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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.

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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...
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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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