took on my first journey through China, six years ago.

Along the way, he composes poems and pens short stories, which he mails to literary friends around the country to attempt to get them published in order to replenish his funds and sustain his soul-searching for a few more months at a time. He settles down in the western city of Chengdu, home of panda bears and Zhou Enlai, for a while, working for the regional publishing press and crashing with distant acquaintances, but his wanderlust gets the best of him and takes him back east along a southerly route. Eventually, after three years, he has crisscrossed the entire nation and ends up in Tibet, which even if it is not the concluding pinnacle he, as a man who took his lay Buddhist vows–he had been seeking meaning even then–before he left Beijing, had expected, did serve as a satisfying signal that this specific journey was over. Still, he has proved to himself that China holds nothing more for him, despite the attachments that remain, and with the help of his friends, he escapes across the border to Hong Kong, which in turn he leaves for London when the island territory returns to Chinese control in 1997. Much of the book’s appeal is in the writing, which is both elegantly simple and downright gritty at the same time, but as a fellow wanderer, the story calls out to me with equal strength.

Posted by on September 13th, 2005

1 Comment »

Daniel Spitzer said

September 13, 2005 @ 1:02 pm

Ali, my honeybunch. I’ve only just discovered your blog, out of my own personal lameness. I’m loving it. And, I miss you. I look forward to near-future posts, and to enjoying something pink with you some time in the not-too-near-and-not-too-far future.

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