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SRB: Guangzhou Spastic

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
Chatto & Windus, $37. Review By Jeremy Rose for the Scoop Review of Booksmajian.jpg
My first conversation in China was with a spastic street cleaner in Guangzhou. After establishing I was from New Zealand he asked whether the Treaty of Waitangi had been ratified and whether Bill Andersen was still a "major" politician. Amazed, I asked him how he knew so much about New Zealand and he replied that for a decade or more New Zealand's The People's Voicewas the only English language paper in the Guangzhou library.

He had taught himself English by reading The People's Voice which explained his extraordinary general knowledge of New Zealand... albeit knowledge gleaned through the prism of what, it has to be said, was an eccentric and dogmatic leftwing paper.

The New Zealand Communist Party was one of the few English-speaking communist parties in the world to side with China after the Sino-Soviet split and as a result its paper was one of the few English-language publications approved by the censors.

Leaning on his broom, the cleaner continued to bombard me with questions... obviously enjoying the chance to show off his knowledge and practice his English.

Far less knowledgeable of China than he was of New Zealand my first question was, Are you a communist? He all but pissed himself laughing. He thought I was asking, Are you a member of the Communist Party of China? and the idea that a spastic street cleaner would be invited to join the Party was plainly both absurd and hilarious to him.

As someone who at 16 had been invited and declined the opportunity to join the Marxist, Socialist Action League it hadn't occurred to me that Marxist parties could be closed, exclusive clubs. In my experience they were desperate for members.

It was the end of 1988 and I was heading up to Harbin - a city best known for its ice-lantern festival - for a spell teaching English at a medical school.

On the first leg of the 3000 plus kilometre train journey I sat next to a Chinese law professor who boasted of teaching pigs English during the Cultural Revolution. Like virtually all of his urban contemporaries he had spent the Cultural Revolution in the countryside "learning from the peasants." He made light of the experience complaining that it had prevented him finishing his studies on time but stressing that it had been a humbling experience and he had learnt from the peasants.

He had to speak to the pigs quietly, he said, because speaking English was politically highly suspect. Latin America may be the home of magic realism, but China can claim tragic surrealism as its own.

We were travelling "soft seat" class. The Chinese had adopted a four class system from the Soviet Union. Having abolished First, Second and Third classes in 1917 Lenin and his comrades introduced a four tier system as part of the 1920s new economic reforms and renamed the classes: Hard Seat, Soft Seat, Hard Sleeper and Soft Sleeper.

Orwell was banned in China for obvious reasons. Although if my memory isn't playing tricks on me I think a friend of mine, Alex Young, claimed to have translated into ChineseAnimal Farm its circulation was strictly limited to the Party elite. (But I'll come to Alex's story later.)

In Harbin my job was to teach conversational English at the city's Western-style medical school. (There was a traditional Chinese medical school down the road. And my students had all spent a year of their training learning traditional medicine which they tended to recommend for anything that wasn't life threatening.) My favourite class was with a group of specialists who had all had their studies interrupted by the Cultural Revolution which became one of our main topics of conversation.

For homework they wrote up their experiences during the Cultural Revolution. They introduced me to the sinister and Kafkaesque classification system which saw people labeled by what their parents or grandparents had done before the communist revolution. So the child or grandchild of a shop-owner would be labeled a minor capitalist or some such thing.

And like the professor the students spoke both amusingly and without any obvious sense of horror about their experience during the cultural revolution and before.

At the time I felt the students were being extraordinarily frank with me. Most were critical of the past, happy to talk about the present and relaxed discussing possible futures.

On at least one occasion I was invited to another university by students to discuss politics. At the time I was convinced that Gorbachev's attempt to introduce democracy but retain public ownership of major infrastructure, factories and businesses was a far preferable road than that being pursued in China: a market without democracy. (Reforms that would lead to what Naomi Klein has labelled "market Stalinism.")

People seemed free to talk - if not write - about most things. There were only a couple of occasions where I sensed we might have been crossing a line. One was when I asked students about the power of Party cadres. There were two in the class and the other students laughingly pointed them out. We had talked abstractly about the corruption of the political class - and I stupidly asked whether these two were corrupt. The nervous silence that followed spoke volumes. No one said they were, but tellingly no one said they weren't either.

And the other was when I declared that I thought there were 100 million gays and lesbians in China. The comment was met with utter disbelief. When I explained that I was basing it on the much quoted idea that about 10% of any given population is gay (a figure that's now believed to be on the high side) a student replied: "Maybe in the West but not here." They told me there were gays in China but that it was considered a sickness and usually they were cured or committed to mental hospitals.

A couple of years prior to my arrival in China, Dai Wei - the protagonist of Beijing Coma, if you can call someone who spends the best part 500 pages in a coma a protagonist, is to be found dissecting the body of an executed prisoner at Southern University on the outskirts of Guangzhou.

