The hero of Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is a young man who lies comatose as a result of wounds sustained at Tiananmen Square. His coma lasts for ten years, during which time he is moved around China by his mother, who struggles to keep him both under medical treatment and hidden from a government that’s ever-looking to punish fugitive dissidents.
The central question implicit in the opening pages of this dense, beautifully rendered work is how Dai Wei, who narrates from his semiconscious state, will react to the changes that China has undergone during his long unconsciousness. In this, he functions as a useful metaphor: since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, China has emerged as a major economic, political and potential military rival. America, whose global dominance is waning in comparison, is only now becoming aware of the implications of this. In this great global shift, the West is emerging from a coma of its own.
But the book is so much more than simply an allegory for global political trends: it’s the most accurate depiction of China I’ve read in fiction. I lived in Hong Kong for eight years and traveled through China during the period in which the novel takes place. Much of what I read had a profound resonance for me. The depictions of the one-child policy, the “rehabilitation” processes used on dissidents and prisoners, and the massacre at Tiananmen are heartbreaking. Predictably, the work has been banned in China, along with others by Ma Jian, who himself once participated in the pro-democracy student protests (but missed the massacre in order to tend to his comatose brother).
The novel is staggeringly ambitious in scope, reaching across years and touching on everything from the history of “a generation with empty minds” to the fluid and overflowing thoughts of one man’s subconscious. The recent unrest in Tibet only underscores the relevance and importance of a work like this, but Beijing Coma is more than an eloquent and vital primer for a growing country at a pivotal moment in its growth. It is an astonishing literary achievement.