Beijing Coma

By Ma Jian
Translated by Flora Drew

Reviewed by Shuyu Kong
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2009)

Ma Jian. Beijing Coma. New York: Picador, 2009. pp. 720. ISBN: 978-0-312-42836-5, ISBN10: 0-312-42836-7 (paper).

Ma Jian. Beijing Coma. New York: Picador, 2009. pp. 720. ISBN: 978-0-312-42836-5, ISBN10: 0-312-42836-7 (paper).

Since the late 1980s, many Chinese intellectuals, artists and writers have fled to Hong Kong, Europe, and North America to escape the “anti-bourgeois liberalism” campaigns and political persecution arising from the June Fourth Student movement. Yet despite their apparent “freedom,” living and writing at the periphery in a strange linguistic and cultural environment has caused most of these exile writers to experience numerous difficulties and dilemmas in both their personal and professional lives. For many, this displaced life was an undesirable situation from which they sought to escape as soon as they could. But for a few lucky ones who have overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers, exile not only provided a creative space sheltered from political censorship and the more beguiling temptations of the market, but also gave them an alternative perspective on literature, identity, and homeland. Through their exilic existence and writing, they have explored the ambivalent and paradoxical relationship between exile and literary creativity, something that was seldom explored in modern Chinese literary history. The Nobel Laureate, Gao Xingjian, with his “aesthetic of fleeing,” is perhaps the clearest example of this new kind of exile consciousness.

Ma Jian seems to be another Chinese writer who has recently achieved public prominence in the West by producing a politically engaged exile literature.[1] As an active dissident artist in China during the early 1980s, and facing serious punishment during the anti-bourgeois liberalism campaign of 1983, Ma quit his job and wandered around the country for over two years. He thus belongs to a whole generation of literary and artistic rebels who began their internal exile long before they physically exited China. During his “illegal journey” around China, Ma Jian conceived a story series on Tibet entitled “Stick out your tongue,” which combined extreme modernist experimentation with controversial religious topics. With Gao Xingjian’s recommendation, this collection was published in the journal People’s Literature. The stories caused another round of literary persecution and gave Ma Jian immediate notoriety as a national literary outcast. Fleeing China in 1987, first to Hong Kong, then Germany, and finally settling in London, Ma Jian became an exiled writer who has consciously identified with the Russian and East European dissidents and their legacy of Samizdat/Tamizdat. In an article entitled “What is Missing in Chinese Literature: Mainland Literature and Overseas Chinese writing,” Ma Jian states the necessity of exile space for creativity and moral choice: “One can’t write in a totalitarian society unless one writes as a rebel. The only way left for such people to keep some moral conscience is to flee . . . . all great writers must have a degree of unrighteousness which can only survive in a healthy and free society.”[2]

Not surprisingly, Ma’s heroic self-image as a dissident, his controversial works, and his uncompromising criticism of China as a totalitarian society have enticed international publishers and readers, and led to comprehensive publication of his works in recent years, including the travel journal Red Dust (红尘; 2001), which recounts his self-exile in China in the mid 1980s; the short story collection, Stick Out Your Tongue (伸出你的舌苔或空空荡荡; 2006) and two novels, The Noodle Maker (拉面者; 2004) and Beijing Coma (北京植物人; 2008). Red Dust and Beijing Coma, both written after his exile and wonderfully translated by Ma’s wife Flora Drew, appeared first in English and other languages before their Chinese editions came out in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Is it possible that such a situation, where Ma writes about China but must sell his work outside China, has influenced some of his ethical and political choices, in other words, the way that he writes about China, and what aspects of China he chooses to represent?

In his latest novel, Beijing Coma, Ma Jian is clearly trying to make a political statement: he sets the novel against the backdrop of the 1989 June Fourth Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath, and its publication was timed to coincide with successive anniversaries of this tragic event: the English version was published in 2008, and the Chinese edition came out in Hong Kong in 2009, right before the twentieth anniversary. In contrast to the media sensation and frenzy of memoirs that emerged in the West and among the diasporic Chinese communities right after Tiananmen, there are few fictional works (including cinematic ones) in Chinese that directly deal with this subject. More often than not, as Michael Berry shows, those that do tend to use allegory and metaphor in which June Fourth becomes a “presenting absence.”[3] In this light, Beijing Coma is the first Chinese literary work to confront the June Fourth Massacre so directly, so bluntly, and in such painstaking detail.

