Casting a Lifeline

Casting a Lifeline

Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh corpse of a criminal whom the government had just executed (in celebration of National Day) and whose organs had been speedily harvested for transplant.

Dai Wei’s moral revulsion was tinged with personal anxiety, for this was not the first time that politics had placed a serious strain on his love life. In high school, he had been interrogated and beaten by the police for meeting his girlfriend in a cement culvert, the only place they could be alone. And now the distressing physiology lesson reminded his college girlfriend of why she had been so reluctant to obey her parents’ wish that she cross the border from Hong Kong to study medicine in the brutal, unenlightened People’s Republic. How she longed to go to Canada to major in music or business management!

Like much else in Beijing Coma, this incident provides telling and subtle information about the characters and their milieu. At the same time, the insight it offers into Dai Wei’s academic background enables the attentive reader—in whose intelligence Ma Jian has unusual faith—to answer a nagging question that has been implicit since the book’s opening paragraphs. That is the mystery of why Dai Wei’s earthy, lyrical, and, despite everything, humorous narrative voice is so heavily inflected with scientific terminology—“a bioelectrical signal darts like a spark of light from the neurons in your motor cortex,” in Flora Drew’s exemplary translation. The technical language of the surgical theater has been used, as it will be throughout, to convey Dai Wei’s efforts to diagnose his own medical condition; he is asleep much of the time, and in fact, he gradually realizes, he is in a coma into which he has fallen after being shot in the head during the 1989 demonstration-massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

For much of the book, Dai Wei lies in bed, paralyzed, mute, his eyes shut, cared for by his mother, and hearing himself referred to as “a vegetable.” Yet he is acutely conscious of his situation and painfully aware of the past, which he searches for scraps of memory to assemble a coherent self. A doctor whom Dai Wei’s mother consults informs him that

if I want to come out of my coma, I must make a deliberate effort to remember events I’ve chosen to forget. Before I return to my old life, I must first complete this inward journey into my past.

Trying to follow this advice, Dai Wei rediscovers not only the forgotten events of his own life but the events that marked decades of seismic historical change in China.

Among his earliest recollections is one of a summer night in 1980, when his father returned home with a shaven head after twenty-two years of “re-education” through imprisonment and hard labor. A talented violinist, he had visited the United States as a young man and flirted with the idea of an American concert career. In punishment for his youthful folly, he was branded as a rightist, dooming his stigmatized family to poverty, ostracism, and derision:

When my brother and I were walking through the school cafeteria at lunchtime one day, two older kids flicked onto the ground the plate of fried chicken I’d just bought, and shouted, “You’re the dog son of a member of the Five Black Categories. What makes you think you have the right to eat meat?”

Dai Wei’s grandfather, a landowner, was executed during Mao’s land redistribution program, and in the lobby of the public bathhouse that Dai Wei and his family patronized when he was a child was a red box in which bathers were urged to deposit denunciations of politically suspect neighbors.

By the time Dai Wei turns eighteen, China has changed so drastically—at least on the surface—that thanks to his father’s foreign connections, he is given preferential treatment when he applies to Southern University in Guangzhou City. As Chinese society veers between repressive isolationism and a willingness to admit a trickle of information from the outside world, cultural novelties such as the stories of Hemingway and the paintings of Van Gogh come into fashion, and Dai Wei and his college friends first hear about Freud, whom they imagine to be the author of sex books as they argue about whether or not they possess unconscious minds. Kafka’s The Castle inspires Dai Wei to read the journal his father kept during his imprisonment, in which he learns about the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Thanks to the diary, Dai Wei develops a new understanding of the parent whom he had always despised for making his childhood so difficult. His mother, he was told, was forced to give birth to him wearing a shirt embroidered with the words WIFE OF A RIGHTIST.

* * *

Kafka’s shadow falls heavily over large sections of Ma Jian’s work, which teems with the sort of Grand Guignol nightmares that haunt some of Kafka’s stories. It’s not enough that Dai Wei’s father be sent to a soul-destroying labor camp; the camp is located in a region whose starving inhabitants have been driven to cannibalism. When Dai Wei’s mother must conspire to get her wounded son medical treatment because the government has made it illegal to have been injured by the government, the logic could hardly be more Kafkaesque.

