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Red Dust: A Path Through China Paperback – November 12, 2002

3.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Chinese dissident and sometimes vagabond Ma Jian offers a sharp-edged, often surprising portrait of his native land, one that takes his readers into corners that few non-Chinese travelers have seen.

In 1983, Ma, tired of life in a China that, he writes, "feels like an old tin of beans that, having lain in the dark for forty years, is beginning to burst at the seams," grew his hair, quit his job, and took to the road. As he recounts in his able--and, at times, very strange--memoir, over the next three years he wandered into the western desert, through the mountains of Shaanxi, down the steamy southern coast, and, eventually, to Tibet. Along the way he slipped by inquisitive police agents, ate dodgy meals, fell in love a time or two, and learned much about his country--more than he bargained on, for, as he writes, "I am exhausted. China is too old, its roots too deep. I feel dirty from the delving."

Ma's travelogue, alternately humorous and sober, offers a constantly illuminating view of life behind the Great Wall. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In 1983, squirming under constant government scrutiny and mourning a failed marriage, writer and photographer Jian abandons his home in Beijing to journey to China's western border with little more than a change of clothes, two bars of soap, a notebook, a camera and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It is the beginning of an arduous three-year voyage that takes him not only through little-traveled regions of China, Myanmar and Tibet, but through a careful examination of what it means to be a Buddhist, to live in post-Mao China and to exist in his own skin. A skilled storyteller, Jian narrates in prose that is spare and often beautiful his encounters with people who live in a region that "even today... is a place of banishment, populated by political prisoners, descendents of Turkic migrants, and the ghosts of buried cities." From the night he spends crammed under a bus seat next to a pile of dirty socks and clucking hens to his escape from Chinese militiamen who mistake him for a Burmese spy, Jian tells a powerful story that is no mere travelogue. Indeed, his journey exposes him to so many risks getting bitten by sheepdogs in the grasslands along the Yellow River, drinking foul lake water that knocks him unconscious that the sheer number of life-threatening incidents begins to dull their impact. Still, Jian offers a revealing, riveting portrait of a Chinese citizen who seeks truth and honesty in a society in which such a quest can be grounds for punishment.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (November 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720238
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720236
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #644,369 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"In a flash, Bao Yu [a character in the Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions] saw through the red dust of illusion. He discarded his worldly ties and set off in search of enlightenment."
In 1983, Ma Jian left Beijing to wander through China's rural countryside. For three years he drifted through the bleak Western provinces, the rich Southeastern part of China and through Tibet. He was 30 years old at the time. He intended "Red Dust" to be an account of his finding himself in the loneliness of the journey. It turned out to be the story of his disillusionment not only with Buddhism but also with the ideas he held about the advantages of the simple life. In the end he finds that he wants to give up his solitary wandering and needs "to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women."
"Red Dust", published only in 2001, is a starkly realistic portrait of rural China at the beginning of the economic liberalization initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. No Westerner would have been able to describe the life of the common people in the impoverished inner provinces of China as precisely and straightforward as Ma Jian. It is a world that is invisible to Western visitors, even if they speak Mandarin. In that sense, "Red Dust" is not required reading for the average traveler in China. But I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the "hidden" life that the majority of the Chinese really live.
"Red Dust" stands out for its unflinching realism and its intimacy with everyday life in China, just as Mark Salzman's "Iron and Silk" (1986) stands out for its sense of humor, Simon Winchester's "The River at the Centre of the World" (1996) for its knowledge and entertaining anecdotes, and Peter Hessler's "River Town" (2001) for its lyrical descriptions of the landscape and its endearing sympathy with the Chinese people.
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Format: Hardcover
I finished "Red Dust" with mixed feelings: it is not a great book, but it is not bad either. It is interesting, but not profound. It is decently written, but carelessly organized.
What makes "Red Dust" valuable is that is a frank, laid-back portrait of "The Real China" (wince) in the early 1980s, a time (unlike now) when few people were writing down such basic observations as this book contains. These observations are not profound, and they ring hollow only when the try to be, but much that is profound can be gleaned from the mundane. A family's eating habits, how easily people can be duped because it is what they want to believe...these are the substance of life, and all the more so in a place where life is so tenuous as in China's interior.
But two aspects of "Red Dust", the account of Ma Jian's three years spent as a Chinese drifter, curdle the incisiveness of his insights. Despite having taken Buddhist vows, and considering himself on something of a pilgrimage for enlightenment, Ma is a rather self-important person, at least as a narrator. Many of the stories he encounters would have told better if he had been able to observe, sometimes, from the sidelines, rather than making it always about him him him. Understandable human trait, but dangerous in literature. A related flaw is the bitterness with which he filters all occurances. China never has - and probably never will be - a place to inspire bounding optimism, but persistant negativity makes a book just unpleasant to read.
The beginning chapters document Ma's life as an artist and bohemian type in Beijing, and are both tedious and hilarious.
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Format: Hardcover
The author is a native Chinese artist, which makes it hard to understand his prose as he shifts from the present, past, and dreams with many people talking. But after you get through his own primal needs, back-pack and shoes, food & cigarettes, and sex, alcohol & drugs, then your mental filter is set to read the story. Just read every other paragraph and you won't dwell on the insignificant. This book is unusual in that it is written by a native 30 yr Chinese who is on an extended tour starting in 1982 (p17); quite the opposite of a tourist book written by a round-eye.
His writing is really a rambling diary of his bumbling, dirt-cheap, 3-year vagabond tour around China, crashing on and bumming off of friends of other literary or journalist's friends. He is part writer / journalist, part photographer, part poet, part painter, but can't do anything very well (p42), other than shagging women in the same boat. Other women are quite wary of him. One laughs wryly, "The quickest way to commit suicide is to marry an artist (p215)."
His travels start from Beijing, west via train to the deserts of Qinghai, south to Chendu and east via the Yangtze river, then north to Xi'an and further to the Genghis ruins on the desolate Shaanxi steppes along the Yellow river. South through Sichuan and east to Qingdao his birthplace, south along the coast to Shanghai, Canton, Hainan, inland to the Yunnan minority regions, Golden Triangle, and finally Tibet. Certainly a long trek, some with humanity and much in solitary. The situations that he gets himself into can be interesting otherwise it's daily page filler. Sort of a DIY manual on how to hitch for a ride, how to sleep with a roof overhead, and how to sponge a cup of tea or meal off of dolting peasants.
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