The title, Beijing Coma, refers to the plight of the narrator/protagonist Dai Wei, a Ph.D. student in biology from Beijing University who was shot in the head on the morning of June Fourth and remains in a comatose state until the very end of the novel. Lying immovable in his mother’s dingy apartment in central Beijing, Dai’s mind is nevertheless alert and active, rememberingthe past in minute detail while capturing the present unfolding around him with vivid senses. The story ends on the eve of thenew millennium when Dai Wei seems to wake up from his coma, only to find that his mother has gone mad and their apartment has become a “tomb” about to be crushed by the bulldozers of a demolition company.

The narrative alternates between two streams of Dai’s monologue or consciousness: one is his cumulative remembrance of the several months leading up to the fatal crackdown in 1989, including fragmentary memories of the narrator’s family life and earlier years as a teenager. The other is a description of the mundane and stagnant life of his present confinement from 1989 to 1999, focusing mainly on his mother’s efforts to survive under political and economic pressures, with frequent references to the changed lives of fellow participants since the 1989 demonstrations. By contrasting Dai Wei’s vivid, minute, and detailed remembrance with its immediate context of political suppression and collective amnesia, Ma Jian creates one of the most original and profound images and characters in writing about post-Tiananmen China. Here’s how Ma Jian describes the novel’s protagonist: His body/flesh becomes his castle, and he is able to hide inside it to escape the fate of being reformed, brainwashed and forced to do self-criticism. But in this way, he is the only one who is living in the novel because he holds on to his memory. He is able to reflect on his own remembrance. When he wakes up, he finds that he is reborn in a society full of dead people”[4]

Dai Wei’s comatose state is meant to be a form of resilient protest and resistance to a totalitarian society which enforces a culture of amnesia upon its people, and his persistent remembrance gives a visceral sense of the deeply problematic nature of Chinese society after June Fourth, as one reviewer puts it: “A comatose mind within a terrifyingly vigorous body is the analogy for post-Tiananmen China that emerges from Ma’s book.”[5] This might be the other meaning of the title Beijing Coma.

An important dimension that Beijing Coma adds to contemporary Chinese literature is its bleak depiction of Chinese society after 1989, seen through the victims and those left behind, as an enclosed space of constant political control and increasing social discontent. Children are disillusioned and flee the country; mothers are frequently harassed and cannot openly express the sorrow of their bereavement; the young betray their ideals of the 1980s and instead strive to get ahead and make money; and the old are abandoned by the state and left in poverty. In particular, the gradual physical and spiritual deterioration of Dai Wei’s mother, who must endure the extreme emotional and economic strain of looking after a paralyzed son, and desperately seeks consolation in Falun Gong, presents a most powerful indictment of the atrocity and cruelty of the contemporary Chinese state. After being pursued by the state through one despairing crisis after another, in the end the only way she can escape is through mental breakdown:

My mother walks to the edge of the room to look at our balcony which is lying in the rubble on the ground. Her shadow sways before my eyes. A loud bang from the bulldozer below frightens her back inside. She grips the frame of my iron bed, squats down and, bursting into tears, pulls out the box of my father’s ashes, and the one she bought for mine. She moves to the edge of the room again, hurls the boxes into the floodlight’s beam and in her clearest, most resonant tone, sings out ‘We are liberated at last! Quickly, run away . . .'” (582)

Here Ma Jian offers a very different understanding of China and its “prosperity” in the 1990s from that of much contemporary Chinese literature and from the popular media whose “historical imagination has increasingly become enthralled to the glamorous prospect of global capital, the world market, middle class prosperity, civil society and endless economic development.”[6] Instead of extolling the economic development and material progress of a rising China, Ma Jian exposes to us the human costs and moral compromises that the nation has made.

By contrast, the day-by-day narrative of students’ activities during the spring of 1989, which takes up over half the length of this nearly 600-page book, comes across like a tedious and verbose display of unedited documentary footage. This reader found herself occasionally losing interest in the mass of student leaders who remain underdeveloped as individual characters, and the lack of suspense and narrative discipline in the chronologically arranged description of events.