Yet much about Beijing Coma may remind the reader less of Kafka than of Proust—or, if such a thing could be imagined, a Proust who had somehow survived, and emerged from, the violent whirlwind of modern Chinese history. Like In Search of Lost Time, Beijing Coma is driven by the obsessive force of its narrator’s desire to retrieve the past, and derives its formal structure from a highly particular inquiry into the nature of time.

As Dai Wei recalls moments from his youth and writes about the often grotesque incidents (visits to traditional healers, the arrival of a pair of workmen who believe that the apartment’s immobile resident is deaf, and the mercifully brief stay of a sexually predatory boarder) that break the monotony of his comatose existence, a sort of novel within the larger novel begins to take shape. That interpolated narrative, which focuses on the buildup to the massacre in Tiananmen Square, is at once dramatic and so slowly paced that it almost seems a minute-by-minute reconstruction of what happened. The reader is provided with details of the factional conflicts and power struggles, the committee meetings, the rumors, the triumphs and humiliations, the guest appearances of intellectual and pop celebrities, and the individual decisions that initiated and concluded the student hunger strike and led to the confrontation, on June 4, between the demonstrators and the army.

Some of the novel’s most evocative passages capture the atmosphere and the mood of the crowd in the square in the days before the crackdown:

The restless, sweaty bodies below us suddenly resembled maggots wriggling over a lump of meat. We descended to the lower terrace and slowly pushed our way into the tightly packed crowd. It was almost impenetrable. When someone in front of us wanted to go to the toilet or look for a friend, a tiny crack would open, and we could follow behind them for a while. The people lining these narrow pathways, which coursed through the Square like veins, would instinctively raise a foot or shift their shoulders back to make way for us as we passed. If they happened to be sitting down, we had no choice but to climb over their heads. When someone shouted a new slogan, the crowd’s focus would shift, and a new path would open for a second before quickly closing again, like a wound healing over.

On June 1, the mounting tension is briefly dispelled when a crowd of children visit the square in honor of Children’s Day, and a pair of demonstrators, who have fallen in love, celebrate a mock wedding:

The children shouted, “When are the bride and groom going to hand out the sweets?” The bright sunlight shone down on us benevolently. It felt as though we were attending a wedding ceremony on the green lawn of some beautiful estate. The people at the front of the crowd pushed back the people behind…. Chen Di announced that it was time for the groom to put a ring onto his bride’s finger…. Mou Sen pulled out a ballpoint pen from his pocket, got down on his knees, then took Nuwa’s finger and carefully drew a ring around it.

The trajectory of Ma Jian’s narrative comes more or less full circle, as it does in Proust’s masterpiece. And yet the consciousness in which this epic drama takes place could hardly have less in common with that of Proust’s hero. Dai Wei clings desperately to the hope that memory (his own and that of his compatriots) may hold the key not only to individual identity, but to national and cultural survival. The speed with which we forget, the novel suggests, is the velocity at which we rush toward our doom.

* * *

Soon after he is transferred from the hospital to his mother’s flat, Dai Wei recalls leaving Guangzhou City for Beijing, where he planned to earn a doctorate in molecular biology. But the heady distractions of the pro-democracy movement rapidly diverted his attentions:

I remember setting up amplifiers in the canteen one afternoon during our first term at Beijing University. Frustrated by the slow pace of political reform, the students had set up unofficial “salons” to discuss the taboo subjects of freedom, human rights and democracy. Some fellow science graduates and I had formed a discussion group called the Pantheon Society, and had invited the renowned astrophysicist Fang Li to give a lecture on China’s political future. He was an outspoken critic of the government. The students held him in high esteem. We nicknamed him China’s Sakharov. The previous month, the Democracy Salon, a rival forum founded by some liberal arts students, had invited the respected investigative reporter Liu Binyan to give a speech. So our society felt we needed to invite someone of Fang Li’s stature to gain the upper hand.

The final sentence typifies Dai Wei’s sensibility—and Ma Jian’s method. Accounts of the most high-minded revolutionary struggles are gently undercut by an ironic, almost whimsical recognition of the emotions and instincts— competitiveness, pettiness, ambition, vanity, lust—that characterized the students’ behavior. In the most anxious moments preceding the Tiananmen Square debacle, Dai Wei pauses from the demands of being a leader to admire the beauty of the female students who arrive to offer support or exhort the assembled crowd, and the novel captures the charged, aphrodisiac aura that surrounds groups of attractive young men and women who believe that they are effecting historic political change.

