Peking Coma and the Obligation of History

On June 4, 2004, we marked the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen. Ma Jian's most recent novel, Beijing Coma, available in English- and French-language translations, affords the reader a unique perspective on this tragedy. Like most of Ma’s works, Beijing Coma, the Chinese title of which is "Land of meat" (肉土), straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, personal testimony and fable, history and freedom, between disillusion and the obligation of memory. Click here for French version.

Sometimes called "China's Solzhenitsin", Ma Jian was born in 1953 in the picturesque city of Qingdao (in Shandong province). He began his career as a photojournalist and painter for the propaganda services, and began writing satiric pieces in the 1980s. His style displeased China’s authorities, who put him under surveillance. Ma left China for Hong Kong in 1987. One year later, he published his first novel, Stick out Your Tongue. The novel takes place in Tibet, and Ma paints a sober picture of Tibetan culture, despite its exotic allure. The novel was immediately banned in China. In 1990, he published The Noodle Maker, in which the city of Beijing is the canvas for an intrigue involving a writer writing for the Party and a man who had made a fortune in the blood trade. Ma moved to Germany in 1997 and to England in 1999 (with his wife and translator Flora Drew), and subsequently published Red Dust, a sort of autobiographical novel in which the narrator recounts a trip to China, a country where he now feels a stranger, a country which is hopelessly corrupt.

Ma Jian was in Hong Kong when the events of 1989 occurred in Peking. Out of a feeling of soldarity with the causes defended by the protestors, he left Hong Kong to join the students. In the streets of Beijing, he took pictures and wrote down his thoughts on the movement and its dénouement. Some of these memories and feelings are found in Chinese Noodles and others in Beijing Coma, which Ma took ten years to write.

In Beijing Coma we relive the events of Tiananmen Square through the character of Dai Wei, a student leader on the barricades with his posters demanding freedom and democracy. Struck in the head by a projectile from the weapon of a plainclothes policeman, Dai, a doctoral student in biology at Beijing University, falls into a deep coma, and enters a kind of parallel life where he remembers, in bits and pieces, events from his life and the life of his friends and family. He recounts the lives of his father, a “rightist”, and his mother, a devoted communist, and emerges finally from his coma after ten years, and no longer recognizes the China for which he had fought at Tiananmen. The reader follows the same journey as Dai Wei and lives the chronological evolution which produce the strange China described for us by Ma Jian. We see for example the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), through Dai’s memory of a young village girl whose body the Party ordered to be eaten, on the principle that “If you don’t eat the enemy, you are the enemy.”

The author also touches on a number of newsworthy subjects in contemporary China, such as the frightening increase in the cost of health care, the greed and the hunger for profit which have taken over many Chinese, the attraction of the Falun Gong (Ma Jian’s mother was a practitioner), etc. The end of the novel—I hope this won’t spoil it for future readers—stands as a magnificant evocation of the China consumed by Deng Xiaoping’s slogan « to get rich is glorious. » The two main characters, one mute and the other crazy, lie down in the road to try to block the bulldozers which have come to destroy their apartment building.

Most of the novel, however, is about Tiananmen, which Ma Jian treats one day at a time, or even one detail at a time, which occasionnally tries the patience of the reader. Ma Jian’s rendering of the events of Tiananmen are very much of a piece with his other ascerbic writings, and he does not hesitate to point out the internecine struggles between groups of students with different ideas and slogans, and strategies that take them in different directions. He notes the search for celebrity among certain leaders, the cowardice among others, those who abandoned the cause before the end…Ma’s portrait is limited almost exclusively to the students, and he hardly mentions the popular demonstrations in which so many other Chinese and Beijingers were involved. Despite their contradictions, the students are portrayed as “those who carried history on their shoulders,” and Ma Jian masterfully allows us to relive the events from the inside. He has concentrated more than half a century of history in this physical, dense, and sometimes painful portrait.

In sum, as one reads this novel which is both a political statement and « statement of accounts, » one has the impression that the Tiananmen exiles have some issues with which they must come to terms. Above all, the reader, whether he is Chinese or not, is called upon to perform the duty of remembering, a theme often repeated in Ma Jian’s writings. Ma is well-known for the public stances he has taken to this effect in recent years: Tiananmen must never be forgotten. "When you lie inside your silent dreams, your memories press into your flesh like iron nails." (p. 313) Today, on the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen, Ma’s book is to be launched in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Will the Chinese recognize themselves? Or has the effacement of these events from their common history and common memory left them forever in their “coma”

Émilie Cadieux, in Montréal

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