“This is the sun of the high plateau that bakes the land dry and leaves one nowhere to hide.”
Ma Jian’s Red Dust is a book about escape, and discovering that there is no escape. A flight from something is always a flight towards something else. In Ma Jian’s case he escapes the red walls of Beijing, the rules and practices he found so restrictive, to encounter his own freedom. But he discovers that, like the desert sun, freedom is unrelenting. Every decision you make will have consequences that you cannot escape and that you are responsible for.
“I don’t want to read, or speak, or move, or think . . . Live your own life . . . Sky beyond the sky . . . Empty, everything is empty . . .”
Living, empty and new, moment to moment. Look at that bright sky. It’s enough to have escaped the red walls of Beijing. He hadn’t thought very much about what to expect on his long journey. We’ll see him lost in the desert at night, almost dying of thirst, unprepared for hot sun and violent sandstorms . . . Ma Jian is no survivalist. At first he doesn’t care if he survives or not. The essential thing was to escape. The essential thing is to be free. It’s only his close scrapes with death early in his journey that make him realise his life is something to cherish too.
At the very beginning of his journey, he’s looking out the train window: “The neat fields outside the window flick past like pages of a book.”
As if the story of his journey is already written down. As if each moment he heads away from Beijing is of such monumental significance that pages are dedicated to it. He hasn’t written his story yet, and not could he write anything in this moment. His mind is empty. Already empty as if he was already weary and thirsty is the searing heat of the desert sun.
Red Dust is a book about coming to life as an individual. At the start of the book Ma Jian is a Buddhist. He likes Buddhism because it “teaches man to transcend the material world and view life and death as trivial.” In this way it’s unlike Christianity, which “urges man to cherish life and fear death.” But his scrapes with mortality teach him to cherish life too. The gratitude he finds in himself for those who save his life, who give him water to get his blood moving again, meat that gives him the strength he now feels in his bones. To live freely is to live dangerously, and to live dangerously is to cherish every moment of your life. This moment so valuable that I would perish now if that were the only way to truly savour it. My mind in this moment and what is to come is of no significance. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow . . .” Every moment a work of art, a page in a great book . . .
On his journey, Ma Jian learns to reconcile the lessons of Buddha and Christ: Have no fear of death, and your fearlessness will allow you to truly cherish life.
(I’ve been reading Red Dust by Ma Jian. It’s translated into English by Flora Drew and was published by Vintage in 2002.)