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Book Reviews Red Dust: A Path through China and Iron and Silk Critical Essay

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Updated: Jul 4th, 2019

Red Dust by Ma Jian

Red Dust presents the author’s (Ma Jian) experiences in China while it was under the communist rule in the 1980s. The book falls under the genre of a travelogue as it essentially gives details of the author’s three-year travels across China in a quest for self-discovery and spiritual fulfilment.

The author’s style is very descriptive, thus giving the reader a sense of presence, as though he or she were present during the described events. The novel is set at a turbulent period in Jian’s life and in the lives of Chinese citizens as a whole, during the culture revolution era (Baum 1997).

In 1983, a countrywide “anti-spiritual pollution campaign” puts his career at risk as it cracks down on a specific type of artistry that results to a ban on his work including paintings and literature and a brief period of detention after which he is released.

His wife denounces him as a political criminal and bars him from seeing their daughter, his only child (Jian 2002).

These events fuel Jian’s decision to leave mainland China, Beijing to be specific, with nothing more than a little money and essentials like water, a change of clothes, and a book to keep him busy (Jian 2002).

The book gives the reader a chance to have a view of China from an ordinary citizen’s perspective during the tyrant Communist regime in place at the time. Jian’s description of events gives a sad picture of the country, by mostly depicting squalor and great hardships.

In the book, Jian seeks a utopian society, which is different from the one he leaves behind in Beijing. In most places that he visits, things appear the same, except for the people in leadership.

One of the most evident themes in the novel is chaos, which is evident in the state that people live in throughout the country and the dictatorial leadership with which people put up. Jian paints a picture in which people work not to make a living, but to survive.

He gives an illustration of an angler and his son who work hard yet gain so little, all in a bid to cater for their basic needs and ultimately get the son a wife. In a different scene, he describes the disgusting state of a washroom that he visits in the city where there is filth all over.

Looking through a crack in a window, he sees shacks crowded with people sweating under the heat of the sun. To this experience, he remarks, “I feel a longing for the empty grasslands and the cruel deserts. At least the air was clean there” (Jian 2002, p.115).

The jobs that people do to survive include selling rats and brides, which is an indication of how poor the economy is at the time.

Another prominent theme in the novel is that of tyranny. Jian describes the leadership as dictatorial as it takes over the lives of people without giving them a chance to input their opinion.

One of the examples is the institution of the anti-spiritual campaign, as well as the detention of Jian for questioning concerning his work.

The author quotes an officer who escorts him to the gate of the Western District Security Bureau after his release from detention as saying, “Don’t look so pleased… If we want, we can make you slowly disappear” (Jian 2002, p.23).

He also describes a graphic scene where police officers arrest a man and hurl him in the back of a truck.

When the man tries to scream, the officers, using a piece of wire, slice through his face, push him out of the truck, and shoot him in the head. He explains that executions were a norm at the time and thus this slay was hardly surprising (Jian 2002).

The author describes women in the society as property owned by men and thus enslaved by society. At one time, Jian earns some money and tries to cheer up a man on the next table as he enjoys his meal and the man explains the reason for his gloom.

Some people had kidnapped his sister and sold him as a bride, which was a common practice at the time judging from the presence of traders in the market, selling brides.

The society also views women as objects to fulfil men’s desires as the author states that he had been lucky with a few women though his quest did not leave room for relationships.

The main strength is the author’s detailed description that has the effect of making the reader feels a sense of presence and enabling him or her to connect with the characters in the book.

This style also enables the reader to have a different perspective of China than the overall oppression in that era as depicted by history books. However, a weakness also presents itself in the form of confusion as to whether the novel is a biography or a narrative.

Certain aspects of the story point to it being a biography, such as a description of the author’s life before the journey and the fact that the events in the book bear similarities to those in history books descriptive of the Communist era.

Other aspects like the hovering ball of fire that protects him from militiamen for twelve miles in the jungle seem more fictional than real. Another weakness that the book exhibits is the lack of a conclusion on whether the author finds the spiritual enlightenment he is after or not.

The lack of this revelation leaves the reader in suspense, which is perhaps the author’s intention for the application of the stylistic device.

The book is an entertaining and informative piece of literature as it highlights the occurrences of the Communist China that most history books do not provide.

It is especially enlightening on the culture, both the Chinese culture and Buddhism, which are two aspects that apply in the nation to date.

