In 1983, a China where Deng Xiao Ping inroduced economic reform and clamping down on “Spiritual Pollution”. Ma Jian turned 30. Ma Jian was a propaganda photographer. With his long hair, jeans and artistic friends, he was put under surveillance from his work unit and the police. His ex-wife Guo Ping is seeking custody of their daughter and his girlfriend Xi Ping slept with another man. The girl he infatuates with, Lu Ping the ballerina was knived from the back by a maniac.
Overwhelmed by the desire to escape the confines of his life in Beijing and his personal problems, he bought a train ticket to the westernmost border of China and set off in search of himself.
His journey would last 3 years and take him to deserts ad overpopulated cities, where he depends on kindness of strangers to offer him food, lodging, transport and various odd jobs; also depends on his friends to submit his poetry, essays, short stories to the publishers to earn some publishing fees.
Ma Jian spent some time to describe the landscape and things that he saw in his travel without purpose (or wandering). He also provide snippets of anecdotes and lives of his closest friends, the joy and tribulation of his friend’s marriage and relationships; and people that he met. He hopes for a stable relationship with a girl called Wang Ping after his travel. Occasionally he received dated letters from friends and families. He visits an all-female drug rehabilitation centre, interviewed the leper, witness the sky burials in Tibet, walked through the jungles, cross over to the Burmese border, walk days and days in the deserts, as a vagrant, as a dissident citizen, as a fugitive.
I will walk the road however hard it is, because only on the road can you see that yesterday lies behind you and tomorrow waits on the path ahead. The road measures the life in distance. The further you travel the longer you live.
Throughout his travel he had not stopped writing, he also gives lectures in universities. When asked if the reforms so far have been limited to economic sphere, but what the country really need most is political liberalisation, he had to risk the possibility of the enquirer being an informer and say that:
The authories talk about reform but they have no intention of loosening political control. Policitcal freedowm gives one a sense of self. Economic freedom encourges greed. If one has the latter without the former then society becomes warped and this can be very dangerous.
Ma Jian is obviously a man with many talents, a photographer, an activist, a lecturer, a journalist, a poet etc. but appears to be a man without much integrity and value. He often used his recommendation letter from Beijing to earn the respect of the outskirt Chinese, often posed as journalist sent by the capital to investigate. He sold scouring powder as teeth whitener resulting in health hazards to a customer. He looked at women or coveted friend’s acquaintance’s wives with lascivious glance. He tells of some harrowing incidents and very quickly move on to another new topic without closure, like he wouldn’t care less. His short stories are warped and twisted, involving rapes, suicides and mutilation. Yet, everywhere he went, he make sure that he visited Buddhist temples or artifacts. When he finally got to Tibet, he didn’t find what he was looking for.
I became a Buddhist because I thought the world was full of pain and that Buddha offered a path to freedom. I was rebelling againt the Party and all that it stood for. But now I see that although the communists have destroyed Tibet, Lamas lay the blame on karma and the sins of past lives. The communists only allowed religion to return because it absolves them from the responsibility for hte painthey have infliced Buddhism is playing into the hands of the tyrants. And this has made me questin my belief.
Is the Buddha saving man, or is man saving the Buddha? From now on I will hold to no fai. I can only strive o save myself. Man is beyond salvation.
Ma Jian offers a unique insight into lives of Chinese where few foreigners yet known. Some are harrowing and shocking, for example of things one can see in the materity ward of Shanxi. A man who earn his living from his talent, his talent to remove coil after it was inserted by the authorities to stop childbirth. One passage however about the culture of the Jinuo I found so beautiful is such:
Jinuo custom allows members of the same clan to fall in love, but not to marry. When the time comes for a clan couple to separate they exchange gifts with each other as pledges of undying love. The girl gives a leather belt and the boy fives a felt bag. these gift are then taken to their new marital homes and displayed on the wall. When the clan lovers die, they carry their gifts to the mythical Nine crossroads, meet up and travel together to the underwold, where they can marry each other at last. For the Jinuo, husbands and wives in this world are mere companions of the road, true love must wait for the afterlife.
All in all, it’s an entertaining travel writing. Describing both the physical journey and spiritual journey of a young man.
Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China in 1953. He worked as a watch-mender and a painter of propaganda boards and was assigned a job as a photojournalist for a state-run magazine. At the age of 30, Ma Jian left work and travelled for three years across China, a journey he later described in his book Red Dust, winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award 2002. He left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987 but continued to travel to China, notably to support the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the hand-over of Hong Kong he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives.