Beijing Coma A Novel

Ma Jian; Translated by Flora Drew




Trade Paperback

720 Pages


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Shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Longlisted for the International IMPAC Literary Award
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

At once a powerful allegory of a rising China, racked by contradictions, and a seminal examination of the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing Coma is the story of Dai Wei, who has been unconscious for almost a decade. A medical student and a pro-democracy protestor in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was struck by a soldier's bullet and fell into a deep coma. As soon as the hospital authorities discovered that he had been an activist, his mother was forced to take him home. She allowed pharmacists access to his body and sold his urine and his left kidney to fund special treatment from Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect. But during a government crackdown, the Master was arrested, and Dai Wai's mother—who had fallen in love with him—lost her mind.

As the millennium draws near, a sparrow flies through the window and lands on Dai Wei's naked chest, a sign that he will emerge from his coma. But China has also undergone a massive transformation while Dai Wei lay unconscious. As he prepares to take leave of his old metal bed, Dai Wei realizes that the rich, imaginative world afforded to him as a coma patient is a startling contrast with the death-in-life of the world outside.


Praise for Beijing Coma

"Beijing Coma is driven by the obsessive force of its narrator's desire to retrieve the past, and derives its formal structure from a highly particular inquiry into the nature of time . . . As Dai Wei recalls moments from his youth and writes about the often grotesque incidents (visits to traditional healers, the arrival of a pair of workmen who believe that the apartment's immobile resident is deaf, and the mercifully brief stay of a sexuality predatory boarder) that break the monotony of his comatose existence, a sort of novel within the larger novel begins to take shape. That interpolated narrative, which focuses on the buildup to the massacre in Tiananmen Square, is at once dramatic and so slowly paced that it almost seems a minute-by-minute reconstruction of what happened . . . Some of the novel's most evocative passages capture the atmosphere and the mood of the crowd in the square in the days before the crackdown . . . Part of what gives his novel its highly energized, manic edge is the fierceness of his conviction that it might be possible for a work of literature to function as a lifeline to cast out into the world, on the chance that it might save even a few of its readers from drowning . . . ‘We're the "Tiananmen Generation," but no one dares call us that . . . It's taboo. We've been crushed and silenced. If we don't take a stand now, we will be erased from the history books. The economy is developing at a frantic pace. In a few more years the country will be strong, the government will have nothing to fear, and no need or desire to listen to us. So if we want to change our lives, we must takes action now. This is our last chance' . . . This hortatory passage seems appropriate and fully earned by everything that has preceded it; and it testifies to the success with which Ma Jian has . . . created a work of art that functions simultaneously as literature and as a call to action."—Francine Prose, The New York Review of Books

"That indelible final image of protest, coupled with Ma's insistence on telling the story of the Tiananmen protests in such fastidious detail, makes Beijing Coma not only an extraordinarily effective novel but also an important political statement, appearing as it does immediately before the 2008 Olympics and a year before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre. In a preface included in the Chinese edition, Ma makes his intentions explicit, arguing that it is the Chinese people who are truly comatose: ‘Inside Dai Wei,' he writes, ‘there is a strong, resilient person who remembers, and only memory can help people regain the brightness of freedom.' In this sense, for all its savagery, Beijing Coma is one of the most optimistic novels I've encountered in a long time."—The New York Times Book Review

"After police ransacked his home and interrogated him for bourgeois activities, dissident writer Ma Jian found solace traveling the wild, minority-inhabited regions of China. Upon his return to Beijing, he was further harassed and so left for Hong Kong in 1986, where he began a memoir, Red Dust, and a story collection, Stick Out Your Tongue. Now banned in China, his work reflects on the vagabond's eternal search for the elusive ideal of home. His masterful new novel, Beijing Coma, is informed by his return in 1989 to take part in Democracy Spring . . . We first meet Dai Wei in his 10th year in a coma, as wasted as an Egyptian mummy, one kidney sold to pay for his medical treatments. And yet—though his body is imprisoned in a society where the very air is owned by the party, and his soul is incarcerated in a fleshy tomb—he has absolute freedom to roam the geography of his favorite text, The Book of Mountains and Seas, a pre-dynastic classic of geography and myth. As his mind wanders, he takes us through the interplay of the present, memory, myths, poetry and the cellular landscape of his body. In elaborate detail, he mentally revisits the rise of Democracy Spring: from campuses to marches to hunger strikes and the ensuing bravado, naiveté, cowardice, warfare, sex and infidelity among the perilously undemocratic student leadership. Indeed, Ma Jian's critique of these young protesters is as sharp as anything in the novel. In his telling, the young commander-in-chief is flattened under a tank, even though the actual student leader at Tiananmen Square, Cai Ling, managed to escape to the United States. Ma Jian seems to suggest that even with her flight, Cai Ling's voice has been quashed by the regime because of her silence in her adopted country . . . [Ma Jian] gives us two choices: remain society's slaves or lose everything and find freedom."—Belle Yang, The Washington Post Book World

