Book Reviews

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

Farrar Straus & Giroux, USA; Chatto and Windus, UK; and Knopf Canada

book cover

In the wake of what some have called the most successful Olympics ever, hosted by the city of Beijing, the novel Beijing Coma appears a cautionary tale. All is not what it appears to be in the glittering city at the apex of its hubris. The release of the novel this spring in North America was surely intended timing. For author Ma Jian, the history of modern Beijing really begins with the dark days of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which has its anniversary in June. Exiled writer Jian, whose other well-known works include The Noodlemaker and Red Dust, begins his story with narrator Dai Wei. Dai Wei, a science student at Beijing University, is shot in the head during the fateful crackdown and falls into a coma for ten years. It is from this comatose perspective that the reader is carried through the events leading up to the massacre as well as through the ensuing, dramatic changes made in Beijing in the decade following.

Dai Wei’s story is of a particular generation—those whose parents suffered under the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution and were of the first to enter university in the post-Mao period. Dai Wei’s father, a violinist, was sent to a labor camp in Gansu province. His wife, Dai Wei’s mother, must parent her two sons largely in his absence and becomes, as a consequence, fearful of the authorities. But nothing can spare her son from the vicissitudes of fate that govern the uneasy times in China’s transition from communist authoritarianism to unfettered capitalism. The severe and irrational autocratic rule of law makes its presence felt early on in Dai Wei’s life when he is arrested by the police as a teenager for having a relationship with a neighborhood girl named Lulu. Kicked at, interrogated and terrorized by a police officer, Dai Wei is made to confess every conceivable crime he has committed in his teenage existence in a written self criticism. I’d killed a chicken with a slingshot, and ran away. The victim was a female chicken. I’d also smashed a window. The only victim of this incident was a windowpane. In his terror, Dai Wei betrays Lulu and suffers guilt. He returns home to a mother who slaps him in the face and says, "You shameful little hooligan! How can I hold up my head now?" She points to the ashes of her late husband tucked under the bed (she cannot bury them anywhere because her husband was a "rightist") and shouts at them, "This is all your fault, Dai Chiangje. I had to bear the burden of your crime for twenty years and now I’m burdened with those of your son!"

Such was the culture of shame, fear and paranoia that existed under the surface of China’s bourgeoning economic growth and seeming openness to the world during the eighties. Dai Wei is given a taste of this more liberal atmosphere in his university years leading up to the massacre. He is allowed to read whatever he wants, travels and even lives together for a time with his Hong Kong girlfriend, Ah-Mei. But this openness is deceptive and short-lived. As the students of Beijing in their idealism and naivetĂ© band together to form the movement that leads eventually to the crackdown, Dai Wei becomes caught up in zeitgeist much to his detriment.

Beijing Coma is an ambitious work by an accomplished writer whose attempt to chronicle the tumultuous events of June 1989 is admirable. However, the novel suffers occasionally from long-winded passages of political minutiae involving a cast of student leaders and activists jockeying for positions within the movement. It does not help matters that there are no chapters; the entire narrative is broken into chunks set apart by italicized references to bodily sensations that make the transition from the present to the past. Still, Beijing Coma does much to elucidate the remarkable hope, courage and fortitude shown by the people of Beijing in a moment when they dared think democracy was possible for China.

Reviewed by Sally Ito