* * *

When Dai Wei recalls a series of demonstrations that occurred in 1987, the novel’s playfulness takes a surprising turn as a story by Ma Jian himself is brought into the narrative:

A few days later, the People’s Literature magazine published Stick Out Your Tongue, an avant-garde novella by a writer called Ma Jian. The Central Propaganda Department denounced it as nihilistic and decadent, and ordered all copies to be destroyed, then proceeded to launch a national campaign against bourgeois liberalism.

By the time Stick Out Your Tongue was banned, Ma Jian, who was born in Qingdao in 1953, had already been charged with spreading “spiritual pollution.” This accusation, related to his participation in Beijing’s dissident artist movement, led him to quit his job as a photojournalist for a state-run propaganda magazine and begin a three-year journey across China, documented in his remarkable travel book, Red Dust. His experiences in Tibet inspired Stick Out Your Tongue, a novel in stories that portrays an unwelcoming landscape, a devastated culture, and a ferociously savage society with little resemblance to the popular image of a country inhabited by beaming peasants and beatific, sonorously chanting monks.

“The poverty I saw,” Ma Jian writes in an afterword to that novel,

was worse than anything I’d witnessed in China. My idyll of a simple life lived close to nature was broken when I realised how dehumanizing extreme hardship can be. The Tibetans treated me with either indifference or disdain. Sometimes they even threw stones at me. But the more I saw of Tibet and the damage that Chinese rule had inflicted on the country, the more I understood their anger…. Tibet was a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped out.

Ultimately, the furor over Stick Out Your Tongue drove Ma Jian into exile, first to Hong Kong and then, when Hong Kong came under Chinese rule, to Germany and later London, where he now lives.

In 1989 he left Hong Kong and briefly returned to Beijing. Persuaded that his native land was changing, and wanting to be part of that transformation, he spent six weeks with the demonstrating students, sharing their dormitories and tents. “I watched them stage a mass hunger strike,” as he writes in an explanatory essay,

dance to Simon and Garfunkel, fall in love, engage in futile power struggles. I was ten years older than most of them. Their passion and idealism impressed but also worried me. Denied knowledge of their own history, they didn’t know that in China political protests always end in a bloodbath.

When the violence finally erupted, Ma Jian was a thousand kilometers away, safe in his hometown, where his brother had walked into a clothesline and hit his head on the street and slipped into a coma; in Beijing Coma, Dai Wei’s mother will tell this story to explain her son’s injury and avoid admitting that he was part of an illegal movement. At his brother’s hospital bedside, Ma Jian learned that

hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed students and civilians had been gunned down and crushed by army tanks…. In a state of numb despair, I kept watch over my comatose brother, until, one day, his eyes still closed, he moved his finger across a sheet of paper to write the name of his first girlfriend. His memories had dragged him back to life.

Ma Jian goes on to say that it is now forbidden in China to mention Tiananmen Square. “The Chinese are a people who ask no questions, and who have no past. They live as in a coma, blinded by fear and newfound prosperity.” Part of what gives his novel its highly energized, manic edge is the fierceness of his conviction that it might be possible for a work of literature to function as a lifeline to cast out into the world, on the chance that it might save even a few of its readers from drowning.

* * *

As Dai Wei’s ten-year coma drags on, his mother is contacted by the families of other victims of the massacre, parents who have formed an underground group, Tiananmen Mothers, dedicated to tallying the dead and wounded and keeping alive the memory of a tragedy that the government claims never happened. Every year, on the anniversary of the demonstration, the police move its surviving victims—including Dai Wei—from Beijing to suburban hotels, in order to prevent them from talking to foreign journalists.

Meanwhile, the collective memory is being efficiently erased by the popular enthusiasm for high-end electronics, showy weddings, and luxury automobiles. “No one talks about the Tiananmen protests any more,” Dai Wei says.

The Chinese are very adept at “reducing big problems to small problems, then reducing small problems to nothing at all,” as the saying goes. It’s a survival skill they’ve developed over millennia.