"Whereas what Ma Jian hears in Beijing Coma is two thousand years of Chinese history and mythology—from the classic Book of Mountains and Seas in the second century A.D. to the murder of students and workers in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Although Ma Jian, author of Stick Out Your Tongue and The Noodle Maker, was a decade older than most of the Tiananmen student protestors, he left Hong Kong immediately to join their hunger strike in April, to sing along with Simon and Garfunkel in May, and to just miss the massacre because of family business on June 4. Since official China has sought to erase all memory of these events, Jian has determined to record every word spoken, every banner unfurled, every slogan satirized, every sunflower seed consumed, every intimacy consummated—at a length, almost six hundred pages that would seem inordinate if it didn't also seem obligatory, a ferocious sort of mourning . . . So remarkable is it that we should suddenly receive this gift an account of Tiananmen as breathless as John Reed's gee-whiz account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, I've almost neglected to mention how carefully Ma Jian constructs his time capsule. To be sure, we get plenty of Red Guards, boiled pigskins, dead fetuses, 'Black Categories,' struggle sessions, and peanut sauce. But there is nothing accidental or incidental about the sudden appearance in a Guangzhou student dormitory of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and Kafka's Castle. Dai Wei's coma is also China's; like Chairman Mao in his mausoleum, he seems to be buried alive. And the cannibalism to which Dai Wei's father was an appalled witness is a dress rehearsal for fathers butchering their children in Tiananmen Square."—Harper's Magazine

"As Dai Wei, the comatose but mordantly alert narrator of Beijing Coma, the new novel by Ma Jian, observes, 'No one talks about the Tiananmen protests any more.' Ma Jian, a former resident of Beijing who was at the Tiananmen protests, now lives in self-imposed exile in London. His narrator, who lingers in a coma for years after being shot in the neck by a stray bullet during P.L.A.'s crackdown, gives a remarkably detailed, and often only thinly fictionalized, account of the events and their brisk disappearance from Chinese memory . . . To Westerners, the students at Tiananmen may have given an impression of a solid and energetic consensus against dictatorship and for democracy, but they were an egotistical and fractious lot, riven by disagreements over tactics and money. These schisms widened during the years of exile as leaders blamed each other for the failure of the protests. Ma Jian retraces these recriminations over hundreds of pages, closely (and controversially) approximating actual events and real-life personalities. Nailing down the differences between the respective stances of the Hunger Strike Headquarters, the Beijing Students' Federation, and the Provincial Students' Federation is as important to him as evoking the scent of Dai Wei's girlfriends. The novel's style feels more familiar when, following much dissident literature from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it mixes gritty realism with absurdist satire. In one memorable scene, Dai Wei is fellated by a horny visitor while the new nationalists of Beijing lustily celebrate . . . Beijing Coma bathes in the poignant glow of youthful hope and excitement. It was this optimism, more than any coherent political demand or principle, that drove the protests of 1989, even inspiring ordinary workers to organize demonstrations. (Far more numerous than the students, Beijing's protesting civilians prevented the military from reaching Tiananmen Square for days on end; they also formed a large proportion of the casualties on the night of June 3rd.) As Dai Wei puts it, 'China had emerged from the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, and we were eager to build our country up again. We were fired by a sense of mission' . . . Beijing Coma movingly evokes the bliss many Chinese felt at that dawn to be alive, especially the young for whom the occupation of the square 'was like a huge party,' with plenty of opportunities for drinking, flirtation, and sex. The massacre at Tiananmen Square, and the additional shock of its erasure from Chinese memory, seem to have been almost as harshly clarifying for Ma Jian and his peers as the failure of the 1848 revolution in France was for Flaubert and his contemporaries. Not surprisingly, Beijing Coma analyzes the protests almost as fiercely as it condemns the suppressors; the student leaders, like the 1848 revolutionaries in Flaubert's Sentimental Education, come across as governed by self-interest and vanity . . . Like many a work produced in exile, Beijing Coma upholds spiritual self-sufficiency against the sentimental illusions of mass politics."—Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker

