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Red Dust [Paperback]

Ma Jian
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
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Book Description

2 May 2002

In 1983, Ma Jian turned 30 and was overwhelmed by the desire to escape the confines of his life in Beijing. With his long hair, jeans and artistic friends, Ma Jian was under surveillance from his work unit and the police, as Deng Xiaoping clamped down on 'Spiritual Pollution'. His ex-wife was seeking custody of their daughter; his girlfriend was sleeping with another man; and he could no longer find the inspiration to write or paint. One day he bought a train ticket to the westernmost border of China and set off in search of himself.

Ma Jian's journey would last three years and take him to deserts and overpopulated cities, from scenes of barbarity to havens of tranquillity and beauty. The result is an utterly unique insight into the teeming contradictions of China that only a man who was both an insider and an outsider in his own country could have written.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (2 May 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099283298
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099283294
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 34,882 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon Review

On very rare occasions, a book can be so fresh, vivid and sincere that its integrity will be apparent almost before you have begun reading it. This brilliant account of a three-year exploration of China during the first wave of economic liberalisation following the death of Mao Zedong is one such book.

In Red Dust, Ma Jian tells the story of how, on his 30th birthday, facing arrest for spiritual pollution in his journalistic job in Beijing, he fakes an attack of hepatitis and flees into the Chinese hinterland. Uprooting himself from a bohemian lifestyle and his estranged wife and child, Jian walks vast distances and immerses himself in the remotest parts of China. Travelling clandestinely, and with little or no money, Jian survives by doing odd jobs and publishing poetry and short stories through his network of literary friends. At the same time, he has amazing adventures: on one occasion he finds himself lost in the desert with no water for three days; later on he has to scale a huge cliff with no equipment.

There is nothing emasculated or sanitised about this genuine adventure. Jian is forced to live from his wits. At one time he has to mug his own muggers back to rescue his camera; then he scrapes a living by selling scouring powder as toothpaste. These escapades, beautifully translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew, are told in an understated and elegant style, and, with Jian's status as both an insider and outsider, provide a complete portrait of what life is like for ordinary Chinese people in a way that no foreign writer could ever emulate. By turns poetic, wise and brave, Red Dust is worthy of a place alongside other great books of Chinese literature, such as The Mountain Village and Wild Swans, as both a classic work of travel writing and a compelling meditation on the spiritual bankruptcy of an age when all humanity's Gods have been shattered. --Toby Green --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


"Enthralling... He depicts a land of extraordinary physical beauty and interest and his prose is always elegant. Read this book for its human truthfulness and for unforgettable moments" (Daily Telegraph)

"Red Dust is a tour de force, a powerfully picaresque cross between the sort of travel book any Western author would give his eye-teeth to write, and a disturbing confession" (Independent)

"It opens windows on landscapes small and vast, all still largely unobserved and unknown to Westerners" (Observer)

"Honest, raw, insightful... The Chinese equivalent of On the Road" (Time)

"[Ma's] powers of description make every page buzz with life... Someone who could rank among the great travel writers" (New York Times Book Review)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great exposure to China 11 Sep 2001
By A Customer
This is a great book that is thoroughly enjoyable to read. It's nice to read a travelogue-style book written by a Chinese author, and the details of his perspective paint a picture that would not have been possible for an outsider. As much an inward soul-searching as long distance wandering, this book works on several levels. I really hope to see more from this author.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bizarre..quirky...excellent. 2 Sep 2001
Red Dust is not an easy book to describe, better to just experience it for yourself. Ma Jian is eloquent, funny, incredibly observant, honest. His quest to find himself is one that anyone can relate to who has ever felt the absurdity of the society surrounding him. I would immediately order anything else I found from this author.
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An honest look at China, without the rhetoric. 16 Oct 2001
I hugely enjoyed this very honest perspective of China, without the usual political rhetoric, or the "I lived through it all, and I'm still alive - amn't I wonderful". This is the China of work units, documentation, guanxi, open plains, minimal accomodation, lethargy, enterprise ... a land of contrasts with a culture of social control that has existed for thousands of years longer than the Communist Party.
I recommend this book in particular, for those (like myself) who have travelled to China, but feel they will never experience what it is like to be Chinese. Brillianty written, honest, interesting, and thought provoking, and at times an inspiring account of a man just trying to be a man.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This was the most fascinating book I have read in the last few years - perhaps my interest was piqued by my forthcoming move to China. Nevertheless, I was amazed by Ma's honesty and the vividness of his language. His travels through China reflect those of Gao but with a level of realism which is lacking in the magical equivalent of the Nobel prize winner.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A struggle to finish 27 Aug 2010
I really struggled to get through this book. I found Ma Jian to be unbearably arrogant and pretentious both in his writing style (I don't believe everything around you can be compared to the shape of a naked woman) and in himself, his friends, his relationships and his outlook on life. I had no wish to read a book about butterflies and waterfalls, but it seemed like he picked out every negative story and experience to include in his book, and left out anything positive.

