After reading Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma earlier this month, I’ve just finished his earlier work, Red Dust, his account of three years of arduous travelling through China’s most remote provinces, adopting various identities to avoid police surveillance. It’s a wonderful book – possibly the best travel account I’ve read – that has some similarities with Soul Mountain by the 2000 Nobel Prize winner, Gao Xingjian.
In August 1983 Ma Jian, dissident poet and painter turns 30. His ex-wife has just pronounced him a political criminal and forbidden him to see his daughter. His girlfriend has taken up with a convict and betrayed him to the police. His painting is no good: ‘Not one of his paintings,’ notes a colleague, ‘conveys the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations.’ He has long hair and wears denim. The director of his work unit condemns him in front of his fellows: ‘His lax, free-wheeling lifestyle… shows all the signs of the Spiritual Pollution the central authorities have been telling us about.’
Ma Jian takes to the road. He packs his camera, some rice coupons, a little money and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and for three years wanders the distant provinces of China. Red Dust is the account of these travels. It’s an extraordinary journey: Ma Jian walks great distances, sleeps rough in the most primitive circumstances, suffers illness, extreme cold and extreme heat, hunger and exhaustion. He is pursued by the police. He is robbed. He is attacked by dogs. In the wastes of the Chaidam Basin he is forced to drink his own urine to survive. Three days lost in the Gobi drives him to the brink of madness. At one point, on the very edge of China, he narrowly escapes being washed down the Salween river to the border with Burma and certain death at the hands of Burmese or Chinese border guards, escaping the river only to find he has to climb a sheer cliff face in the dark, certain that at any moment he could lose his grip and fall to his death.
From the deserts and villages of China’s northwest he walks his way to Deng Xiaoping’s booming 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.
Along the way, Ma Jian mixes descriptions of the local landmarks and behaviour of the people he meets, with encounters with dissident contacts and friends aacross China. He provides a vivid description of the rapidity of the changes in China after Mao’s death.
This is a spiritual quest. Before he left Beijing, Ma Jian took Buddhist vows. His goal are places of Buddhist pillgrimage and, above all, Tibet. But all he finds is a land and a people despoiled and corrupted by totalitarian rule and the rush to ‘market socialism’. In each town people are buying or selling something – rope, cats, last year’s calendars, next week’s brides. By the end he is weary of the road:
The further I walk, the less I know why. I have become a marching machine. As long as I have a bag on my back I will walk, until I drop. The path takes control. I follow it blindly. I have lost all sense of direction. Why did I choose to live this way? I am not a dog, after all.
Red Dust has been described in the Independent as ‘a tour de force…a powerful picaresque cross between the sort of travel book any Western author would give his eye-teeth to write, and a disturbing confession…it stands out among the many literary offerings of the Cultural Revolution`s ‘lost generation.’ This is a travel book that is as much an account of an internal journey of the mind as the traverse of a physical landscape:
This stinking body no longer belongs to me, my mind is as empty as a plastic bag caught in the high wind. Suddenly, I think of Beijing, and realise that although it is crammed with police, at least there is a bed and pillow waiting for me there. I came to Tibet hoping to find answers to all my unasked questions, but I have discovered that even when the questions are clear, there are no clear answers. I am sick of travelling. I need to hold onto something familiar, even if it is just a tea cup. I cannot survive in the wilds — nature is infinite but my life has bounds. I need to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women. I left Beijing because I wanted to be alone and to forge my own path, but I know now that no path is solitary, we all tread across other people’s beginnings and ends. I have stopped here, not because the Himalayas stand in the way, but because my inward journey has reached its end. In fact, we all tread a path — the gold-digger, the coil-remover, Myima who left her turquoise behind and rose to the sky. We are just travelling in different directions, that’s all. This path has ended, but from now on, my journey will he much harder…
Writing in the Guardian in July 2008, Ma Jian stated:
I am a writer. Being critical is a writer’s responsibility. In China, however, writers are encouraged to sing the praises of the government. Since being too critical may lead to the banning of their work, many exercise self-censorship or write books to please the market.
I left Beijing in the late 1980s to live in Hong Kong because, having been blacklisted by the government, I couldn’t publish my works on the mainland. My novella Stick out Your Tongue, which draws on my experience of travelling in Tibet, had been denounced as ‘filthy and shameful’ and banned. In spring 1989 I returned to witness the student-led democratic movement. As the government brutally cracked down on the protest, my brother went into a coma after an accident. I just couldn’t find the words to describe the sense of shock and despair I felt then; it forced me to see the evil face of the regime.
My brother finally woke up after six months. I went back to Hong Kong until the handover in 1997. Then I moved to London. When I make trips back to China I am often struck how people seem to have forgotten about ‘4 June’. The whole of society, increasingly money-oriented, seems to have slipped into a coma. I spent 10 years writing Beijing Coma, exploring the double tragedies that took place in 1989. I want to wake people up from this vegetative state.
I divide my time between London and Beijing. I am trying to persuade my family to spend more time in China. It’s no fun to be in exile. I can’t even figure out the basic 26 letters, let along operate in English. I often feel that although I’ve found the sky of freedom above my head, I’ve lost the soil I stand on. I need to be back in my motherland, where I can find inspirations.
I am concerned as to whether the government will let me back in after the publication of Beijing Coma in China later this year. But I have to speak the truth. My next book is a novel about the cost of the inhuman family-planning policy. But it is not just books. I openly criticise this dictatorial regime in my articles and interviews or whenever I can. If we don’t, it will never change. And I want to remind people; when a country forgets its past, it will have no future.