Ma Jian has the eyes of a camera, the voice of a poet, and the soul of Jack Kerouac. An artist, a writer, a heavy drinker, and a natural flouter of all authority, he was bound to be singled out as an unkempt,unwashed "hooligan" when Beijing launched the Campaign against Spiritual Pollution in the decade following the death of Mao.
After being held for three days by the Public Security Bureau, Ma is released by an officer who assures him, "If we want to, we can make you slowly disappear." Propelled by this threat, Ma throws some clothing, soap, a forged letter of introduction, and a copy of Leaves of Grass into a bag and, on the day after he turns thirty, sets off by train to the western edge of China. From here he begins to walk, the beginning of a journey that will take three years and encompass much of China.
His journey takes on the proportions of an epic, as he walks through legends and history and modern secrets. In Xian, the home of the terracotta warriors who guard China's first emperor, he sees the excavated burial grounds where 700,000 workers were reputedly buried alive after putting the finishing touches on their ruler's mausoleum. In the hills of southeastern China, he encounters the Yi people, a tribal minority who, during World War Two, had captured a downed American fighter pilot, enslaved him, and released him only after nine years of servitude. Caught and drenched by a rainstorm in the depths of the southern countryside, he takes shelter in a gated, unlocked building, which he discovers is the center of a sanitorium for lepers. Housed in a camp "that looks like a pretty mountain village," thirty patients survive on what can be grown by those who still have the use of their hands.
His observations are vivid snapshots: the small girl whose cold fingers look like "little red carrots"; the woman on a Tibetan bus who rummaged about in her voluminous cloak and pulled out some candy, a radio, and finally " a small, sticky baby; the owl that a friend who worked in a hospital removed from a laboratory jar and cooked for Ma's welcoming dinner, "the taste of formalin" still discernible beneath the sugar and soy sauce.
Echoes of this odyssey can be found in Ma Jian's fiction. His harrowing description of a sky burial in Red Dust appears almost verbatim in Stick Out Your Tongue, his collection of short stories about Tibet. Near the Burmese border, he meets a village shaman who was imprisoned for eighteen years, thereby completing missing the Cultural Revolution and the modernization of his community, who must have provided the seed for Ma's latest novel, Beijing Coma. And only a man who has sold scouring powder as a tooth cleanser to people who have a hazy idea of what toothpaste actually is could have written about the deleterious aspects of rural Chinese entrepreneurship in The Noodle Maker.
Ma Jian now lives in London with his companion and translator, Flora Drew. The story of his journey from China to England remains untold, but with any luck, will emerge someday soon as a companion volume to Red Dust.