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Mainland China is an enormous country. With 9.6 million square kilometers it is the third largest country in the world  after Russia and Canada. The 1.33 billion population is the world’s largest, ahead of India by 1.5 million and the U.S. by over 4 times. There are some 56 ethnic populations recognized by the government, many of whom, even if speaking the national language, Mandarin, are often scarcely intelligible to one another. From the Xinhai revolution in 1911 through the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989 the country has gone through successive waves of convulsion. To outsiders the May Fourth Movement of 1919, is hardly known. The alliance between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang against the regional warlords in the 1920s, the subsequent campaigns pitting Communists against  Nationalists, followed by their united front against 14 years of Japanese occupation, and return to war against each other have little exposure in the West, except among historians.

Mao’s Great Leap forward (also called the Great Chinese Famine) from 1958 to 1961 is said to have cost 36 million lives. It still may not be written or spoken of on the mainland.  Though many studies have appeared in scholarly books and journals outside of China only in 2008 did the definitive historical work appear, not yet in English translation.  But history and documentation, however vital, are necessarily views from the outside, concerned with getting objective facts compiled and in order.  To understand the actual, breathing humans who undergo such events, we almost always depend on fiction and to a lesser extent, memoirs.  These have been in woefully short supply from China.  Only slowly are novels and short-stories being written, and then, sporadically making their way into western markets and to the reading public.  Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, in 2006, by Mo Yan, translated by the acclaimed Howard Goldblatt in 2008, and To Live, 1993, by Yu Hua, translated by Michael Berry in 2003 are both powerful, human tours through the years of the war and the great famine.

The Cultural Revolution got more press attention in the West during the time of its unfolding,  1966 – 1976 (depending on what marks the end-point) than the preceding wars and famine,  though there were large ideological filters on what was available.  Fictional treatments did appear more quickly following the Cultural Revolution than following the Great Famine and more have become more widely  available in translation.  We even have a commercial book titled Chinese Fiction of the Cultural Revolution, already translated, and with an annotated bibliography. Many readers have read and enjoyed Dai Sijie’s, 2000,  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress translated from the French in 2001.   Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000.  His most recent translated novel, One Man’s Bible, 1999, translated by Mabel Lee,  deals more richly with the Cultural Revolution than his 1990, Soul Mountain.  Both have won a wide readership.

The event that may have marked the end of these terrible decades of privation, civil war, mutual massacre –and yes, cannibalism —  riveted both China and the west in June of 1989.  It has come to be known in the west as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.  The Chinese government naturally enough, prefers something more innocuous, like the June Fourth Incident.  The events of the days leading up to June 4, when the tanks rolled in and “the Tankman” achieved instant fame by standing in front of the lead tank, a frail human body against a line of tanks, were well chronicled –as well as at-the-moment reporting can do.  It has also been documented extensively in academic papers and books for professional readers. Most impressively for the general reader we now have a first rate fictional treatment not just of the few days the world saw, but of the weeks, months and even years leading up to what young Chinese men and women saw as the Chinese Democracy Movement and the hours that brought it to an end.

Beijing Coma, by Ma Jian, (2008, translation by Flora Drew, 2008)  is not yet a War and Peace, though there are elements of the great novel in it.  The focus is much narrower in time, and in numbers and social strata of the  participants, though it is much more detailed as to their movements and thoughts during the time witnessed.  The narrator, Dai Wei is, throughout the novel, in a coma as a result of a bullet to the brain on June 4; he is unable to care for himself, unable to speak or move.  He can only hear and smell, and think.  His narration — his thoughts — run in two directions: from the early days of his life and the beginning of the student protests, with quick jumps back to their inspirations — the May Fourth Movement, for example — up to the night of the shootings;  and from the time of his being shot forward through the ten years in a coma, commenting on his own difficult physical and emotional state, his mother’s deep worry and cruel remarks (thinking he can’t hear), and such of China and his friends as he can make out from mother’s and visitors’ conversations.  The two narratives are separated in the otherwise undivided book of 703 pages, by italicized, short personal reflections, either of the state of his body, in medical terms, or of the 2,200 hundred year old  Chinese classic of myth and travel — The Book of Mountains and Seas which appears often throughout out the book.

