Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Beijing Coma

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Beijing Coma

A Novel

by Ma Jian

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 592 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2009, 624 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Print Review

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.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in July 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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