Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma

A review of the novel Beijing Coma and interview with its author, Ma Jian, first published in Prospect, July 2008

If the Tiananmen protests hadn’t failed in 1989,” Ma Jian tells me, “there wouldn’t be this book. I wanted through it to find out how such a huge democratic movement could collapse.” The book in question is Beijing Coma. It has taken ten years to write, another two to translate, and anatomises China’s doomed revolution with an attention to detail that is almost orchestral—a beautiful, bewildering cacophony of voices and deeds.

“From the outside,” Ma explains, “the protests looked like a mass movement. But in fact they were tiny, disconnected pockets of people.” Like Orwell’s Catalonia in 1937, the Beijing students in 1989 were a mess of competing committees and would-be leaders, with moderates shouted down by radicals, and organisers unable to channel the popular sympathy they received. And yet, armed with nothing more than slogans, the 100,000 students who gathered in Tiananmen Square shook the world’s largest autocratic regime to its core.

Beijing Coma is narrated through the figure of Dai Wei, a student shot in the head during the final, brutal extinguishing of the Tiananmen protests. Years later, unable to move, speak or see, he lies on an iron bed, his mother grumpily tending to his decaying body, while his mind hovers between the present, memories of childhood and the events leading up to the 1989 massacre.

Much as Beijing transforms almost beyond recognition around Dai Wei’s comatose body, the global perception of China has changed immeasurably since Ma began to write Beijing Coma: from that of a developing economy struggling to modernise to a superpower dazzling the world with its relentless growth. Yet some things have remained in stasis and, Ma believes, the time for a historical reckoning is long overdue. “Memory and a sense of history give power. The Chinese regime has always been determined to deny this power to its people.”

Appropriately enough, Beijing Coma is a novel of oppositions: of seasonal and generational changes; of the fraught relationship between hope and experience. The build-up to protest and destruction inches forward within it alongside a narrative of present squalor and defeat—Dai Wei’s immobile body, and the hounding of his mother by the authorities. The protestors of 1989 are painted not as revolutionaries or anarchists but patriots, fighting for what they saw as the true legacy of communism: democratic reforms. Their biggest banner, hung from the roof of the Museum of Chinese History, simply reads “honest dialogue”; other slogans include “I love democracy more than bread!” and “I can endure hunger, but not a life without liberty!”

As relationships and alliances are made and broken, however, the protests take on a life of their own. At one point, the personal appearance of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist general secretary of the Communist party, offers the tantalising possibility of salvation. But even his words prove unable to break the deadlock: the political will simply doesn’t exist among the party’s elite. A day after his visit to the students, Zhao is stripped of all his positions, martial law is declared, and the final act begins: the forceful dismantling of the crowd into assaulted, isolated bodies. “Like deer gathering at a lakeside to drink,” Dai Wei recalls, “the students gathered at the Monument [at the centre of Tiananmen Square], unaware that the square was a hunting ground and the Monument was the snare.” The protestors are trapped and gunned down.


I meet Ma Jian on 6th June, a couple of days after the 19th anniversary of this bloody conclusion. We talk through a translator—Flora Drew, who is also his wife and the mother of his two children—at a café near their home in west London. I fumble between a beefburger and a dictaphone, addressing my questions to Flora, who translates for Ma between sips of tea. He picks at a hot chocolate fudge brownie, they discuss what I might have meant, then she relays the response. It’s an elaborate business. Chinese, Flora explains, is a “fluid language that flows everywhere,” without the strict tenses or chronology of English—something that can lend a distanced, slightly flat effect to even the best translations, including Beijing Coma.

Ma and Flora came to England from Hong Kong after the 1997 handover from British rule, but Ma still speaks almost no English. He writes in Chinese, but is largely read in (English) translation; his subject is the tragedy of China’s ignorance of its own recent history, yet censorship means that most Chinese people think he has written nothing since his short-story collection Stick Out Your Tongue (1987). Here, then, is the international space within which much of China’s most important contemporary writing is taking place. Still, Ma has high hopes for this, his fourth book. “I hope that there will be many pirated copies, that it will make its way through underground channels into the country. I hope that young Chinese people will be able to read it and reconnect with their past.”

Ma Jian was in Beijing in 1989 to support the demonstrations, though he left a few days before the final massacre to tend to his brother, who was ill. He remains an idealist, yet he is anything but naive. “I always feel despair about the present, but optimism about the future,” he tells me. It’s a combination that describes the novel perfectly. Over its first 100 pages, the worst excesses of the cultural revolution and its aftermath are plumbed in cold detail: Dai Wei’s father, a professional violinist, spends 20 years in a labour camp for his “rightist” sympathies, so starved that he resorts to cannibalism to stay alive; almost all the other characters’ parents have been tortured, raped, or in some way brutalised. Yet it is in part the inability of this generation to pass on a proper account of the atrocities they suffered that dooms their children—no lessons have been learned or perpetrators called to account.

As we gradually come to realise, however, the greatest naivety Beijing Coma depicts is not that of the idealistic protestors, but that of those who, like Dai Wei’s mother, considered themselves pragmatists—who tried to keep their heads down and subsist via conformity. Here, Ma suggests, lies the most pernicious of illusions; the denial of common humanity in the name of security. Dai’s mother fearfully colludes with the party against both her husband and son. But her only rewards are isolation, persecution and gradual impoverishment until, in a final irony, her innocent practice of Falun Gong becomes a new target for the party’s paranoia—one more arbitrary persecution to add to the list of injustices. Uselessly, belatedly, her loyalty turns to hatred. Dai, meanwhile, travels within himself towards the kind of accommodation with memory and history impossible in his former life. In the best allegorical tradition, he is the (literally) paralysed conscience of his nation. Like Tiananmen Square during the protests, his mind is a chamber of passionate emotions and sensitivities, unable to move the massive bulk surrounding it, yet more fully alive to human and historical possibility than any of the state’s apparatus.

On a first reading, I found something unsettling about this central motif of paralysis, which seemed an emblem of the futility of pitting words and ideas against tanks and guns. Yet it is the paradoxical power of the image that has stayed with me: this defeated, silent witness becoming a lord of infinite spaces within. “It’s only when you sink to these lower depths,” Ma explains, “that you become able to sense the sublime. And it is only when you lose everything that you can appreciate fully the significance of details.” Yet isn’t there a danger, I ask, that people will always prefer to be safe and prosperous—as the Chinese increasingly are—rather than free? “Even the allure of affluence can’t thwart the desire for democracy and freedom. These are always legitimate and valid, no matter how dark society becomes.”

The resilience of this aspect of human nature is evoked within the novel by Dai Wei’s relationship with an ancient Chinese text, The Book of Mountains and Seas; a book of fables whose fantastical geography of birds, landscapes and monsters he read through his childhood and dreamed of exploring. The book lives on in his mind as a mythically charged map of China and all it could be. It has become part of him, binding him to his country in a way that politics never could; its enduring power speaks of something in him more permanent and potent than the body the state has ruined.

The last century has seen many narratives of oppression and atrocity which conclude that something implacably dark and self-destructive lies at the heart of our natures. Beijing Coma, like Ma Jian, is uncompromising in its rejection of such despair. “Democracy has to be built up incrementally,” Ma tells me, “through a continuous line of protest and reform. Only democracies allow people freedom, not just in their personal lives, but to write and say what they want. Democracy is the only correct destination for societies.” In its delicate, insistent unearthing of the terrible past, Beijing Coma is a part of this process—the incremental battle to be more fully human.