Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
The novel Beijing Coma by Ma Jian follows two parallel streams, both moving chronologically through the novel and intertwining every 1 to 6 pages. Both streams are narrated in the first person by Dai Wei.
The first stream is in the present tense and here Wei is in a coma, lying motionless, and being taken care of by his mother. The police keep them under close scrutiny, ready to interrogate him the moment he returns to the living. In this stream we learn through the snippets of conversation and media broadcasts that Dei can hear about the monumental changes sweeping through China, mostly focussed on Beijing, from June 1989 until early 2000.
In the second stream Dei takes us through his memories and retold stories from the past of his parents. In this was we learn about the enormous impacts of the Cultural Revolution on Dei’s family. I won’t go into details but there’s a lot of horrific stuff. The least horrific is that his father almost starved to death while working in a forced labour camp for over 20 years (canibalism features here). We gain glimpses of Dei’s childhood culminating in his arrest, his experience with police brutality and his release being dependent on his writing of a confession that implicates other people. That is the turning point that shakes his faith in the system. The bulk of this stream of the novel then follows him through his university studies and takes him inexorably to Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989 and the final moment when a soldier shot him in the head.
Dei’s favourite book is The Book of Mountains and Seas and single lines from this 10th century anthology of myths and legends divide each instance of the two streams throughout the novel. The book is so important to Dei that his PhD project was on an aspect of the book. The book provides us with some gentle relief from an otherwise heavy and at times extremely distressing account of the recent history of China.
The second stream of the novel contains a huge amount of detail about the student protests that led to the mass hunger strike and continued occupation of Tiananmen Square that didn’t end until the military pushed their way into the square on 4th June, crushed the democracy movement and regained control of the country. I looked forward to the first stream of the book because all of the student politics were a bit much.
Ma Jian has provided me with the historical context to the 4th June military crackdown in Tiananmen Square that shocked me in Australia in 1989. The book is banned in China and I can see why. Ma relentlessly provides details of atrocities that no government would ever want anybody to know about, though similarly awful stains can be found on the consciences of all colonial powers; think of idigeneous Australians. The details about forced late stage abortions under the one child policy were particularly distressing.
I didn’t find any of the characters likeable, especially not Dei’s three girlfriends (not all at the same time!) but it’s not important to like characters. Ma managed to bring humour and absurdity into every interaction, even when the students were interminably wrangling for power. He’s a skilled writer.
I learned quite a lot about Falun Gong. I’ve seen many quiet, calm people in Australia handing out leaflets about live organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners in China and I had wondered what Falun Gong is and why it is forbidden in China.
I really felt for the comatose Dei, lying on his bed without proper medical care for over 10 years. Suffering through having one kidney removed without the use of anaesthetic and the indignity of people coming to collect and drink his urine.
I’ve read many books written by Chinese living in exile, both autobiographical accounts from before the rise of the Communist Party and usually ending with the writer fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution, but also historical novels. The details that Ma provides of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are in line with what I’ve read by other authors. Beijing Coma is the first book I’ve read that comes forward through all of that period into the new millennium and focuses on Tiananmen Square.
A Chinese woman on a bus told me a little about the experiences of her family. Her father’s family lived in rural China and they suffered from severe food shortages during the Great Leap Forward. Her father is shorter than his own father and uncles and my friend thinks that is due to malnutrition during childhood. Her parents were university students at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and loved that their university lecturers were suddenly no longer held in extremely high esteem but instead were outcast. A lot has been written about the misery inflicted overnight on the intelligentsia of China and this is the first comment I’ve heard from a different perspective. Her parents also had a great time travelling around China for free for a few years attending different events, opportunities they never would otherwise have had. When I asked her about the forced abortions she said that Chinese people don’t value life highly and that a foetus has no value at all. She seems to be a devoted mother to her own children. I asked about her own childhood and she was sent until school age to live with her grandparents while her parents worked in a city. She still feels a distance between herself and her mother.
I’ll leave you with a poetic quote from Dei’s favourite book
There is a species of bird that has only one wing and one eye. It must pair up with its mate if it wants to fly.