Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Author: MA JIAN

In the early 1980's Ma Jian was moved to Beijing because of his ability as a photographer, where he was employed in the foreign propaganda department, promoting the greatness of China. Unfortunately this separated him from his wife and daughter - his wife taking another lover, getting divorced and preventing him from seeing his daughter any more. His own lover starts to cheat on him just to make matters worse. Ma Jian is a poet and a painter, and partakes of secret meetings with other artists. But this kind of thing is frowned upon, as is his individual attitude at work. When he catches wind that it is likely he will be arrested for spiritual pollution he decides its time to leave.

Thus starts his 3 year journey round China. Recently having taken Buddhist vows, he wants to travel around great Buddhist sites, to try and understand the religion and see whether he can attain his own enlightenment. With forged documents, friends, and friends of friends, Ma Jian manages to move around and to survive. Along the way he takes pictures, writes stories and articles, and increasingly becomes interested in the people of China. Along the way he falls in and out of love, has near death experiences, gets arrested and escapes.

Red Dust is as the subtitle suggest "a" path through China. With which it isn't what you would perhaps call a traditional travel book, Ma Jian's path is rambling and very much as the mood or necesity takes him. The delay to his Tibet trip being one of the prime examples, as his camera is stolen, he clubs the culprits over the head and gets on the first bus out of town. To a degree this is more a snapshot of a nation, a nation under what seems to us strange rule - where movement and thought is controlled by the government, where technology and western influences creep into the cities while people live in abject poverty, centuries old life styles turn around by the dictation of Mao.

The most frustrating thing about Red Dust is that is doesn't have Ma Jian's pictures. Each section has a scribbled map. But he must have had 100s of pictures by the end of his travels, even apart from the films that were lost in various misadventures. To have seen what he saw would really have brought his words to life.

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