Review – Beijing Coma by Ma Jian: Modern Chinese Literature Is Pushed Forward By Ma Jian’s New Novel

The student movement leading to the Tiananmen Square massacre and life in modern China are examined through this fictional account of a student leader attending Beijing University. Tracing his life and the impacts of living under China’s authoritarian regime, Ma Jian provides insights into how China’s changes are largely superficial. Ranging from China’s Cultural Revolution to the crackdown on Falun Gong, Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is a stunning and ambitious novel bearing witness to events that should not be forgotten.

From The Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square

As a child, Dai Wei’s father was condemned to work in education camps as China cannibalized itself during its Cultural Revolution. Raised by his mother, he experiences the rapidly changing China of the 1980s with its beginnings of market liberalization. Ma Jian paints a personal story as he explores Dai Wei’s young love life and the abuses he faces by a rigid, rule-focused society focused on conformity.

As Dai Wei traces his father’s journey in work camps, he begins to expose the violent history that China would assume to forget, providing his own basis for later radicalization.

As a student at Beijing University, Dai Wei finds himself living with several progressive-minded friends which taps into his own desires to rebel against the repression that has punished his family and affected his life. He eventually becomes the head of security for the student movement allowing him to observe the student movement from its exuberant and naïve beginnings to its violent end. Throughout the novel, Ma Jian weaves the lives of Dai Wei’s friends into the narrative creating memorable, tragic profiles.

A large portion of the novel follows the hunger strike and occupation of Tiananmen Square. Confusion of names and rapid actions provide the sense of how energizing, vibrant, and disorienting the experience must have been. As head of security, Dai Wei observes the power struggles and battling egos of the exuberant and occasionally self-serving student leaders. Ma Jian’s vivid writing style creates a fast-paced story and his insights into the personal as well as political give Beijing Coma a strong balance.

The Tiananmen Square massacre and its descriptions in Beijing Coma are particularly brutal and graphic. Ma Jian conveys the sense of being an eyewitness, and watching the innocence of the students robbed by tanks and rifles is horrifying. The impending danger the students face invests Beijing Coma with urgency despite knowledge of the outcome.

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Modern Chinese History

Dai Wei was shot in the head during the Tiananmen Square massacre leaving him in a coma. Living incapacitated, he relies on his memory to tell the narrative of his life, while his mother cares for him. Beijing Coma weaves two narratives together, the struggle of the students and Dai Wei’s actions are told in flashback through his memories, while his mother’s efforts to care for him are recounted as well.

Living in a coma for ten years, Dai Wei is visited by friends who relay a changing China to him while his mother finds ways to provide for his care. As a victim of the massacre, his mother faces government retribution and his health care is supported through unofficial channels and a reliance on faith healers. As Dai Wei sleeps, China undergoes rapid change, but the paranoia and repression of the government never end.

As his mother becomes a member of Falun Gong, a banned Chinese sect, the family undergoes greater difficulty, finally facing forcible eviction to build a new shopping center.

Ma Jian, whose previous work Stick Out Your Tongue, was banned in China, writes a provocative novel about being human in a repressive country. The callousness, paranoia, and cruelty of the government, and society, are buoyed by the earnest hopes of students fighting for democracy in China. As he sees his father, his himself, and then his mother affected by the machinations of the government over the decades, the sense that China hasn’t changed filters through.

Beijing Coma is centered on tragedy and is mottled with dark humor throughout, creating an entertaining and thought-provoking example of contemporary Chinese fiction.

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