Red Dust: a path through China by Ma Jian – travel book review

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ May 10th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Reviews.

Red Dust: a path through China book

Red Dust: a path through China - a real vagabond journey

The story of how a book can travel with you

I normally only highlight book reviews if I have enjoyed them on my own travels. In this case I thought the brief story behind my reading of this book might also be interesting too.

My history with the book Red Dust

I bought this book over 10 years ago. It was a part of a collection of books I was reading in preparation for my own journey ahead. I was specifically looking for travelogues, and overland ones more specifically.

I read a lot back then, and dreamt along with the authors vision of their travels. Sadly, I never got around to reading Red Dust. And, the authors epic travelogue was given away for someone else to read.

When a book follows you

Somehow, this book never left me though. For some reason the back cover blurb stuck with me, as did the cover image of a man (the author) sitting in front of an old style Chinese house in the desert.

Some years later browsing through a second-hand book store, my hand jumped out when I saw the same book on a dusty shelf. It was as if it had followed me. And again, history repeated itself and I never got to it. This time I was still reading Shantaram and needed to lighten up my load before entering Tibet. So again, I left it behind.

Third times a charm, and somehow I found myself yet again, through great lengths, getting a copy of this book. I would not let it go until I’d read it this time. But, was Red Dust worth it?

Review of Red Dust: a path through China

This book is not for everyone. Indeed, I would nearly go so far as to say most will only give it a middle of the road rating in terms of a good light-hearted holiday read. However in terms of raw reality; few books can even come close to touching Red Dust.

Red Dust: a path through China book cover

Red Dust: a path through China

Red Dust is the travelogue of a Chinese man called Ma Jian, who in 1983 left Beijing to travel overland around his own country of China.

Make no mistake about it: Red Dust is the tale of a real vagabond.

There are no pretty scenes depicting the wonders of the terracotta army, nor beautiful Chinese landscapes.

Instead be prepared for an honest journal of a poor artist who has the choice of getting a standard job, choosing a wife, and living how the state dictates he should; or simply leave. Ma Jian choose the latter. With only a camera, his journals, and a pocket of small cash he went against the will of everyone and left to explore his homeland in all its reality.

Flea picking, urinating & quite a few breasts

Throughout the book Ma Jian picks up fleas quite often. And, seems to see women’s breasts nearly everywhere he goes. Let’s not forget this was 1983 in China, and many a man was being arrested for showing even a playing card with a womans leg exposed on it. The author also seems to witness a lot of people urinating. Again, this is a pretty raw reality style book. Written originally in Chinese this is an English translation, so no minced words.

Reality as it was

Walking in a desert with no water. Wild dogs attacking, bandits, thieves and running from the police for fear of arrest at taking a photo of a tourist site. Red Dust gives us a rare glimpse at what the life of a Chinese traveler was in 1983. Something that I believe was a rarity then, as it is today.

Ma Jian today

At the time I knew little of Ma Jian. He’s banned from China and currently lives in London with his wife. Yes, the man who wrote Red Dust has written several other books about China that have been deemed too much by The Chinese government and all are banned there including Red Dust. Though for those in the know Red Dust is obtainable thorough a pseudonym. That should give you an insightful look at the type of revealing book this is.

Today Ma Jian continues to write about China. A man who continues to put an emphasis on a writers responsibility in the world today.

Conclusion on Red Dust

Again, it’s not for everyone. If you are looking for a barrel of laughs, and a happy-time travel read you won’t find it here. The book neither flows like an epic, nor do its characters attract that much of a liking. It’s a powerful look at reality that you don’t come across that often in travel literature.

It is a unique book with a rare insight into a world few people have heard about. If you have traveled China extensively, or perhaps want to know what real vagabond traveling is like then you will find this book a good read.

Broken up into large chapters, and many sub chapters Red Dust is easy to pick up, put down, forget about for a week or two then pick up again without missing a beat.

There are very few really good travelogue books out there. I am always happy to come across one that is at least unique. Red Dust certainly is unique as is its author Ma Jian who continues to write today. Other works include The Noodle Maker and Beijing Coma.

Purchase options:

If you’d like to buy this book, please consider purchasing it through one of my Amazon affiliate stores below: I get a tiny, tiny commission of about USD$00.14. Maybe enough to one day save up and buy a Kindle so I can keep these books with me as I travel.

Red Dust: a path through China (Amazon USA)

Red Dust: a path through China (Amazon UK)

Due to Amazon’s system I can only realistically offer the .com and centers. To readers outside of these two Amazon zones please try your local listings!

If you’d like to read some more travel reviews on books, movies and guides I’ve read then please visit my travel review section.

Have you read a really good travelogue? If you have, can you leave the name of the book in the comments, I am always on the look out for good travelogues!

This is an additional travel book review based on books I’ve read throughout my journey

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13 Great responses to Red Dust: a path through China by Ma Jian – travel book review

  1. Great review! often the most incisive travel writing is critical, if the author can manage to walk the line between critique and biased negativity. Can’t wait to track down a copy.

  2. Mandy says:

    This book ain’t no travelogue but a romantic-comedy novel – With or Without You by Carole Matthews. The girl decides to have a little adventure on her own after dumped by her live-in boyfriend. So she sets off to go trekking in the Himalayas.

    Not that I’m promoting the book but it’s easy reading & has ‘reminded’ me that I really must go to Nepal soon :D

    • Hmmm, With or Without You probably is not my thing. Though I did read the synopsis. Thanks for the suggestion. Strange thing is if I had a kindle I’d be more inclined to read this type of book than search out a paperback :)

      Let me know if you need any help re Nepal

  3. Michael says:

    Glad to see that you have a more relaxed schedule now to fit in books.

    • I think it’s to do with a lack of humid heat and a lack of electricity plus a supply of second hand books stores nearby. I seem to read more away from humidity. And with no electricity a lot of them time I simply read!

  4. Yi Jie says:

    I live in London now too and have read a lot about Ma Jian in the news. I do not agree with everything this man does. I do think he pushed too many things in China so they ban him. The country is changing. Slowly.

    • Hi Yi Jie,

      I honestly knew nothing of Ma Jian until well after reading this book. I have read about his recent/repeated issues with China lately but am just trying to share my views on the book more than anything else.

  5. Anis says:

    Great post, Dave. I really like ‘Red Dust’, it’s an honest, raw account of what he went through. ‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ is another Ma Jian book you’d like, also banned in China and also very good. I was completely overjoyed when I found it.

  6. Liv says:

    I read Red Dust many years ago and liked it very much. But even more I liked Ma Jian’s book Beijing Coma which I read last year. I recommend this very much :)

  7. I read “Red Dust” a few years ago. I thought it was unique in that it was a travel book about China by someone from that country. Ma Jian was able to give insights that a Western traveller would have missed. I sees there are other recommendation here by the same author so I’ll check them out.

  8. Okay, you lost me at the ‘fleas’ part. Surprised his wife let him sleep in the same bed.