Cover image for Red dust : a path through China
Red dust : a path through China
Ma, Jian, 1953-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books [2001]

Physical Description:
324 pages : maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
Maps on endpapers.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS712 .M325 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



1983 Ma Jian, a photographer, painter, poet, and writer, set out for the most remote and roughest parts of China. Dispirited and fearful, accused at work of having "a sluggish mentality," confronted with a failed marriage, an estranged young daughter, and a girlfriend involved with another man, he abandons Beijing and a life he can no longer endure. Red Dust is the account of his travels, a remarkably written and subtly moving journey toward understanding. A dropout, a fugitive from the police, a Buddhist in search of enlightenment, Ma Jian embarks on a three-year trek that takes him from the deepest south to the western provinces and Tibet, journeying across deserts, over mountains, through icy rivers. And as he travels to increasingly remote areas, his circumstances become increasingly straitened: He stays in filthy inns, sleeping four to a plank bed, learning to wait until his companions fall asleep and then lying on top of them. To support himself, he buys a pair of scissors and becomes a roadside barber, sells scouring powder as tooth whitener, lives by his wits posing as an enlightened religious man. His sense of humor and sanity keep him intact--"Danger is not exciting," he tells a friend, "it's just proof of your incompetence." The greatest hardship he faces is disappointment--or perhaps his own honesty. Tibet offers no enlightenment ("Is Buddha saving man or is man saving Buddha?" he asks); his own restlessness undermines his yearning for love. Ma Jian's portrait of his country provides no understanding of its enigmas, no neat generalizations, no sweeping predictions. It simply reminds us of China's scale, its shadows, and, ultimately, its otherness.

Author Notes

Ma Jian was born in 1953 in Qingdoo, China. In 1986 he moved to Hong Kong, where he published novels, essays, short stories & collections of poetry & reportage; edited political & cultural magazines & founded a publishing company. He currently lives in London.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Chinese-born Ma, a journalist and novelist in China and now a resident of London, tells the saga of his elusive years in China as he attempted to maintain his own freedom of thought and expression amid an ambience of total state control. Faced with imprisonment, he fled to the countryside, eventually making his way to Tibet. His journey, undertaken during the first few post-Mao years, is presented as a combination travelogue and a narrative of sheer poetry and spirituality. Prior to his trek, he was constantly under surveillance and often called in for questioning. Ma was told, "Don't look so pleased with yourself. If we want to, we can make you slowly disappear." Instead, he disappeared before they could carry out their threat. Traveling through the large scale of China's geography, Ma girds himself for his return to Beijing. "There are still many white mountains to cross but I am on my way home. They cannot hurt me now. I have changed." So will the reader after encountering this brave new book. --Allen Weakland

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Although billed as a travelog, this perceptive memoir represents a spiritual as much as a geographical journey. In the early 1980s, Jian, a writer, poet, painter, and photographer, became dispirited with his work and personal life in Beijing and set out on a three-year voyage across some of China's most remote areas in an attempt to learn about himself by learning more about his homeland. On the journey through China to Tibet, he visited mountains, deserts, lakes, Buddhist monasteries, a leprosy camp, overpopulated cities, and small villages, encountering unusual as well as straightforward characters along the way. This book, which has not been published in China, is an attempt to portray post-Mao China as seen through the eyes of a wandering man. And the one-man viewpoint interwoven throughout is certainly an important part of its appeal. Clearly not a conventional travel book for tourists contemplating a trip to China, this insightful and heartfelt rendition of China's far-flung landscapes is recommended for all libraries, especially those with specialized collections on China and Asia. Melinda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, CO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

A Note on Namesp. vii
1. Red Wallsp. 1
53 Nanxiao Lane
The Frozen Blue Sky
A Man of Thirty
Men in the Dark
Writing My Self-Criticism
Mixing Blood and Urine
Launch of the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution
Back in the Public Security Bureau
Leaving Nanxiao Lane
2. Dust Stormp. 59
Emerging from the Gate of Hell
First Steps
Living in the Night
The Gold-Digger
Stuck in Suoyang
Resting in the Gale
The Living and the Dead
Lure of the Distance
3. Drifting Through the Westp. 103
Hairdressing in Golmud
Fishing on Qinghai Lake
Racing Down the Ravine
Meeting Ma Youshan
The Girl in the Red Blouse
4. A Country in Fermentp. 133
Back to the City
Night Sprinkler
River of Ghosts
5. The Wind-Blown Soilp. 167
City of Tombs
Lost in the Wastes
Flies in Scrambled Eggs
6. Wandering Down the Coastp. 203
House of Memories
Time Is Money
Day and Night
Building a Park Within a Park
The Opening Ceremony Becomes the Closing Ceremony
Walking to the End of the World
7. The Abandoned Valleysp. 231
The Silent Beat of the Drum
Entering a Strange Circle
Abyss of Desire
Rain Over the Leprosy Camp
Mountains Behind Mountains
8. Life at the Borderp. 261
Old Shabalu
Into the Jungle
From Traveller to Fugitive
Selling Chiffon Scarves in a Traffic Jam
9. A Land with No Homep. 289
Buddha and the City
Same Path, Different Directions
The Woman and the Blue Sky
In the Sky, on the Road
Road and Direction