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Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Tiananmen Square and Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

Execution: Yue Minjun

It will be the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4th. There are a fair number of accounts of the events of the day and the months preceding it, but for me Ma Jian's novel, Beijing Coma is the most evocative.

Beijing Coma tells the events leading up to the massacre through the eyes of Dai Wei, a Beijing University student activist. Dai Wei tells of the gathering momentum of a student movement that makes the simple demand of accountability and an end to corruption in the Chinese government. He writes of the splits and factionalism , the bureaucracy, the vanity and power hunger as the protests develop. It's the story of a movement that has energy, dynamism and countless flaws - a human movement in other words.

Spliced into this is his narration of his body's breakdown as he lies in a coma in his mother's flat after getting shot in the head during the June 4th clampdown. As he lies on his mattress, he recounts his physical deterioration, the smells, the sounds, the sores and the faecal, urinary and seminal leakage. The fates of his fellow activists is told through the visits of old friends, girlfriends and family. Some were imprisoned, some exiled and some are now dead.

His mother cares for him and disintegrates as she does so, her whole life a series of "wrong" political choices and associations. Her husband was a rightist, her son a student activist, her life a never-ending litany of criticism and persecution. She seeks solace in meditation and movement, in Falun Gong in other words, and becomes a suspect element in her own right.

For Dai Wei's family, and in China as a whole, there is no room for artistic, political or religious expression. So what is left? Doing business, cutting deals, making money. The aftermath of Tiananmen is a loss of self and a loss of soul, it is modern China in all its facadist money-making glory.

The book builds up to its climax, the shooting of Dai Wei and countless others, but even though we know what will happen, the tension is compelling. Notable is the absence of commentary on the government's reaction to events. Everything is seen from the simulacrumnal (is that a word) perspective of the students. The naivety and idealism shine through, as do the faction fighting and petty politics, a mirror for the CCP and PLA - the invisible hand that guides all things, the unknown entity that is playing out its own power struggle through the student demonstrations.

Ma squeezes everything in, from the venality of the nation's education and medical systems to the corrupt facadism of urban development. And by the end of the book, the question of Dai Wei and his coma is somehow irrelevant. He might come out of it, he might not, but the way things stand, the whole country is in state of suspended animation, a living dead of construction, development and chasing an illusory dragon.

Ma also conveys the sense of inevitability of historical events, and that this inevitability is transferable, that all might seem solid in the Middle Kingdom, but it won't always be that way. That one day the chickens will come home to roost - and that day might be sooner than we all imagine.

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