"Ma Jian is one of China's major fiction writers. He's lives nearly twenty years now as an expatriate in Europe. In his latest novel, Beijing Coma, translated by Flora Drew, he's taken up the subject of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Beijing Coma, is set ten years after the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square in China. Dai Wei, a university student was one of the protest's leaders. He's been lying in a coma in the ten years since. But quite miraculously and ironically, with the sleeping hulk of his body, his mind is wide awake. Awake and aware, he struggles to keep himself alert by going over the events of his past. He rehearses in his mind the narrative that led up to Tiananmen Square. For hundreds of pages we find ourselves in the middle of scenes of student organizers—cheering for them, mourning for them—as they dedicate their sincere devotion to the cause of democratic government and simple organizing skills to out together one of the most important events in the history of modern China . . . The cumulative power of the scenes is nearly overwhelming . . . [Dei Wei] gives us images of his changing body and now and then takes us back to the favorite volume of his childhood, the classic work called The Book of Mountains and Seas. 'You listen to the voices floating around you,' he muses as friends from the demonstration days come to mourn over his helpless body, 'as enviously as a tree trunk staring at falling leaves.' 'To the north of the Eastern Wastes lies the Land of the Nobles,' we hear in a passage from The Book of Mountains and Seas. 'The inhabitants have jade swords attached to their waists, and feed on wild beasts. Two tigers accompany them wherever they go.' Tree trunk staring at its own falling leaves . . . two tigers accompanying noble warriors wherever they go . . . Images such as these arise in constant counterpoint to the political history and deepen the dramatic recollections of a murderous, and heroic, time."—Alan Cheuse, NPR

"Beijing Coma is a valuable work . . . His use of dialogue that embraces everyday chitchat gives the book a sense of reality."—Valentin Chu, The New Leader

"Ma Jian's powerful Beijing Coma is an instructive novel to read during the Olympics. Written by a Chinese dissident, Coma deals with the massacre at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, when tanks rolled over students and their demand for more freedom."—USA Today

"Powerful. . . In the wonderful translation by Flora Drew (the author's wife and translator of his other works), the memories of a tremendous moment in the history of this vast, ungraspable place become grounded in a narrative that encompasses almost all that writing can offer."—The Nation

"It took Ma 10 years to complete Beijing Coma (Drew managed to translate it in two). Though it is devoted to the day-to-day, minute-by-minute events of Tiananmen occupation, the original idea for the story had little to do with politics. ‘It all started,' Ma says, ‘with a mental picture of a comatose patient lying on a bed with a beam of light shining on his naked chest and a bird nestling in his armpit. I didn't even know it would be a book about Tiananmen at the moment—I just wanted to know what concept of the passing of time this comatose man would have' . . . Plot alone isn't enough to sustain interest: We all know how the story ends. What holds our attention, rather, is the fickleness and weakness of human nature. By the time martial law is declared, the individual players have become a hydra, a single body with many barking heads. Ma says that ‘all the characters in this book are just one character'; they have ‘emerged from the same background and education and are in fact indistinguishable' . . . Beijing Coma doesn't just explain what happened in the spring of 1989. It lives all its breathless hope and anxiety, its immaturity and optimism and terror and monotony, its courage and tragedy, from inside the prison of Dai Wei's living corpse."—Los Angeles Times

"Beijing Coma is an important contribution to a new kind of Chinese fiction and memoir, what might be termed a literature of unremembering. It strives to recover the unlocatable self against the backdrop of state-sponsored madness and the organized demolition of identity."—Earl Pike, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"China bans all mention of June 4, the day of a deadly 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, but memories remain—including those of exiled novelist Ma Jian and of the protagonist of his new novel, Beijing Coma. The story follows Dai Wei, who . . . takes a bullet to the brain. For the ensuing decade, Dai Wei languishes as a 'vegetable' in his mother's home, moving back and forth in his trapped mind between memory and the present, and hearing visitors relate how the government has punished his surviving friends—and how those friends move on to find prosperity abroad or to participate in a rapidly changing China . . . Beijing Coma's descriptions of life under Mao and the Gang of Four, and of the events leading up to the June 4 massacre, are powerfully engrossing passages of narrative, and a moving testament to a history that the Party powers would prefer to forget."—Katie Baker, Newsweek

"Beijing Coma's descriptions of life under Mao and the Gang of Four, and of the events leading up to the June 4 massacre, are powerfully engrossing passages of narrative, and a moving testament to a history that the Party powers would prefer to forget."—Newsweek International

