Beijing Coma

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?’


Remembering Tiananmen Square

It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square…

Watched an excellent film on BBC2  last night in which Kate Adie returned to the scene of one of her most memorable assignments: reporting the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Beijing on the 3rd and 4th June, 1989. She was one of the few Western reporters out on the streets then, and witnessed the killings at close quarters. In the film we saw footage from her reports in 1989, as well as the testimonies of eyewitnesses and victims who she met undercover this spring.

One of the 1989 dissidents Adie spoke to was Liao Yiwu. When the tanks rolled into Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989 and brutally suppressed the students’ pro-democracy movement, Liao Yiwu was living in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Reacting to events, Liao composed a long poem, Massacre, which portrayed, with stark imagery, the killing of innocent students and residents.

Excerpts from Massacre

(translated by Wen Huang) Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989

A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice
Represent the mothers to suffocate the children
Represent children to sodomize the fathers
Represent the wives to murder the husbands
Represent the citizens to bomb the city
Open fire, open fire, open fire
Shoot women, students and children
Shoot workers, teachers and venders
Riddle them with bullets
Aiming at those angry faces, shocking faces, contorted faces, despondent faces and tranquil faces
Shoot with abandon
The fleeting beauty of those faces moving toward you like tidal waves
The eternal beauty of those faces heading toward heaven and hell
The beauty of turning humans into beasts
The beauty of seducing, raping and trampling on your fellow citizens
Eliminate beauty
Wipe out the flowers, forest, school campuses, love, and the pure air
Shoot, shoot and shoot…
I feel good and I feel high
Blow up that head
Burn up the hair and the skin
Let the brain erupt
Let the soul gush out
Splash on the bridge, the fence and the street
Splash toward the sky
Blood turned into stars and stars are running
Heaven and earth have turned upside down
Shiny helmets are like stars
Troops are running out of the moon
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot
Humans and stars are falling and running
Indistinguishable, which are humans and which are stars
Troops followed them into the cloud, into cracks on the ground…

We live under bright sunlight
But we have lost our eyesight
We find ourselves on a street, so wide
But no one can take a stride
We stand in a crowd, supposed to be loud
But people open their mouth without sound
We are tortured with thirst
But everyone refuses water.
This unprecedented massacre
Survivors are those bastards.

Also featured in the film was Ai Weiwei, the artist who inspired the design of the ‘Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium (though he later distanced himself from it and expressed views fiercely critical of the Olympics) and the creator of the Web of Light in last year’s Liverpool Biennial. An outspoken critic of the government, he has never forgiven them for sending his father into exile during the Cultural Revolution. Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, the great poet who, during the Cultural Revolution, was exiled to a desert labour camp for being the wrong kind of intellectual. For many years his son lived in another kind of exile, in America. Then, in 1993, Ai returned to Beijing to the bedside of his dying father. Weiwei now lives in China and produces a critical blog. Today Chinese censors are blocking Twitter and other online services, but ChinaGeeks reports that Ai Weiwei’s blog is still up and have translated his latest entry:

Ai Weiwei: Let Us Forget

Let us forget about June 4th, forget this ordinary day. Life has taught us, under totalitarianism, every day is the same. Every day in a totalitarian society is one day, there is no ‘other day’, no ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. We no longer need partial truth, we don’t need partial justice or partial fairness.

Without freedom of speech, without freedom of news, without freedom of elections, we are not people, we do not need to remember. Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.

Let us forget every instance of persecution, every instance of humiliation; every massacre and every cover-up, every lie, every time we are pushed down, every death. Forget every moment of suffering, then forget every moment of forgetting. This is all just so that they, like ‘men of honor’, might ridicule us.

Forget those soldiers who fired on civilians, those students whose bodies were crushed by the treads of tanks, the whistle and scream of bullets and blood on big streets and in the alleyways; a city and a Square without tears. Forget the interminable lies, the rulers hoping everyone has forgotten, forget their cowardess, their evil and ineptitude. We must forget, for they must be forgotten. Only when they’ve been forgotten can [we] exist. For the sake of existing, let us forget.

The report referred to the formation of Charter 08, a manifesto signed by over 303 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists to promote political reform and democratization in China. The Charter calls for changes to improve human rights in China, including an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of one-party rule.

The photo of the anonymous Tank Man taken in 1989 by Jeff Widener, then a 33-year-old American Associated Press picture editor based in Bangkok, from the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel, about half a mile away through a 400mm lens. The still and motion photography of the man standing alone before a line of tanks reached international audiences overnight. Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin also captured the image.

The Tank Man’s protest

Kate Adie’s BBC reports 1989

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: documentary about the Tiananmen protests, part 1