Dai Wei is the son of a violinist condemned to 20 years of "reform through labour" for showing "rightist" tendencies. His crime was to shake the hand of a visiting American guest conductor after his orchestra's performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

Brought up by an orthodox-Maoist mother, Dei Wei barely knows his father. A diary written by his father - which is one of two texts within the text to feature in the book - provides Dai Wei with an insight into the crimes committed against his father and millions like him.

The books opening pages balance the sweet and sour nature of growing up in 1980s China. Dei Wei's childhood sweetheart, Lulu, who has hair that smells of fried celery, shares her family secrets with Dei after making out in a large concrete pipe.

Her mother was labelled a "backward element" after she failed to complete a military exercise. Nine months pregnant with Lulu she had given birth in a ditch on the side of the road during the exercise and so failed to make it back to base in time.

But both Dei Wei and Lulu are more interested in romance than dwelling on the past. Dei Wei writes out an entire novella: A Young Girl's Heart and binds it with glue he's made from chewing noodles into a paste. Lulu transcribes the melodies and from The Best 200 Foreign Love Songs tape and plays them to Dei Wei on her harmonica.

They speak in awe of hotels for foreigners where tea bags are supplied for free - and the crazy foreigners use one per cup.

When the affair is discovered Dei Wei finds himself in a police cell where he admits: "

I groped Lulu."
"In a cement pipe"
"Just the once?"
"Yes, I haven't touched her again since then."
"Did you trick her into going there with you?"
"No. We were out on a date."
"A date – my arse! That's not called a date, it's called having illicit sexual relations! Open your legs."

The policeman then kicks Dei Wei in the balls and makes him confess all of his "crimes" in writing.

Later at Southern University, Dei Wei 'discovers" Freud and Kafka but its his father's journal and the Chinese classic – Stories from the Book of the Mountain and the Seas - that begin to obsess him.

He dreams of travelling the length of China and visiting all of the places mentioned in the Chinese classic but first he begins by visiting one of the prison camps his father had spent time in.

Dei Wei meets the local doctor and begins to ask questions about his father and his friends and is told its good that his father was transferred when he was because otherwise he might "have been eaten like the others".

Dei Wei can't believe what he's hearing. And I'm not sure whether I should believe what I'm reading either - although a quick Google reveals plenty of books that make the same claims.

On his return to Southern University Dei Wei finds himself involved in the dissection and although not as stomach-turningly revolting as cannibalism the implications are just as disturbing. The corpses are those of recently executed "criminals". And the lung from the body being studied is pumping away inside a Hong Kong businessman.

They used to - and probably still do - televise the executions of prisoners in China. I once watched with my mate Alex Young as prisoners were paraded in front of the cameras, heads bowed, with boards strung around their necks listing their crimes.

The death penalty was imposed for a wide range of misdemeanours - including financial ones. Those involved in crimes over a certain figure could be sentenced to death - but the figure - which I can't remember now - hadn't been inflation adjusted since the revolution - meaning more and more people were facing the ultimate penalty. Meanwhile, the children of the party elite were involved in all sorts of rackets and getting away it.

Corruption - from the extremely petty to the incredibly serious - was rampant in China. Travelling from Harbin to Beijing just before Chinese New Year - a notoriously difficult time to get tickets - I asked the six or so people around me whether they had got their tickets "through the back door" - the euphemism used for obtaining something through knowing the right person - and every single one admitted to having got their tickets that way. As it happened I had also knew someone, who knew someone who worked for the Railways.

The best of many fine banquets I ate in China came about because a friend had a friend who was a restaurant inspector. He invited me and a dozen or so others out to dinner - a dinner put on by the restaurant gratis which included an endangered - and much prized - tree frog on the menu.

Anger at widespread corruption - particular among the children of the political elite - was one of the driving forces behind the Tiananmen Square protests.

I was in Beijing staying with Alex Young a couple of months before the protests began - the fictional Dei Wei had arrived a year or two earlier and was living in a dormitory of a university I regularly passed on bike rides from Alex's apartment at the Friendship Hotel.

Alex who I had first met in Hastings was giving me a nightly crash course in modern Chinese history. A New Zealand born Chinese, Alex had left Otago University partway through his medical studies to "return" to China and help the revolution.

In the mid-80s I covered the industrial round on the Hawke's Bay Herald Tribune and one of the local unionists told me about a dispute she had been having with a Chinese restauranteur about the living and working conditions of some of his mainland Chinese staff.

The restaurant was split in two - half Chinese and half French. I can't remember whether I ended up writing anything about Alex and the industrial dispute but I did become a regular at his restaurant. I went for the conversation not the food (which was a bit indifferent - "New Zealanders don't want real Chinese food, Jeremy," Alex had said "They want fried rice and crap like that - it's like going to a restaurant and asking for Irish stew. It's leftovers food - but the customer's always right.").

When he arrived in Beijing from New Zealand he was told that his job was to translate from Mandarin (a language he could barely speak) into Spanish - a language he couldn't speak at all. "You were good at Latin and that's good enough for us."

Alex had become a good friend of Rewi Alley - penning a book with him on the similarities between the creation myths of some of China's minority groups and Polynesians. The manuscript was lost during the upheavals.

