Summary and book reviews of Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

Beijing Coma

A Novel

By Ma Jian

Beijing Coma
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: May 2008,
    592 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2009,
    624 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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About this Book

Book Summary

Dai Wei has been unconscious for almost a decade. A medical student and a pro-democracy protestor in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was struck by a soldier’s bullet and fell into a deep coma. As soon as the hospital authorities discovered that he had been an activist, his mother was forced to take him home. She allowed pharmacists access to his body and sold his urine and his left kidney to fund special treatment from Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect. But during a government crackdown, the Master was arrested, and Dai Wai’s mother—who had fallen in love with him—lost her mind.

As the millennium draws near, a sparrow flies through the window and lands on Dai Wei’s naked chest, a sign that he must emerge from his coma. But China has also undergone a massive transformation while Dai Wei lay unconscious. As he prepares to take leave of his old metal bed, Dai Wei realizes that the rich, imaginative world afforded to him as a coma patient is a startling contrast with the death-in-life of the world outside.

At once a powerful allegory of a rising China, racked by contradictions, and a seminal examination of the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing Coma is Ma Jian’s masterpiece. Spiked with dark wit, poetic beauty, and deep rage, this extraordinary novel confirms his place as one of the world’s most significant living writers.

Excerpt

Beijing Coma

Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locust tree slowly begin to rise again. This is a clear sign that from now on you’re going to have to take your life seriously.

You reach for a pillow and tuck it under your shoulders, propping up your head so that the blood in your brain can flow back down into your heart, allowing your thoughts to clear a little. Your mother used to prop you up like that from time to time.

Silvery mornings are always filled with new intentions. But today is the first day of the new millennium, so the dawn is thicker with them than ever. Although the winter frosts haven’t set in yet, the soft breeze blowing on your face feels very cold.

A smell of urine still hangs in the room. It seeps from your pores when the sunlight falls on your skin.

You gaze outside. The morning air isn’t rising from the ground as it did yesterday. Instead, it’s falling from the sky onto ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction
Through an interweaving and often overlapping narrative, Ma Jian leads us through the life of Dai Wei, using memories as his stepping stones from the past to the present. As we follow Dai Wei from childhood through adolescence to his years as a student at university, we bear witness to an entire nation’s struggle against corruption and oppression and its citizens’ collective movement toward freedom.

  1. What was your initial reaction to the opening passage of the novel, written with second-person pronouns that appear to address you directly? How did your understanding of this passage change at the end of the novel?

  2. In what ways do the political affiliations of his father impact Dai Wei as a child? How does ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

How can a novel about the massacre of hundreds of people narrated by a man in a coma be beautiful, even life-affirming? Let me not mislead you; this is a painful novel, filled with brutality and horror. It would be impossible to read, were it not for the protagonist's voice, filled with the light of vivid memories and the sweet ache of youth. Beijing Coma is 600 pages of fiction based on facts too awful to bear, but the way Ma Jian tells the story makes the novel hard to put down, even when it's painful to read.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

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Media Reviews
Los Angeles Times - Christine Smallwood

Beijing Coma is a strange, and long, book, by turns dull and riveting. Plot alone isn't enough to sustain interest: We all know how the story ends. What holds our attention, rather, is the fickleness and weakness of human nature. By the time martial law is declared, the individual players have become a hydra, a single body with many barking heads. Ma says that "all the characters in this book are just one character"; they have "emerged from the same background and education and are in fact indistinguishable.

Library Journal

Though this story is sometimes difficult to follow as it jumps between the past and the present, Ma brings a fresh sense of awareness of the Tiananmen tragedy to a new generation.

Publishers Weekly

Ma Jian evokes the horrors of an oppressive regime in minute, gruesome detail.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A complex, confrontational, demanding - and ultimately rewarding - work.

The Observer (UK) - Chandrahas Choudhury

A vibrant collage of intertwined scenes from Dai Wei's past and present life, the novel is simultaneously a large-scale portrait of citizens writhing in the grip of the party and the state and a strikingly intimate study of the fragility of the body and the persistence of self and memory.

The Times (UK) - Jonathan Fenby

The book is a huge achievement, mixing imagination and fact...finely written and translated, with beautifully controlled interaction between the actors, the book's account of life and love in the square in 1989 brings out the complexity of the movement that reached well beyond the traditional description of it as a pro-democracy revolt.

The Telegraph (UK) - Tash Aw

Once in a while - perhaps every 10 years, or even a generation - a novel comes along that profoundly questions the way we look at the world and at ourselves. Beijing Coma is a poetic examination, not just of a country at a defining moment in its history but of the universal right to remember and to hope. It is, in every sense, a landmark.

Reader Reviews
nueva

a masterpeice
Bejing Coma is masterful,beautiful,and tells a cruel story. Excellently and poetically written, at the same time revealing the horrors of Mao's total infliction of inhumanity upon the Chinese people.the development of the Tiananmen square uprising is...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Ma Jian on Beijing Coma

In April 1989, I left Hong Kong, where I'd been living in self-imposed exile for two years, and caught a train back home to Beijing. Photographs of crowds marching through the dusty streets of the capital had been plastered across the world's newspapers. Chinese students had launched a movement for freedom and democracy. I wanted to be part of it. At last, it seemed as though Communist China was changing.

For six weeks, I joined the students on their marches, crashed out in their cramped dormitories, shared their makeshift tents during their occupation of Tiananmen Square. I watched them stage a mass hunger strike, dance to Simon and Garfunkel, fall in love, engage in futile power struggles. I ...

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