cover image RED DUST: A Path Through China

RED DUST: A Path Through China

Ma Jian, Jian Ma, , trans. from the Chinese by Flora Drew. . Pantheon, $25 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42059-7

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.)