Yet what makes this novel intriguing is another set of fragmentary interior monologues presented in italicized paragraphs, interspersed between Dai Wei’s subjective narratives of Tiananmen and its aftermath. Imaginative, lyrical and highly symbolic, these paragraphs stand out from the generally clear and direct prose style of the book, and throw some fresh and poetic lights on Dai Wei’s existence beyond the apparent political meaning. They include poetic meditations on the physical and spiritual aspects of Dai Wei’s comatose being. For example, “melancholy yearnings stir within you. Forgotten fears and hopes drip from your bones like dark marrow” (67); “your conversation with the past stirs your muscles from their sleep”; “Time overlaps before your eyes. The past spreads through your flesh like a maze of blood vessels” (505). They also include supernatural images from the ancient Book of Mountains and Seas: “At the western edge of the Greater Wastes lies Lake Utmost. It is the home of Bingyi, god of the yellow River. Bingyi often roams across the land in a cart driven by two dragons” (215). “On Buzhou Mountain grows the jia tree. It has oval leaves, and flowers with yellow petals and red sepals. If you eat its fruit, you will forget all your worries” (405). While the former can be read as Dai Wei’s self-reflections on the fragility and strength of human life, and the persistence and temporality of memory, the latter appear to be Dai Wei’s visions of the wild and fantastic world that his fragile and stagnant life longs for—we are told that The Book of Mountains and Seas has been Dai Wei’s favorite since his childhood, and he has developed this fascination with the wild and strange world out of many traumatic experiences ranging from the persecution of his grandfather to the mental breakdown of his parents. These seemingly random lines and mystical images hint a lyrical self that manages to survive in the midst of historical catastrophes, they also give the novel a new dimension of escape and skepticism which are at odds with the politically engaged tone of the novel as a whole. Unfortunately, these episodes are not sufficiently developed or integrated into the novel, and therefore they create a rather ambiguous space for interpretation.

In sum, Beijing Coma is another brave attempt to represent the forbidden from one of the most fearless voices among Chinese writers. But under its rich documentary-style details and strong historical consciousness, one misses the kind of literary craftsmanship and moral complexity that great works are often valued for. When compared with Gao Xingjian’s highly reflective narratives, which often alternate among differing subjective positions when dealing with complex historical events such as the Cultural Revolution, the single but mighty mind of Dai Wei in Beijing Coma appears morally over-confident and self justifying—despite the fact that he is one of the victims. While admiring Ma Jian’s courage—and noting that Beijing Coma recently won the Index for Censorship’s Press Freedom Award—one also wonders how far he has fallen into the usual political traps and cultural stereotypes that afflict many other works written by Chinese émigré authors, from Jung Chang’s Wild Swans to Ha Jin’s The Crazed. In this sense, Beijing Coma is also a timely case study of the opportunities and dilemmas of exile literature, which so often cannot seem to extricate itself from the long-reaching tentacles of political engagement.

Shuyu Kong
Simon Fraser University


[1] Chinese exile literature here refers to a narrowly defined group of writings by Chinese exiles who were forced to live outside the country for political reasons. Their works deal with the exilic experience and often involve politically sensitive or forbidden topics. These works can only be published outside the Chinese mainland, generally in Tamizdat journals such as Today and Tendency. I use the term exile literature in contrast to Chinese diaspora literature, which is a more inclusive category involving many kinds of writings by Chinese overseas writers. For a more detailed discussion, see Shuyu Kong, “Diaspora literature,” in The Columbia Companion of Modern East Asian Literature, ed. by Joshua Mostow (Columbia University Press, 2003) 546-553.

[2] Ma Jian, 中 國 文 學 的 缺 失–大陸和海外漢語文學的處境 (What is missing in Chinese literature: mainland literature and overseas Chinese writing), available online at Boxun, accessed on July 29, 2009.

[3] The cases Michael Berry cite include the novel Summer Betrayal, the films Summer Palace, Conjugation, Lan Yu and even the main melody movie Fatal Decision. The English novel Sons of Heaven by Terrence Chang seems to be the only one that clearly depicts the events of June Fourth, but I would not consider it to be within the category of Chinese literature. See Chapter 5, “Beijing 1989,” in Michael Berry, A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film. Columbia University Press, 2008.

[4] Tang Ying, 十年铸一剑—-马建谈他的新小说《Beijing Coma》 (Ten Year’s Work: Ma Jian on his new novel Beijing Coma), online at Boxun, accessed on July 29, 2009.

[5]James Lusdun, The Guardian (May 3, 2008).

[6] Wang Ban, Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.2.