Book Quote:

“When I walked inside the broadcast tent, a long-haired student from the Central Academy of Art was waving his hands animatedly. ‘…We’re going to build a huge statue called the Goddess of Democracy,’ he said. ‘It’ll be amazing.’ “

Book Review:

Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew (JUN 13, 2009)

The novel¬†Beijing Coma follows the fictional Dai Wei,¬†a PhD candidate at Beijing University who became a¬†student leader¬†of the protesters¬†in Tiananmen Square during¬†the momentous and tragic¬†month of June, 1989.¬†As the Chinese army was ordered to¬†storm the Square¬†to take back control and¬†subdue the ring leaders by¬†any means necessary, many of¬†Wei’s friends and associates¬†were gunned down or¬†simply run over. That¬†famous¬†actual¬†video¬†of¬†the tank column¬†stopped dead¬†before a¬†single brave man was an aberration.¬†As Wei¬†saw:¬†“As the smoke cleared, a scene appeared before me that singed the retinas of my eyes. On the strip of road which the tank had just rolled over, between a few crushed bicycles, lay a mass of silent, flattened bodies. I could see Bai Ling’s yellow and white striped T-shirt and¬†red banner drenched in blood. Her face was completely flat.” ¬†

In the chaos and¬†slaughter, he searched for his former girlfriend.¬†“Then I saw her: it was A-Mei, in a long white dress, her freshly washed hair floating softly around her shoulders. Why was she standing in the line of fire like that? I pulled the blood-stained letter from my pocket, waved it in the air and ran towards her….There was a loud gunshot, flecks of black light, then I saw her fall to her knees.”

Beijing Coma does not censor itself when¬†luridly¬†describing the visceral details of the dead and dying in the Square, but in this review, I will refrain from quoting the most hellish bits.¬†However, such editing isn’t a repudiation of the author’s decision to depict the massacre (or other situations)¬†with¬†bloody, gory¬†precision. It’s¬†just a¬†personal belief¬†that¬†these mental pictures¬†belong in the novel, not¬†here on this review website. Ma Jian had every reason to write as graphically as he did.¬†He¬†was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953 and lived and worked on the Communist mainland until 1987 when he, as a dissident, moved to Hong Kong. He returned to Communist China¬†a number of times, and “supported the pro-democracy activists in¬†Tiananmen Square.” After¬†Hong Kong reverted to the People’s Republic of China in 1999 (under a “one country, two systems” plan),¬†he moved to Germany and then London and continued to write about his distant homeland. Ma Jian unflinchingly, glaringly uses his fiction to reveal the monstrous cruelties that could and did actually take place in totalitarian China. He doesn’t shy away one iota from¬†the barbarity¬†of the suppression¬†in the Square —¬†the whole truth of which the Chinese authorities¬†have¬†tried to keep under wraps.¬†Many Westerners¬†haven’t yet realized what the¬†full, immediate¬†brunt and the long-term consequences were, especially to those (and their families)¬†who¬†directly took part in the Tiananmen uprising.

Ma Jian did not¬†witness first-hand the June 4 Tiananmen¬†Square¬†massacre (so he relied on others for accounts)¬†because, as he relates¬†in this interview (,¬†his brother fell into a coma (from which he¬†never really recovered) after an accident in their hometown in late May. Ma Jian, of course, went to him.¬†This family sorrow led the author to also place his main protagonist and narrator, Wei, in a coma precipitated by a¬†bullet wound in Tiananmen.¬†After¬†witnessing A-Mei fall, Wei¬†remembered¬†“…my head exploded. My skeleton was shaken by a bolt of pain. I’d been struck too….My hand reached out to my head but couldn’t find it.”

We readers¬†aren’t¬†technically in Tiananmen Square with Wei either.¬†We¬†are in Wei’s¬†head,¬†intimately sharing¬†his vivid recollections.¬†We actually “meet”¬†Wei¬†well after the brutal suppression in the¬†Square,¬†well after he’d been shot. By the time we enter his thoughts, he¬†had been in a coma for some time.¬†Inside himself, Wei regained¬†gradual awareness of his surroundings, and was able to access memories, although these abilities¬†waxed and waned to a degree and¬†weren’t apparent to most¬†people on the outside.¬†Beijing Coma follows Wei’s inner recollections of the days that led up to June 4, 1989. He, having had nothing to do but think and feel, reconsidered every scrap of memory he could piece together, leaving the reader with¬†an in-depth chronology of the weeks, days, and hours leading to the confrontation on the¬†Square.¬†He also painstakingly¬†traced his existence as a “vegetable”¬†over¬†nearly two decades. Wei lay in various¬†locations including a hospital, a suspect clinic, and several cold and dingy¬†apartments.¬†As an enemy of the State, the government¬†was not particularly concerned with his welfare or that of anyone¬†taking care of him, including his mother.¬†As he¬†lay alone, sometimes abandoned for several days¬†(and susceptible to abuse by strangers and supposed friends alike),¬†he catalogued¬†the slightest physical changes that could herald a chance to break out of his¬†bodily prison.¬†He¬†also flashed back to his childhood and pre-Tiananmen school days.

The son of a¬†a violinist¬†who spent twenty years in¬†a labor camp¬†being “corrected” for being a “rightist” and a woman who¬†craved normality and acceptance for herself and her children,¬†Wei seemed to be on the track to a non-political adult life¬†in the biological sciences.¬†But at the university, he and the rest of the student body¬†ravenously¬†scrounged¬†knowledge of all kinds.¬†They had weathered the¬†Cultural Revolution and its¬†contractively punitive¬†aftermath, and,¬†as Wei explained, “Now that China had opened its doors to the¬†West, we devoured every scrap of information that blew in.”

