An extraordinary—and offbeat—insider’s account of life in post-Mao, pre-Tiananmen China.
Born in 1953, Ma Jian had a wife, a child, and a good job working as an artist and propagandist for a government trade-union organization. But he wasn’t satisfied living in a China that “feels like an old tin of beans that having lain in the dark for forty years, [and] is beginning to burst at the seams.” Unwisely, he let his disaffection be known by growing his hair long, hanging out with dissident artists, and having a fling or two. His actions caught up with him: his wife divorced him, while his section heads brought him in for endless, surreal self-criticism sessions—one deputy accusing him of using a splotch of yellow paint to “suggest that we are a federation of pornographic trade unions.” Ma took an unlikely course by simply walking away, traveling hobo-style through the western desert, down to the China Sea coast, and eventually to Tibet, where he kept out of trouble with the oppressed, Chinese-detesting locals by passing himself off as a citizen of Hong Kong. Spinning a single narrative, he collects notes on all he saw and did. Always a step ahead of the law, always with a fresh eye, blending in with the crowd, he was able to see things forbidden to Western travelers, from out-of-the-way oases to sometimes unpleasant scenes of daily life (“I went in and ordered a bowl of mutton noodles. They were quite filling, but I kept thinking of the sheep’s head I saw bubbling in the pot”). Out among the cutthroats, brigands, shamans, and rural unemployed, Ma kept clear of the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution for three years, living a grand life of adventure.
How he managed eventually to wander back into Beijing and resume a more or less ordinary life is a matter, presumably, for another book—one that readers will eagerly await.