Red Dust is no ordinary travel journal. It’s the story of Ma Jian, a disappointed and disaffected artist, who leaves Beijing on a journey of self-discovery in the early 1980s. The book is an account of his several year ramble on the fringes of a rapidly changing society.
Ma Jian is a wanderer in the classic sense; he cares little for his personal safety and appearance, even less for money, and claims to be seeking some kind of internal salvation. Much of his travel is done by foot, and he ends up near dead from exhaustion, starvation and cold in the middle of no where several times.
He’s also a bit of a bandit, doing what needs to be done to get by, at one point selling dish detergent as tooth whitener, at another pretending to be a fortune teller. He also has a lust for women. Though rarely consummated, sex is never far away. But it’s Ma’s attitude that gives his account some edge and puts him in a position to get very unique stories.
Certainly a book of adventure travel, most of Ma’s experiences happen in the furthest reaches of China, in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet. He travels into untouched desserts, forests, and mountains of a very rugged, and certainly in transition, part of China. Spending time in minority villages he explains their customs but also their poverty and the way the long bureaucratic arm of the Chinese government brings at turns rigidity, order, and improvement.
Simply by getting to these far flung places Ma’s account shows the limits of development and of government control. By finding the end of the world within China he visits places that have been barely touched by either, and every place in between. His start in Beijing, at the epicenter of government control, where he is labeled a reactionary and targeted for self-criticism, to the remote mountain villages of Tibet, where he stays with a lone Chinese soldier at a telephone relay station, shows the slow filtering away of Party, and at the same time modern, influence.
Perhaps the best thing about the book though is the sense of depth it gives to China. The vast differences between China’s different regions and their attendant history, not to mention the cast of characters Ma meets along the way, frustrate any attempt to think about China as homogeneous. It’s good to be reminded that rapid economic growth and political repression is only part of the equation.