They also hotly¬†debated every topic under the sun (as most college students tend to), including political ones. Early in the novel, some of the students¬†disagreed about¬†whether economic development (as in the experimental Shenzhen Economic Zone) was dependent on political reform. Bai Ling didn’t think so. A young man named Fang Li¬†countered, “Without a democratic political system in place, our economy will eventually founder. The people’s wealth will be eaten up by the corrupt institutions of this one-party state.” Fang Li’s prediction¬†could still¬†come true¬†for China, but as we have observed in the years since Tiananmen Square, so far the Communist system has been able to continue to restrict freedoms while dramatically expanding economically. Ultimately, the students were not content merely to jaw about¬†reforming government. Their¬†unbridled enthusiasms for¬†applying Western democratic principles outstripped¬†the ability of the Chinese rulers to adjust,¬†and Wei and the others¬†paid the price for¬†young idealism. During the Cultural Revolution,¬†Chinese youth¬†turned more “revolutionary” than their elders; in 1989, the Tiananmen student leaders again went to “extremes,” this time for democracy. Often, the young want to act unreservedly for change;¬†those in power¬†typically prefer more “moderate” steps and¬†fear the unleashing of such¬†“radical” actions.

Having¬†studied biochemistry and anatomy (sometimes, in his classes,¬†dissecting the¬†corpses of executed prisoners),¬†comatose Wei could minutely¬†track his own¬†moribund body’s¬†setbacks and breakthroughs¬†as he lay paralyzed¬†on iron-framed beds. He thought, in the second¬†person: “Your body is a trap, a square with no escape routes.”Wei’s¬†personal¬†state also¬†broadly symbolizes the helplessness of the freedom movement in China. For dissidents such as Ma Jian, or for his novel’s characters, this extended period of one-party rule¬†has kept China from¬†awakening to its true potential: the country is not “conscious” in all the ways it could and “should” be. It “survives” but isn’t fully alive.
I actually read¬†Beijing Coma about a year ago. But for the longest time, I felt a need to digest it and also put some distance between myself and it. I couldn’t bring myself to write a review in a timely fashion when the hardcover was published. I let it sit.¬†The book both awes and horrifies me. Ma Jian¬†chillingly peers into so¬†many¬†de-humanizing Chinese windows, and¬†the tortures and terrors¬†revealed almost paralyze the reader’s mind too. The trampling of dignity, the pressure chamber of compliance, the¬†relentlessness of¬†violence¬†all invade the mind reading the thoughts of¬†prone Dai Wei.¬†Yet, this novel of nearly six hundred pages also shines resplendently with the resilience, the determination, the courage, and the undaunted¬†spirit of humanity. Consider this passage from pages one and two:

“Before the sparrow arrived, you had almost stopped thinking about flight. Then, last winter, it soared through the sky and landed in front of you, or more precisely on the windowsill of the¬†covered balcony adjoining your bedroom. You know the grimy windowpanes were caked with dead ants and dust, and smelt as sour as the curtain. but the sparrow wasn’t put off. It jumped inside the¬†covered balcony and¬†ruffled its feathers, releasing a sweet smell of tree bark into the air. Then it flew into your¬†bedroom, landed on your chest and stayed there like a warm egg.

“Your blood is getting warmer. The muscles in your eye sockets quiver. Your eyes will soon fill with tears….A bioelectrical signal darts like a spark of light from the neurons in your motor cortex, down the spinal cord to a muscle fibre at the tip of your finger.

“You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning.”

Beijing Coma took Ma Jian ten years to¬†complete. It is a work of austere frankness, and poetic¬†beauty. It is one story of youthful vigor, love, and discovery¬†all attempting to stay “healthy” in an ultimately¬†poisonous environment. It portrays the hopefulness of individuals and movements,¬†but also reproves it in the face of¬†political reality. It fervently¬†yearns for the best in human beings but faces the worst. Ma Jian, through his¬†Dai Wei,¬†feels compelled to¬†ask the question, “But once you’ve climbed out of this fleshy tomb, where is there left for you to go?”¬† Oddly, the “freedom” of Wei’s mind is greater in his frozen body than it would be if he got up and walked. Ma Jian’s¬†tome leaves no doubt about why this has been, and continues to be, so.

This¬†novel is a challenge to reader stamina and sensibilities, but it is worth every effort.¬†It is a masterpiece commemorating the sacrifices of the Tiananmen movement and, more widely,¬†China’s¬†ongoing¬†struggles to establish a State worthy¬†of¬†every citizen’s respect and voluntary participation. The ephemeral erection of the Goddess of Democracy constituted a¬†glittering moment — an amazing moment —¬†that galvanized the world, but didn’t shake¬†Communist China’s hierarchy’s hold on power. It remains to be seen how history will use the Tiananmen Square legacy and whether the dream of a non-totalitarian country can be realized.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 13 readers
PUBLISHER: Picador; Reprint edition (June 9, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Ma Jian
EXTRAS: Excerpt

The New York Times review of Beijing Coma

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books on China:

Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip P. Pan



June 13, 2009 ¬∑ Judi Clark ¬∑ No Comments
Tags: ,  ¬∑ Posted in: China, Facing History, Literary, Translated, World Lit

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