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MA JIAN . - Chinese dissident writer - - A poet, painter, writer and photographer - Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian: “One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature” . Ma’s Life. 1953 & childhood Born and lived Tsingtao during the Great Leap Forward

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- Chinese dissident writer -

- A poet, painter, writer and photographer -

Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian: “One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature”


Ma’s Life

1953 & childhood

Born and lived Tsingtao during the Great Leap Forward

"My brother and I grew up scavenging for food. We would scour the market floors for half-eaten apple cores, or discarded cabbage leaves - anything to ease our hunger. Our hands would be sore from all the feet that trampled on them. I remember growing up thinking anything green could be eaten. So, we'd go to the countryside and pick grass to cook. We'd eat toothpaste if we could.

"As a child I always wanted to be a PLA soldier. That was my only ambition. Reading about the PLA heroes fighting the Kuomintang made me want to join up. I always had respect for the party, possibly because I knew nothing else.”


Ma’s Life


Grandfather was denounced during the Cultural Revolution

Ma stopped schooling at 13.

Worked as watchmender’s apprentice; Assigned job as painter of propaganda boards for local electronics factory; Moved to Yanshan; Worked as fitter, then publicity photographer, for Yanshan Petrochemical Plant.

Staged first underground exhibition of paintings in Beijing.

Transferred to Beijing to work as photojournalist for propaganda magazine, Workers of China.


Ma’s Life


6 years after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping was back in power and liberated China's economy; Deng began to clamp down on China's budding cultural openness.

Joined ‘No-Name’ art group. Poems published in underground literary journals.

Joined underground artistic and intellectual gatherings to discuss western art, poetry and ideals.

Divorced by his wife, separated from his daughter, betrayed by his girlfriend

Paintings and lifestyle attacked by work unit during national campaign against ‘Spiritual Pollution.’

"There were two campaigns that I fell foul of. Spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalism. My work was beginning to attract attention because it dealt with western aspects of art, not painting glorious scenes of proletarian values. One cover for a book I painted in yellow, but the party said that, in Chinese culture, yellow meant pornography. 'Was I trying to equate the party as pornographic, as shameful?' I said, 'no', but the harassment never ceased. I felt suffocated by all the harassment. I started to lose all faith in the party, and felt like everyone was a bird shitting on me. I had to leave.”


Ma’s Life


Resigned from government job

Immersed himself in the remotest parts of China for 3 yearsHis short stories inspired by travel experiences were subjected to intense government criticism, leading to a general clampdown on modernist literature.


Returned to Beijing

Fled to Hong Kong through a network of dissident friends

He spent most of his time on Lantau, continued to write and paint, eking a living stealing fruit from Buddhist offerings while organizing protests and exhibitions.

"I liked Hong Kong. Although it is all about making money, at least, unlike China, it left you free to do what you wanted to do. It let me be an artist, a writer, an activist."


Ma’s Life


Returned to Beijing to document democracy movement.


Organized a protest of writers and artists against the handover.

Flora Drew interviewed Ma Jian for a TV documentary (they quickly fell in love).

Moved to Germany to teach Chinese literature at Ruhr University.1998

Moved to join Flora Drew in London.

Began work on Red Dust, the story of three years of travelling through the hinterland of China's most remote province, adopting various identities to avoid police surveillance.

Drew translated in parallel to his writing.


Published Red Dust’s English edition.


Red Dust won the HK$ 124,800 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award 2002

Sold more than 50,000 copies and received enthusiastic reviews.


Ma’s Life

Dec 2003

Gave birth to Jack Ma


‘Living in London is like being on a luxury cruise liner,' he explains through his partner and translator, Flora Drew (after five years in London, his English is not conversational).

'I'm living very comfortably, but I'm not in control of where it's going and that's never as comfortable as having both feet on the ground. This is something I can only feel when I return to China.

"I love London," Ma says. "I love big cities. They're so alive. But it's not home. I feel an outsider here. My roots are elsewhere. In China."


Ma’s Works

1987: 馬建之路 (The Road of Ma Jian)

1987: 你拉狗屎 (A Dog’s Life) 1989: 思惑 (Bemused)

1992: 我是毛澤東的兒子 (I am the son Mao Zedong)

1993: 九條义路 (Nine-forked path)

1994: 拉麵者 (The Noodle Maker)

1996: 怨碑:馬建中短篇小說選 (The Lament)

1996: 人生伴侶:馬建詩歌散文 (Companions)

1996: 一個吸毒女人的自述

(Confessions of a Female Drug Addict)

1997: 發生關係 (Intercourse)

2001: Red Dust (Translated by Flora Drew)

2002: 紅塵 (Red Dust)

2004: The Noodle Maker (Translated by Flora Drew)

Published in Netherlands, France, Japan, Norway, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Israel


Ma’s Works

Compared with

Milan Kundera:

The absurdity and dark humour of Milan’s portraits of life behind the Iron Curtain

Gao Xingjian:

Shares elements of the fictional-mystical travelogue “Soul Mountain”



Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalization

Ma believed it was designed to keep the party in power. "Deng was a pragmatist," he says. "He didn't want to give the people any say. They were not going to give anyone any political freedom, just the freedom to make money. The party still wanted control, for itself, for its own ends. I couldn't live like that."

Chinese writers

"I have no regard for these so-called writers in China. They should speak out. It's a writer's job to speak from the heart; their responsibility to tell it like it is. They say they can't, because they won't get published. By being in England, I see what I see, as an outsider and as an insider. I can write what I want. Even Chinese writers in England say they don't want to get involved, that they wouldn't get published in China if they spoke out. But what is the point of writing just for money?