The number that the author quotes as people executed during the period, two hundred thousand (200,000), seems a little excessive even though there might be truth to the statement (Jian 2002).

The book is highly recommendable to anyone with interest in literature and the Chinese culture considering that it is written in simple English and is not voluminous.

Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman

This book is an account of an American English teacher who travels to Changsha city in China’s Hunan province in the South Central region.

Mark developed a keen interest in the Chinese culture and specifically martial arts at an early age by joining Kung Fu classes at the age of thirteen with support from his parents.

As he grew older and progressed with his education, he graduated from Yale, a private Ivy League college in the US and took up a teaching position at Hunan Medical School in China in 1982.

The book is mainly a biography of his experiences for the period of two years that he stayed and taught at the school, with the main ones being those of his interest in martial arts and calligraphy.

The book also gives an outsider’s account of China during the Cultural Revolution era when communist and socialist ideologies ruled, which is a key setting in several books about China including the Forty Seven Ronin by Allyn (1989), Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (1995), and Red Dust by Ma Jian (2002).

Mark’s story gives the reader an outsider’s image of China, thus making the described occurrences more objective without the prejudice of earlier experiences offered by authors who have lived there from birth.

The stories that Mark tells trigger mixed emotions of adventure, the beauty of the people, as well as the hardships that people face under oppressive leadership (Ilan 2003).

The author’s view of China is mainly utopian, which provides a contrast to the American society through his description of experiences.

For instance, the author displays his fascination with the discipline that martial arts performers apply in perfecting their skills, which is a clear indication of the rarity of such immense discipline in the American society where he grew up (Salzman 1987).

Another subtle indication of contrast appears in the way he describes the people’s nature. Mark creates a picture of gentle people who are accommodating and eager to learn about the American culture from him (Salzman 1987).

This aspect allows Mark to create a special bond with his teachers as well as other people that he interacts with during his stay.

One of the main themes in the story is oppression as seen through the description of leaders and their attitude towards their subjects.

The government is oppressive by controlling every aspect of the people’s lives including trade, the railways, and activities that involve people gathering at one point like burials (Salzman 1987). It almost depicts a sense of paranoia by the ruling class that is evident for the reader to see.

Resilience is yet another key theme in the story as displayed by the author’s account of his calligraphy lessons.

When Mark starts calligraphy under the watchful eye of his teacher, Hai Bin, he performs exceptionally by attaining significant improvement in the skill, but soon he gets bored and wants a different model to work on.

His teacher is disappointed at this request by stating that some people dedicate their entire lives perfecting their skill on a single model and so he tells Mark, “you should be willing to spend a year on this one” (Salzman 1987, p.86)

This assertion shows the amount of relentless dedication that people put on art forms that they choose.

Another example, and one of Mark’s inspirations, is Mark’s martial arts teacher, Pan, who punches a fifty-pound plate of steel numerous times each day as part of his dedication to his training (Salzman 1987).

Mark’s restlessness is an indicator of normal American behaviour that seems strange due to the change of environment.

The only visible weakness in the book is perhaps the author’s neglect to analyse situations by writing mostly in a descriptive fashion.

This effect is cancelled out by the informative nature of the descriptions given about the Chinese culture, thus enabling the reader to relate easily with the writer’s experiences

The book is an excellent piece of literature portraying the culture and beauty of the Chinese people in a turbulent era. The author’s style is not too descriptive and thus it leaves enough room for the reader’s imagination, an element that makes the book interesting.

The book is suitable for the general audience as it is not too graphic in describing the ugliness of the society. It is inspirational to readers as it contains some life lessons such as acceptance of one’s own culture and the benefit of open-mindedness when confronted by other people’s cultures.

Reference List

Allyn, J 1989, The Fourty-Seven Ronin Story, Tuttle Publishing, Boston, MA.

Baum, R 1997, “The Road to Tiananmen”, in R MacFarquhar (ed), The Politics of China: The eras of Mao and Deng, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, pp.340-430.

Ilan, A 2003, Chinese Culture, Organisational Behaviour and International Business Management, Preager Publishers, Westport.

Jian, M 2002, Red Dust: A Path Through China, Anchor Publishing, New York.

Salzman, M 1987, Iron and Silk, Vintage Publishing, New York.

Yoshikawa, E 1995, Musashi, Kodansha International, Oxford.

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