Before getting into the political and social aspects of the book, I first want to comment on its literary merit. Red Dust is an extraordinary bildungsroman. Although the author undertook his journey when in his early thirties, he nevertheless comes to see through his travels to mistakes of his earlier beliefs and rediscovers his place in Chinese society — albeit not for long, as he fled China not long after publishing this book — after years of traveling, mostly in China’s remote western provinces.
The travelogue also functions as an extraordinary piece of existentialist literature, as Ma Jian gradually comes to see various forms of belief, beginning with his rejection of Chinese communism from the very beginning and continuing on through Chinese Buddhism, Daoism, Tibetan Buddhism, and rampant consumerism (and I’m probably forgetting a few). Man, concludes Ma, ultimately cannot rely on an system of beliefs to lead him through the universe. He can only rely on himself.
This extreme individualism dovetails with the book’s anti-communism, as at numerous points throughout the book Ma Jian points out the corrosive effect of communism on the individual; he writes, for example, “When a country is ruled by a band of thugs, men behave like savages.” His critique of communism is deeply humanistic, and Ma should rightly take his place alongside Czeslaw Milosz and others as a great humanistic, literary critic of communism.
At the same time, however, what makes this book of considerable interest today is the picture it provides of China at the beginning of the tremendous period of economic growth that it continues to experience today. Ma shows the tumultuous forces unleashed by economic liberalization combined with severe restrictions on personal behavior. (I was particularly haunted when Ma describes a list of public executions scheduled to take place; one criminal was “guilty” of dancing “cheek to cheek in the dark, forcefully hugging his female dance partners and touching their breasts. Seduced a total of six young women and choreographed a sexually titillating dance which has spread like wildfire and caused serious levels of Spiritual Pollution.”) He shows a China that if anything has been made worse by liberalization, because people’s souls have remained enslaved even as they’ve been permitted to practice entrepreneurial capitalism — rapacious capitalism combined with (and perhaps made rapacious by) a soul-crushing political system. Look at the recent corruption scandals for examples of what happens when markets are combined with a one-party political system.
Ma also calls attention to an aspect of China that often goes unnoticed outside China: namely, that while the Han constitute the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population, there are fifty-six officially recognized minorities, totaling over 100 million people, with some provinces in western China being “minority-majority” (although China’s “Great Leap West” has tried to tip the balance in provinces like Xinjiang in favor of Han Chinese). Ma Jian shows that these minorities had been largely left behind even by the rudimentary modernization experienced prior to Deng; one wonders whether their status has changed much since Ma wrote this book. The minority question means that China is not simply trying to modernize rapidly. It is also trying to modernize undeveloped corners inhabited by peoples conquered by Communist China’s imperial predecessors who have never been integrated into Chinese society proper (meaning that China is an empire masquerading as a state).
If none of these points is sufficient to convince you to read this book, Ma’s descriptions of the landscapes he traverses and the peoples he encounters are alone worth the read.