I read this, and other books as an introduction to my upcoming trip to China, and have not yet had experience travelling around the country. But when you compare his descriptions and attitude to those of other authors, such as Peter Hessler's 'River Town' and the beauty he found in the country, even amongst the more unpleasant aspects of China, it just seems like Ma Jian's ego and his need to be some deep, avant-garde artist gets in the way of what could be a brutal, but still beautiful account of what is certainly an impressive travel experience.

At the start of the book a colleague describes an encounter with Ma Jian at his home: "I asked why a face in one of his paintings looked like a corpse. He laughed and sad everyone puts on a mask but underneath our souls are ugly shameful things. He said we are born in a daze and die in a dream... He sees life as a great blackness." I suppose if you want to read about the world from that point of view, then this is the book for you.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating journey through China 11 Jan 2010
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in China, it is a truely fascinating account of the authors travels through China, although it starts off quite slow (compared to the rest of the book), it really picks up once the author leaves Beijing, you will probably not belive some of the sitiuations he gets him self in too. This book deservedly won the Thomas Cook travel writing award.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Travels in China 1 Jan 2009
I picked up this book with the thought that it might provide me with a way of understanding what it is like to live and work in a country where the culture is so very different from my own. The book certainly did that, but it also provided the opportunity to travel through China with a companion who is amusing with a strong intellectual curiousity.

The journey through China is an escape for Ma Jian, who has found that his life in Beijing has become very uncomfortable, not only because of the breakdown in his marriage, but also because his ideas and friendships are starting to attract the attention of the authorities.

Ma Jian is an unsentimental observer; throughout his travels his descriptions of the people that he meets and the places that he visits are detailed and have the sense of being painfully honest, but are often compassionate. The lack of sentiment gives the descriptions a sense of realism; this is China without the tourism spin and is all the more fascinating because of the plain speaking.

I really didn't want the book to end - I know that I will read it again with even more pleasure. If you have an interest in China this book will inform you (bearing in mind that it was written in the 1980's) and give you the opportunity to experience various aspects of life there. I think that the translation has also proved how important it is to have a translator who is also a fine writer. There is never a sense of a third person intruding between the writer and the reader. I would highly recommend this book both as travel writing and autobiography.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
A classic.
Published 1 month ago by PHaire
5.0 out of 5 stars A genuine travel classic
A sublime travel book that deserves to be considered alongside the few real classics of the genre. What makes a great travel book? Read more
Published 4 months ago by Jack
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent entertainment
Ma Jian has a rather scatter gun style that is difficult to get used to at first. At times you feel lost in time with his descriptions but maybe that augments the narrative. Read more
Published 4 months ago by vanbento
4.0 out of 5 stars Travelogue
Although described on the cover as "a new Wild Swans", that isn't really the case. Whereas Wild Swans was a memoir of life in Communist China, this is more a travelogue of... Read more
Published 10 months ago by History Geek
4.0 out of 5 stars A great escape
China travel at its finest. I live in Beijing and understand that sometimes you just need to escape but always end up craving city life. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Rachael Smart
5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendous Three Dimensional Chronicle
Ma Jian's personal and geographical journey sets the desperate life style and oppression in China less than 30 years ago.
Published 12 months ago by phil gibbs
2.0 out of 5 stars No too interesting
Very repetitive - fond it dull and uninteresting.
Gave up reading after a few chapters.
Love China and everything about the place but this book was of no interest. Read more
Published 12 months ago by JFH666
3.0 out of 5 stars Red Dust
A short brutal account of China post-Mao. Another reviewer moaned about how negative the main character is, but this isn't surprising. Read more
Published 18 months ago by David Brookes
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
.This is an interesting book. I'm not sure if something was lost in the translation of this book, but I did feel at one point that the author had lost interest and just shuffled... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Sandy Sharp
4.0 out of 5 stars A Chinese reader's view
It is true that quite a lot of young Chinese don't know much about the Chinese society. We grew up in a relatively peaceful time and were well-protected/blinded from the cruel... Read more
Published on 25 Nov 2011 by Peggy Guan
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