Like Ma Jian’s brother, “dragged back to life” by the name of his first girlfriend, the persistently romantic Dai Wei remains in love with all three of his former sweethearts, even after he learns that the girl he used to meet in the cement pipe has become a real estate developer whose latest project will destroy his mother’s apartment. When his withered body is no longer capable of pursuing the objects of his desire, he develops a passion for a visiting nurse, and finally a deep attachment to a sparrow that flies into his open window.

Now when Dai Wei’s old friends visit, they wear expensive suits, carry cell phones, and proudly display the accoutrements of their prosperous new lives. Suddenly, everything is for sale, and, in the burgeoning Chinese economy, even the country’s traditional healers have turned into profiteers. “The best hope for him now would be to put him on this 20,000-yuan treatment plan,” one doctor tells Dai Wei’s desperate mother.

This 6,000-yuan plan he’s on now gives him just five of my qigong sessions, an acupuncture session and a course of Chinese herbal medicine. It only lasts twenty-four days. There’s no way he will have come out of his coma by then.

Dai Wei also undergoes a profound metamorphosis, as his own suffering gives him new respect for the courage and endurance shown by his parents in managing to endure the barbaric era through which they lived.

Only the harsh realities of fear and repression remain essentially the same. Granny Pang, the neighborhood informer, alerts the police each time a representative of Tiananmen Mothers comes to visit. When Dai Wei’s mother is forced to sell one of his kidneys to pay for his medical bills, she brings forged records to the hospital where the surgery will be performed so the doctors will not suspect they are treating a victim of the infamous protest. Having endured the Cultural Revolution and witnessed her husband’s grisly fate, she has lived her whole life in terror of committing the most trivial infraction of government or Party regulations. So one’s heart sinks when she casually mentions that she has been feeling healthier and happier since she joined the Falun Gong movement.

* * *

As the novel nears its conclusion, Dai Wei’s present and past converge. Not only do we know how the story of Tiananmen Square will end, but we have learned the fates of the characters when a group of Dai Wei’s former comrades gather at his bedside and discuss which of their friends were killed and wounded, which were jailed and driven mad by torture, which have become entrepreneurs or gone abroad to pursue academic careers and form dissident exile groups. Nonetheless, as the army assembles and the tanks roll toward the square, the suspense and horror are almost unbearable. At the same time, we may find ourselves paging rapidly through the final section to see if some miracle may yet cure Dai Wei before what remains of his mother’s sanity is destroyed by the government persecution of a harmless sect of mystics with ideas about inner wheels that can be set spinning by meditation and proper breathing.

During the reunion of Dai Wei’s friends, Wang Fei, whose legs were shattered during the army attack, delivers a rousing speech:

We’re the “Tiananmen Generation,” but no one dares call us that…. It’s taboo. We’ve been crushed and silenced. If we don’t take a stand now, we will be erased from the history books. The economy is developing at a frantic pace. In a few more years the country will be so strong, the government will have nothing to fear, and no need or desire to listen to us. So if we want to change our lives, we must take action now. This is our last chance. The Party is begging the world to give China the Olympics. We must beg the Party to give us basic human rights.

This hortatory passage seems appropriate and fully earned by everything that has preceded it; and it testifies to the success with which Ma Jian has accomplished something extremely difficult. That is, he has created a work of art that functions simultaneously as literature and as a call to action.

After reading Beijing Coma, you want to encourage the sad little protest groups of Falun Gong practitioners, kneeling on the sidewalks outside Chinese embassies and consulates. You want to inform people that China’s human rights abuses extend well beyond the Tibetan borders, and that dozens of Chinese journalists and writers are currently serving prison terms. Your sympathy for the victims of the recent, catastrophic earthquake is intensified by awareness of how their suffering has been exacerbated by man-made factors: the rigidity of China’s one child-per-family policy and the shoddy building methods of rapacious developers. And you wish that copies of the book could be distributed along the route of the Olympic torch’s progress toward the upcoming Beijing games, an event that might not be taking place had the world not succumbed to the seductions of forgetfulness— the same dangers and temptations that Ma Jian’s hero, and his novel, struggle so valiantly to resist.

Francine Prose is the author of many bestselling books of fiction, including A Changed Man, winner of the Dayton Literary Prize, and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her...
Reviewed in This Article

Beijing Coma
by Ma Jian, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,586 pp.

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This article was first published in the June 26, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...