Red Dust – Ma Jian

Beyond Beijing in the mid 1980s
In all likelihood not to everyone’s taste, this autobiography cum travelogue provides insights into life in the greater China, the 99.9% of the country which lies beyond Beijing, during the mid-1980s. Ma Jian’s story takes place in the 3 years to 1986, when the Coal Miners were striking in the UK, Reagan was president in the US and Gorbachev was on his rise to power in the USSR, and with the Tiananmen square massacre still to come.

Ma Jian doesn’t explicitly provide much by way of deep and meaningful perspective on himself as he describes the 3 years he spent walking the length and breadth of his country, most of it in search of himself, and some of it on the run from the authorities. But as you follow him on his long walk around China and his self, you travel through scenes which leave you with another insight into a man who can’t find his place in the all pervasive system, be that political or religious.

Perhaps that is the main message of the book – that someone as apparently innocuous – to Western eyes at least – as Ma Jian, whose reaction is – usually – flight rather than fight, was regarded as enough of a threat to merit police surveillance and, in due course a police hunt in the farthest flung corners of China.

However my enjoyment really stemmed from the fact that Red Dust is a documentary, providing a first hand account of China in the mid-80s at the time when I was in my teens, gorwing up at B91 2DL in affluent suburban Solihull – an experience which contrasted greatly with Ma Jian’s life of work units, official (and unofficial) documentation, vast waterways, open plains, rough and ready accommodation, ennui and enterprise.