"In a major imaginative coup, he sets up a ‘before and after' variety of narrative: ‘before,' meaning China under the thrall of Mao Zedong and his crew, and ‘after,' meaning China dealing with the demands of its people with respect to modernity—with a median line running down the middle, that middle being the events of June 1989 at Tiananmen Square."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Wonderfully translated . . . By contrasting Dai Wei's vivid, minute, and detailed remembrance with its immediate context of political suppression and collective amnesia, Ma Jian creates one of the most original and profound images and characters in writing about post-Tiananmen China . . . Beijing Coma is another brave attempt to represent the forbidden from one of the most fearless voices among Chinese writers . . . Beijing Coma is also a timely case study of the opportunities and dilemmas of exile literature, which so often cannot seem to extricate itself from the long-reaching tentacles of political engagement."—Shuya Kong, Simon Fraser University, Modern Chinese Language and Literature Resource Center

"Beijing Coma is nothing less than a comprehensive story of China in the 20th century. It often reads like the script for a documentary, but the wraparound story is intimate and believable . . . There is a charming subtext that runs throughout: Dai Wei's favorite book as a child was The Book of Mountains and Seas, a folk tale filled with beauty and sorcery, magic and solace. It comes up again and again, set next to the horrors of Mao's regime and the Tiananmen Square incident itself. In it, Ma Jian shows us another China; one of bright, shimmering, endless possibility."—Valerie Ryan, The Seattle Times

"An acquaintance reminds Dai Wei, hero of Ma Jian's superb novel, Beijing Coma, that 'the literal meaning of the Chinese characters for "revolution" is "elimination of life"' . . . In the novel's present time, Dai lies in the Beijing coma of the title (one of them, anyway), unable to speak and paralyzed since he took a bullet to the brain during the 1989 massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. From the outside, it would appear that his life has been all but eliminated. But Ma allows Dai's sleeping brain to tell his story in a voice that is thrillingly alive: funny, lyrical, ironic, pained. His two-track narration, shifting between present dormancy and past activism, makes for an intricate, interesting read . . . In Beijing Coma, Ma makes the problem of time moving and fresh. The novel, like time itself, cycles back to where it began and ends with hope and a thawing-out: 'Your blood is getting warmer. The muscles of your eye sockets quiver. Your eyes will soon fill with tears. Saliva drips into the soft palate at the back of your throat . . . This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning."—Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

"The book is a huge achievement, mixing imagination and fact . . . finely written and translated, with beautifully controlled interaction between the actors, the book's account of life and love in the square in 1989 brings out the complexity of the movement that reached well beyond the traditional description of it as a pro-democracy revolt."—Jonathan Fenby, The Times (London)

"[A] breathtaking novel . . . Part of the genius of this novel lies in Ma Jian's ability to place moments of almost slapstick comedy in scenes of true gravity . . . Richly textured and finely balanced . . . Once in a while—perhaps every ten years, or even a generation—a novel comes along that profoundly questions the way we look at the world, and at ourselves. Beijing Coma is a poetic examination not just of a country at a defining moment in its history, but of the universal right to remember and to hope. It is, in every sense, a landmark work of fiction."—Tash Aw, The Telegraph

"Monumental . . . The narrative of Beijing Coma extends to the late 1990s. At one point, Dai Wei alludes to the bid for the 2000 Olympics: ‘Apparently, they sealed up the public latrines before the Olympic chairman visited the area, so that he couldn't smell the stench.' That bid failed, but since then the IOC have learned to hold their noses. They're not alone: in 2006 Google agreed to censor all information about the Tiananmen massacre from its China website. This vivid, pungent, often blackly funny book is a mighty gesture of remembrance against the encroaching forces of silence."—James Lasdun, The Guardian (London)

"[Beijing Coma's] appearance, just as the giant propaganda juggernaut built in preparation for the Olympic Games looks liable to topple over in the face of global anger over Beijing's record of repression, is an event that should, and will, resonate around the world. It establishes Ma Jian, already the author of three free-spirited books about the post-Mao country which he finally left in 1997, as the Solzhenitsyn of China's amnesiac surge towards superpower status."—Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (London)

"A vibrant collage of intertwined scenes from Dai Wei's past and present life, the novel is simultaneously a large-scale portrait of citizens writhing in the grip of the party and the state and a strikingly intimate study of the fragility of the body and the persistence of self and memory."—Chandrahas Choudhury, The Observer (London)