The opening words, italicized,  are mysterious.  They become understandable only after after reading much of the book.

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.

These, it turns out,  are Dai Wei’s thoughts, who you will discover, slowly, is lying in a coma from a bullet to the brain, completely helpless.  This opening scene, with the missing balcony and locust tree, will reappear near the end of the story when Dai Wei is only days from his death, ten years after the tanks rolled, the movement shattered and he and some of his friends were killed or crippled for life.   Between the two appearances of the broken balcony and the struggling locust tree we will have been taken on an incredible journey into the lives of those who dared to act on their dreams of democracy, openness and individuality.

Following the opening page, the text reverts to standard typeface and a recollection of the narrator’s own birth

A baby’s cry cuts through the fetid air.  A tiny naked body seems to be trembling on the cold concrete floor… It’s me.  I’ve crawled out between my mother’s legs, my head splitting with pain.  I bat my hand in a pool of blood that gathers round me… My mother often recounted how she was forced to wear a shirt embroidered with the words Wife of a Rightist when she gave birth to me.

With this forward and backward movement from the night of the massacre and the wound Ma Jian gives himself a wonderful range and a way to connect the life of the narrator to friends,  lovers, dreams, desires, what Dai Wei has learned through his experience of unspoken Chinese history, what brought him to be part of the struggle, and what his life has been since the movement was crushed and he made a “vegetable.”

He remembers a trip he took to visit the “Overseas Chinese Farm” where his father had been sent in 1965, and held for years, returning home only in time to die.  He meets a Dr. Song, a friend of his girlfriend’s aunt, now at the Wuxuan Revolutionary Committee research building during a national campaign to “rectify past wrongs,” doing research on the Cultural Revolution now some 20 years in the past and mostly discredited.  Song remembers Dai Wei’s father and begins to tell him of those times.

“It was in 1968, one of the most violent years of the Cultural Revolution. In Guangxi, it wasn’t enough just to kill class enemies, the local revolutionary committees forced the people to eat them as well. In the beginning, the enemies’ corpses were simmered in large vats together with legs of pork.  But as the campaign progressed, there were too many corpses to deal with, so only the heart, liver and brain were cooked….

“So, who were the murderers?”

“You ask me who the murder’s were. The answer is:  everyone! Our neighbors, our friends across the street.”

“…  Look at this passage.  It’s a speech that was given to me by the director of the Wuxuan Revolutionary Committee at that time.  “…The masses at the grass roots of society are permitted to carry out executions, but they shouldn’t waste bullets. Instead they should be encouraged to beat the enemies to death with their own hands, or with the aid of stones or wooden sticks. This way they will be able to draw greater educational benefit from the experience.”

But the novel is not a compendium of grotesqueries from the past.  Dai Wei cannot stand to hear more.  He ends his trip to find his father’s past prematurely,  takes the bus back and finds his girlfriend he’s left a few days earlier.  She is surprised to see him so soon.  He tells her the people he’d gone to visit were dead

“How come you didn’t know that before you left? she asked.

“They were friends of my father’s.  I never met them.’

‘When did they die?’

‘In the Cultural Revolution.’

‘Put that cigarette out.  You shouldn’t smoke so much.  Your hair and clothes stink of tobacco.’

And we move forward in the ordinariness and banality of everyday life, even in extraordinary times.  Much of the novel concerns itself with girlfriends, former and current; thoughts of who is where and who is with whom. And these worries and happinesses for the most part take place at the university, the streets and shops in and around the great square: the first time sharing a room with a girl; her scent, the sheen of her hair. It is college, young people coming from all over the country, each with their own accents and cultures; some escaping rural life, others with great hopes of  going to America, escaping the nation entirely. It is college with the cheap meals, the sexual exploration and near impossible search for privacy,  the rude male jousting and put-downs, the stench of communal toilets…

The narrative also moves us forward through the years after the massacre.  Dai Wei’s mother, a widow of a rightist, lives in a tiny apartment in a block of flats, desperate that her son either die, or get better.  She tracks down doctors, a shaman, and neighbors; she complains incessantly to her other son, or friends and ex-girlfriends who stop by or call to ask if there has been any sign of life.   Following the advice of one, she concocts a scheme to sell Dai Wei’s urine, surely of medicinal value because of its unique clarity (from having no solid food for years.)

