I’ve just finished reading Ma Jian’s monumental novel of the Tiananamen Square protest, Beijing Coma. ‘ History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, said Stephen Daedelus in Ulysses. That could be the epigraph for this novel of which has its central character Dai Wei, lying in a coma, conscious but paralyzed, since he was shot in the head near Tiananmen Square on the terrible night of 4 June 1989. Trapped in Dai Wei’s mind, the novel alternates between his childhood in the cultural revolution and involvement in the 1989 student movement, and China’s transformation in the decade from 1989 to the millennium, as he overhears it from his bed in his mother’s apartment.
Beijing Coma appeared immediately before the 2008 Olympics and a year before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre. As such, it is not only a powerful novel but also an important political statement. Ma Jian has made his intentions clear in a preface included in the Chinese edition, where he states that it is the Chinese people who are truly comatose: “Inside Dai Wei,” he writes, “there is a strong, resilient person who remembers, and only memory can help people regain the brightness of freedom.” As Ma Jian himself has said, for the Chinese ‘remembering has become a crime’.
The major part of the novel consists of drama-documentary style scenes from the weeks leading up to and the days during the occupation of Tiananmen Square. There’s a huge cast of characters (including at one point Ma Jian himself), and an enormous attention to details of the organisation and daily routines of life in the Square.What comes across from this account is the disorganisation of the student movement, conflicts over its aims and tactics and the emergence of opportunistic or extremist leaders. Nevertheless there’s always a sense of the immense weight of history that rests on this generation’s shoulders. who believe, against all odds, that some good can emerge from the wreckage of their childhoods during the cultural revolution and the terrible losses of their parents’ generation.
The intensity of the intertwined narratives increases as their ends draw closer: the massacre itself, with Dai Wei shot in the head, and, lying in a waking coma 12 years later, as the heart is ripped out of his neighbourhood in Beijing to make way for the Bird’s Nest stadium and other Olympic developments.
Dai Wei has discovered that most of his friends who survived the aftermath of Tiananmen Square have fully embraced the motto of the Deng Xiaoping era: ‘To get rich is glorious’. His first girlfriend, now in property development, has bought his mother’s building so that it can be torn down as part of Beijing’s redevelopment in preparation for the Olympics. Driven insane by her own imprisonment after a brief flirtation with Falun Gong, Dai Wei’s mother refuses to budge.
‘You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning. But once you’ve climbed out of this fleshy tomb, where is there left for you to go?’
- Ma Jian: The great Tiananmen taboo (Guardian, 2 June 2009)
- Tiananmen: The flame burns on (Observer, May 2009)
- The tragic history of June 4 1989 captured on camera
- Virtual Museum of China ’89
- Children of the revolution: Guardian review
- Review at politics.co.uk
- Excerpt from Beijing Coma with reading guide
- Ma Jian: Slaughter and forgetting (Independent)
- On the 19th anniversary of Tiannamen, Ma Jian speaks out against the silence of Chinese writers (Times, May 2008)