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 was ten years older than most of them. Their passion and idealism impressed but also worried me. Denied knowledge of their own history, they didn't know that in China political protests always end in a bloodbath.
When the government quelled the protests with the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4th, I was 1000 kms away, in the coastal town where I was born. My brother had run into a washing line while attempting to cross a road, smashed his head on a concrete pavement and fallen into a coma. The news of the massacre reached me while I was sitting beside him in hospital. I heard that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed students and civilians had been gunned down and crushed by army tanks. Had I remained in Beijing, I too might have been among the dead.
In a state of numb despair, I kept watch over my comatose brother, until, one day, his eyes still closed, he moved his finger across a sheet of paper to write the name of his first girlfriend. His memories had dragged him back to life.
By then, the Communist Party was busy unleashing a new economic miracle, attempting to erase the memory of the Tiananmen Massacre from the minds of the Chinese people, just as it had erased the deaths of an estimated 70 million people killed during Chairman Mao's rule.
The Tiananmen tragedy was a defining moment in 20th Century history, but in China, no one is allowed to discuss it. Remembering has become a crime. Today, the Chinese are a people who ask no questions, and who have no past. They live as in a coma, blinded by fear and newfound prosperity.
I wanted to write a book that would bear witness to recent history and help reclaim a people's right to remember. Through my protagonist Dai Wei a student lying in a coma after being shot in the Tiananmen Massacre I was able to write about brutality and injustice, but also about the things that make life worth living: love, hope, freedom, truth, and the quest for the sublime. Imprisoned in his body for ten years, Dai Wei is forced to turn inwards and confront his past, and in doing so becomes freer and more alive than the comatose crowds that surround him. The act of remembering gives life its meaning. It is an act of defiance against tyranny and death.
London, October 2007.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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