He was well connected. His father was an 'overseas' member of the People's Congress - the family had a hutong within a stone's throw of the Forbidden City.

But the connections hadn't stopped Alex being sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. From translating Mandarin into Spanish Alex found himself responsible for the maintenance of diesel powered generators.

He experienced one of China's regular floods and said that it wasn't until he saw Chinese peasants using their bodies to reinforce the dykes that he realised the true power and commitment of the Chinese collective.

Alex had returned to China as a "foreign expert" and had a comfortable life in Beijing. Paid in hard currency he had access to quality Scotch and we consumed generous quantities on a nightly basis.

Of the stories that he told me only a few remain fresh in my mind. The sense of a collective madness taking over China pervaded many of them.

In response to the famine gripping China (a famine historians generally agree he was responsible for) Mao exhorted the people to "plow deep." The instruction was taken literally by some and Alex swore that he had found himself shovelling dirt from six feet under. He looked up to his team leader and said, "Comrade I don't think the Chairman meant this deep."
"Shut up you bourgeois fool. Once we have true communism we'll have carrots two metres tall," he replied.

Another of Mao's solution to the famine was to encourage people to kill birds - which he blamed for eating the crops. Alex spoke of going out with all of the other residents of Beijing and banging pots every time a bird tried to land. The exhausted birds eventually simply dropped out of the sky to be swept up by the residents. The result: a massive increase in crop-destroying insects.

But the story that is most vivid in my mind, is his description of standing with more than a million others in Tiananmen Square waiting for the Great Helmsman to make an appearance. It was a scorching summer's day and the wait went on and on. "And do you know why we were waiting?" Alex asked me. "Do you know why we were waiting? Because he was fucking his nurse."

For Alex who had given up his medical studies and, in his mind at least, a period of rampant casual sex, to help the people of China realise socialism it was the ultimate betrayal.

Alex encouraged me to stay in Beijing and used his contacts to get me job offers from the Xinhua news agency and a local television channel but I had bought myself a $60 black market ticket to Berlin on the trans-Mongolian express and had the feeling that nothing much was happening in Beijing.

If only I had met Dei Wei I would have known better.

As the narrator of Beijing Coma Dei Wei provides an insider's description of the protests as they unfolded. Hundreds of pages are dedicated to the protests and the endless power struggles between students desperate to control the rapidly growing movement.

Instead I ended up watching the Tianamen protests on television first in Britain and then in the US. In the US in particular, the protests were portrayed as a simple cry for American-style democracy. The papier mache Statue of Liberty a visual metaphor for a new Chinese dream.

But as Dei Wei points out the protesters' song of choice was the Internationale and there chants were of the "Long live the People" variety rather than anthem's to the market.

The one thing seemingly uniting the protesters was anger at corruption and privilege. In other words ome of the motivation was what rightwingers here like to label the "politics of envy." Six months or so before the Tinanmen protests erupted there were anti-African riots. China offered generous scholarships to people from throughout the developing world and there were large numbers of African students studying medicine and engineering. The scholarship students received rooms to themselves which was a cause of real resentment.

There's a scene in the book where one of the protesters says he'll be happy if after the protests students have the right to have relationships. It's an interesting comment because there's no lack of rooting in the book but there's a serious lack of privacy.

Dei Wei spends a lot of time explaining the intercine struggles between the various student bodies. The descriptions are as funny as they are tragic. Like most protests it's clear what the students are against but far less clear what they're for.

Possibly the most tragic figure in the whole book is Dei Wei's mother. A woman determined not to rock the boat. Loyal to the party but in the end even more loyal to her husband and son she suffers indignity after indignity. Tragically finally finding some sense of peace in Falun Gong.

She looks after have the comatosed Dei Wei - at one point making money from selling his piss - refusing to leave her apartment as the demolition balls swing to make way for the Olympics.

In Ma Jian China may have found its Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

As to the quality of the translation, I'm plainly in no position to judge. It reads well. There's a tendency to try and explain things in the text that might have been better left as footnotes. For example when the writer Lu Xun is mentioned his name is prefaced with: "the well known Chinese writer..." Plainly unnecessary in the Chinese version and clumsy in the English. It's like mentioning the "well known English writer Shakespeare."

I would love to hear Alex's take on Beijing Coma but sadly he died not long after returning to New Zealand following the Tiananmen crack down. I caught up with him just once and he told me about the Chinese peasant he had come across lying in front of a tank with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth. "They'll go into Beijing over my dead body," he told Alex. And Alex feared that's exactly what happened. But Alex's spirits had been buoyed by the protests and in particular by the support the students received from peasants and workers.

I left Beijing on the trans-Mongolian Express. It was a fabulous assortment of humanity. Chinese professors heading to Moscow for lectures, Europeans heading home and Polish smugglers with sewing machines crammed into their bags.

The last conversation I had in China was with a Uigher making his way to Mecca. He had never heard of New Zealand.


New York Times review
Guardian review.
Sydney Morning Herald

Jeremy Rose is the editor of the Scoop Review of Books and a Wellington Journalist

You can comment on this review here

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