Western readers

"Many Chinese like to write about the suffering of Chinese people, without giving much hope. I think they know it will sell, because western people like to read about Chinese suffering - it makes them feel lucky. I think this is why Chinese literature is becoming so popular here.”

(the reporter asked) Also, perhaps, because the translations are getting better?

"Perhaps," says Drew, without translating.


Began his 3-year expedition in the remotest parts of China.

Carrying a journalist's 'letter of introduction', he paid his way by writing articles, painting pictures and giving the occasional university lecture. When the going got tough, he posed as a fortune-teller, hairdresser, toothpaste peddler and sofa maker.

He writes of a village of Wa tribal people near the Burmese border: “All I took from that foreign land were memories of old women with caved stomachs, girls with bloodshot eyes selling loose tobacco, a desperate mother crouched by a pothole, dropping potatoes to her son who had fallen down four days before while out picking berries, and a man dragging a banana tree to market hoping to earn some drinking money. People who live isolated from the modern world maintain their traditions, but also their poverty.”




P.61: I board the steam train to Urumqi and watch the red walls of Beijing slip sway.

P.61: I hate the way his left hand keeps tapping the lid of the ashtray on the wall. His teeth are as grey as his shirt collar … The wheat fields on that (right) side seem greener … The bespectacled man on my right has nodded off.


P.61: I have left my job and packed a change of clothes, a notebook, two bars of soap, a water bottle, a torch, a compass, two hundred yuan, a wad of rice coupons, my camera and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (left all other things behind)




P.61: (to himself) My nerves begin to calm. I don’t want to read, or speak, or move, or think … Live your own life … Sky beyond the sky … Empty, everything is empty.

P.69: (in diary form) Tried reaching the mountains this afternoon. Walked 10 kms, but didn’t get near. Saw trucks stream from a quarry …


P.70: Someone in a Yellow River truck tossed a bottle out of his window today and it smashed on my shoulders. Bastard.




P.62: So, smelling of tobacco, jasmine tea, dirty nylon socks and the vomit of my fellow passengers, I step off the train and take a deep breath of March air.

P.74: His breath reeks of tobacco.


P.61: My old life recedes into the distance and my heart races with the train as we rattle towards China’s far west.

P.91: The wind thunders like a thousand cantering horses as it throws branches and stones against walls and tears through the sky.




P.61: The neat fields outside the window flick past like pages of a book.

P.62: The fierce rays heat the train windows and make the dust on the floor sparkle like snow.

P.70: When I set out in the morning, the light on the Qilian mountains is a slant of pale green. At noon it is a straight beam of emerald. By the afternoon it scatters and becomes the same colour as the sky. White peaks follows me on the left.


P.72: No wonder horses roll to the ground when they are tired. I feel better with my hooves in the air. I kick off my shoes and let my steaming toes suck the wind.

P.79: When the sun rises overhead the desert becomes a sheet of burning red iron.



P.62: Four years ago, when Deng Xiaoping first welcomed foreign tourists back to China, Jiayuguan was one of just 28 towns he allowed them to visit.

P.63: Sunlight bounces off a propaganda picture on a whitewashed wall. It is a painting of a little girl in a red skirt standing between a man and a woman. The slogan beneath says “Carry out family planning. Contribute to the Four Modernizations.”

P.64: The certificates of merit and posters of Chairman Mao stuck on the wall have baked dry in the sun.

P.66: On my right, the Great Wall crumbles to its end in the foothills of the Mazong. On my left, the silver Qilian peaks are still hooked to the blue sky.

P.70: Its brim is printed with a line of Chairman Mao’s poetry: ‘Grim pass, hard as iron.’ Never mind. At least I can’t see it.

P.82: As I approach I hear a propaganda song blasting from the village speaker. ‘Every village, every hamlet, beat your drums and strike your gongs! Chairman Mao’s splendour shines throughout the land. Mountains smile, rivers smile, everyone smiles: Socialism is Good …’ Old Mao has been dead for eight years now and they’re still bloody smiling!

P.96: I look at his (Buddha) face again and suddenly it reminds me of Mao Zedong. I drew the Chairman’s portrait hundreds of times from primary school to middle school.




“Honest, raw, insightful. . . . The Chinese equivalent of On the Road.”


“[Ma’s] powers of description make every page buzz with life. . . . Someone who could rank among the great travel writers.”


“Red Dust is a tour de force, a powerfully picaresque cross between the sort of travel book any Western author would give his eye-teeth to write, and a disturbing confession.” –The Independent (UK)


“Ma captures the feel of wandering off China’s beaten track, which is to say most of the country, far from the tour buses and souvenir stands.”


Flora Drew

“Afterwards he gave me a pile of his books to read. I fell in love with him just reading them. Not in a romantic way, there was just this intense connection.”

“He's incredibly kind. As soon as he knows someone's coming round he puts on his apron and makes a cake. He's someone who needs absolute order and is incredibly tidy.”

Ma Jian

“I fell in love with her within about a week. She had a Chinese name, which was a peasant's name and I didn't think it was right for her at all. So I gave her a new one, which means "Cloth of Heaven".”

“I love the fun we have together, particularly when we travel. She's kind, resourceful, very good tempered and a calming influence, whereas I tend to be impatient. She's very messy, though.

“I see her as the central core of my life. I now feel complete.”


NEXT ...

Ma's books are still banned in China, though Red Dust was published under a pseudonym, but he is now free to enter the country.

Though he would love to return permanently to his homeland, he appreciates the perspective that distance allows him; his next project 《北京植物人》, is a novel about a coma patient injured in Tiananmen Square, who wakes in the twenty-first century to find that his whole country appears to be in a coma too.

“There is a saying that the further you stand from the mountains, the more clearly you see them. China is completely lacking in self-awareness and as someone who has stepped outside that society, I have a responsibility to write about it as I see it.”