We learn that the early roots of the 1989 events began in late 1978 with the Democracy Wall.  Criticism of the recently deposed Gang of Four was permitted  and activists began to post big character posters. The breath of democracy began to be felt all over the country.  A year later the wall was shut down when the criticism began to aim at the current ruling cadre.  Those who had dared too much were summarily dealt with.  [A recently reviewed book, The Vagrants by Yi Yun Li, is about this period for the citizens of a small town not far from Beijing; quite a powerful book.]

Dai Wei remembers student demonstrations flaring up in December of 1986 and the political arguments among the students — whether to join the efforts of the reformers in the Party or whether to strike out, radically, for Democracy;  whether other Universities could be persuaded to join in a protest at the Square; whether to register student groups with the Universities and “come out” or to keep them underground.  It seems so “democratic” at times that we wonder how any decisions were were ever  made, other than the primal, emotional ones.

“Hey, who’s got foot odour? Mao Da said, walking through the door.  Smells like someone’s growing fungus in their socks!’

…The dorm was packed now.  Shu Tong had to shout to get himself heard.  ‘We’ve got many able activists in the Pantheon Society.  We should split into groups tomorrow and try to persuade students from every department to go to the Square.  We can prepare banners with slogans calling for freedom of the press, but we’d better not start talking about an end to dictatorship.’

Mou Sen slapped his thigh and said, ‘Great! I’ll go back to Beijing Normal and rouse the workers there!  I’ll be like Chairman Mao whipping up that miners’ strike in Anyuan.’

‘Everyone who thinks we should go to the Square, raise your hand,’ Liu Gang said.

Apart from the two Chans and Cao Ming, everyone put their hands in the air.

There is so much detail over so many days that the reader may feel the emotions of some of the participants — confusion, weariness, indecision.    But there is nothing ponderous about the book.  It doesn’t have the elegant sweep of language that carries some writing along, nor is there a set of mysteries that need to be unraveled making page-turning a compulsion.  It is like a massive train perhaps, slow to get underway, and slowly gathering speed.  But in that slowness we come to know we are absorbing matters we have seldom considered before.  We wonder how it is that a young man in a coma can be telling such a tale.  Perhaps we hope for him.  But at the end, as time is running out,  we begin to know with fear and certainty  that Dai Wei will not find himself cured, that his life, and the train of the book, will collide as we’ve been tensely expecting, against the great wall of Tragedy.  We know what is going to happen:  he will be shot in the head, live for ten years and eventually die.  And this is compulsion enough to keep reading and coming to some understanding of this epoch and these brave people.

Almost as interesting, and certainly an important theme of Ma Jian’s book, is what happened to the others after the movement was extinguished.  Dai Wei is in a coma.  One or two others are in wheel chairs, or dead.  One particularly gruesome image describes a young woman being crushed flat by a tank.  Many others though have gone on to live their lives, some very well indeed: salesmen for cell phone companies, graduate students in Canada or the U.S.. the turn to Falun Gong for solace and replacement beliefs.  In fact, Dai Wei’s mother, so long a nag against any anti-Party behavior, becomes an anti-Party activist as she becomes a devotee and understands the urge of her own autonomy.

Beijing Coma is a long read, perhaps too long, but it’s a serious and compelling novel worthy of serious readers.  The days you will spend will be days well spent.  You will meet kids you would not otherwise meet, doing things you yourself have perhaps done –pushing back against the state or institutional authority, though with far less personal danger.  You will find yourself more attracted to the strange, far away land of China, wanting to know more about what we share with its people and what is truly different.  I found myself stopping and doing background investigations, pushing out my haphazard knowledge even of recent years when I have been a distant observer.  I suspect you will find yourself similarly engaged.