"The characters in Ma Jian's novel talk of oppressed Tibetans, of foreign television crews in Beijing, of hosting the Olympics and of human rights. Beijing Coma sometimes sounds as up to date as next month's news, but it's much more than fictionalised documentary. Epic in scope but intimate in feeling, it uses one man's life to tell the story of China in the latter part of the 20th century . . . This magnificent novel generously invites us to improve our understanding in many ways."—Tom Deveson, The Times

"At once tragic, darkly humorous and deeply sad, Beijing Coma is a monumental work. As China assumes ever greater economic and political importance . . . Ma Jian gives us much to remember and even more to think about."—The St. Petersburg Times

"An unconscious protagonist is the central figure around whom a tapestry of political and personal histories is woven, in the latest from Chinese author Ma Jian. Dai Wei, a student at Beijing University, is active in the pro-democracy protest movement that met violent reprisals in the 1989 catastrophe in Tiananmen Square. Dai Wei is shot in the head, rendered comatose, given token medical treatment, then released into the custody of his widowed mother. Then, in a flexible narrative that moves smoothly between immobile death-in-life and the remembered circumstances of childhood and youth, Ma Jian recreates years of mounting tensions between idealistic youths and the agents of a government determined to stifle all difference and dissent. As Dai Wei's body functions independently, his mind responds to news and gossip brought by a decade's worth of visitors (e.g., former classmates who arrive to help 'celebrate' his birthday), and revisits his brief, turbulent past. Heady arguments with passionately politicized fellow students are juxtaposed with plaintive glimpsed images of random sexual experiences and unfulfilled romantic relationships. Vacillating awareness of his mother's embittered caretaking jostle against fragmentary memories of his late father (a stubbornly independent anticommunist, whose fate prefigured Dai Wei's own) . . . The arguments are generally vigorous and compelling, and cohere into a rich context that explains the comatose Dai Wei's deeply rooted will to live—and prepares for the ironic conclusion, in which this Asian Rip Van Winkle awakens, after a decade 'lived' only in memory and imagination, on the cusp of the new millennium, into an altered world. A complex, confrontational, demanding—and ultimately rewarding—work."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A courageous and clarion writer, Ma Jian draws on Kafka and the Chinese epic The Book of Mountains and Seas in this mythic, soul-bruising, powerfully allegorical masterwork. He combines reportorial exactitude with potent lyricism and unnerving physicality in his blow-by-blow dramatization of the doomed student protests and heartbreaking cast of terrorized young people starved for learning and love. With particular sensitivity to women, Ma Jian maps the tyrannical madness that flows from the Maoist bloodbath to Tiananmen Square to the persecution of the Falun Gong. Epically detailed yet deeply mysterious, Ma Jian's compassionate and magnificent novel exposes China's catastrophic moral paralysis, and celebrates the inalienable freedom of the mind and spirit."—Booklist (starred review)

"The outcome of this bleak, wrenching generational saga from Ma Jian is known from early on: the politicization of Dai Wei, a diligent molecular biology Ph.D. student at Beijing University, ends in Tiananmen Square with a bullet striking him in the head. As the book opens, Dai Wei is just waking from a coma that has continued over 10 years following the June 4, 1989, massacre—still apparently unconscious, but actually aware of his surroundings. The narrative then alternates between Dai Wei's very conscious observations as a nonresponsive ‘vegetable' over the years of his coma, and his childhood and student life. Ma Jian evokes the horrors of an oppressive regime in minute, gruesome detail, particularly in quotidian scenes of his mother's attempts to care for Dai Wei, which eventually lead her to a member of the banned Falun Gong movement. The book's behind-the-scenes portrayal of the nascent student movement hinges on repetitious ideological bickering and sexual power plays. Lengthy expositions of Dai Wei's condition slow the book further, but Ma Jian achieves startling effects through Dai Wei's dispassionate narration, making one man's felled body a symbol of lost possibility."—Publishers Weekly

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Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locust tree slowly begin to rise again. This is a clear sign that from now on you're going to have to take your life seriously.

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  • Ma Jian; Translated by Flora Drew

  • Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953. He worked as a watch—mender's apprentice, a painter of propaganda boards, and a photojournalist. At the age of thirty, he left his job and traveled for three years across China. In 1987, he completed Stick Out Your Tongue, which prompted the Chinese government to ban his future work. Ma Jian left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987 as a dissident, but he continued to travel to China, and he supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the handover of Hong Kong, he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives.

  • Ma Jian Copyright Flora Drew
    Ma Jian