In Taiwan a year ago, thanks to the vast library at the Taipei Artist Village I got seriously into reading contemporary Chinese novelists, most of whom I don’t remember now, and predictably the ones that people get hot for in the English language world left me bewildered and disappointed. In all that, one did stick out, and Ma Jian‘s 红尘 Red Dust remains one of the most vivid, profound, and grimly disturbing books I have read. There’s a Jack Kerouac On the Road sense of displacement and constant movement threading through the pages, and I think no other book has as acutely captured the feeling of China, the grey cement dust dirtiness, the oppressive vastness, the insignificance of a single person inside its borders. Red Dust, a collection of short stories from his wanderings in Tibet at the same time has just been translated into English.
In 1983, Ma Jian was living in Beijing as a photographer and painter in a circle of dissident friends – young men and women who snatched moments of sexual licence, exchanged precious copies of foreign books, and discussed each other’s work in tiny gatherings that were reported by the neighbours and raided by the police. They were seen as socially deviant – and so dangerous – elements and therefore vulnerable to persecution in the now quaint-sounding Campaign against Spiritual Pollution. It sounds less quaint when the figures are tallied: more than a million arrests and 24,000 executed. Ma Jian embarked on his journey to evade arrest himself and on publication of Stick Out Your Tongue he was held up as an example of both “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalism”. He has lived in exile ever since.