Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Fiction, literary fiction, Ma Jian, Vintage

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 666 pages; 2009. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

It’s been a very long time since I read a novel that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is by no means a perfect book — it’s far too lengthy for a start and the lead character is arrogant and annoying by turns — but it is a powerful, compelling read, a story that bears witness to a shocking event that the Chinese authorities would rather you did not know about: the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989.

Although the book is fictional, it is based on first-hand experience and, from what I can gather having now read this wikipedia entry, is historically accurate. Only the names have been changed.

Beijing Coma remains banned in China, along with everything else that Ma Jian has written. (He now lives in London with his translator wife, Flora Drew.)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.

As Dai Wei lays in a bed in his mother’s apartment waiting to die — he was felled by a bullet during the military crackdown — he takes in everything happening around him. Much of the time he reminisces about his past, and through this we learn of his childhood growing up in 1980s Communist China, where his father was labelled a “rightist” and sentenced to 20 years in a prison farm, and his mother was a fine, upstanding citizen who toed the Party line.

Later, he escapes the claustrophobia of the family home to attend university, where he spends more time chasing girls than studying. He eventually gets swept up in the idealism of the pro-democracy movement and finds himself head of security during the protests which begin in April 1989.

He recalls the student movement’s slow disintegration, as boisterous enthusiasm and idealism makes way for in-fighting, internal power struggles and corruption all because it lacked a truly united front.

But Dai Wei’s memories of the past are constantly interrupted by events happening around him in his mother’s cramped and shabby apartment. Because he was injured during a massacre that the Government denies ever happened, he is not allowed medical treatment. It is up to his mother, as sole carer, to do what she can to help him: she gets drugs and IV equipment on the black market, and occasionally has documents forged to allow him to be treated in hospital. It is a perilous, on-the-edge and inhumane existence for both parties.

His mother is anxious for her son to die to relieve her of this terrible burden — and she makes no bones about telling him this, not knowing that despite Dai Wei’s vegetative state he can hear everything she says.

At times the narrative feels like a dark comedy (there’s one instance when Dai Wei’s urine is seen as a miracle cure and people come from far and wide to buy it from his mother’s apartment), but for the most part it is a damning indictment of China’s human rights record.

It is also a fascinating insight into the massive economic and physical changes that Beijing underwent between 1989 and the 2008 Olympic Games, as old buildings were torn down to make way for modern ones, and local residents took advantage of new investment.

But for Dai Wei’s mother this change is not welcome. As she juggles her son’s medical needs with her own struggle to survive, she is ordered by the Government to leave her apartment so that it can be demolished to make way for new buildings as part of the Beijing Olympic bid. Her refusal to move, to succumb to the Government’s demands, not only shows how much her attitude to the Government has changed (she was once a model Communist citizen), it provides a glimpse of a country thundering ahead so fast that only the fittest, strongest and most adaptable can survive.

These dual narratives are interleaved in a seamless fashion, so that only the tense — past for Dei Wei’s memories, present for events happening around his sick bed — orientates the reader.

A word of caution, however: the level of detail in this novel may be off-putting to some, because Ma Jian records the minutiae of student life and every tiny step of the protest movement. I admit that I did, at times, wonder if it was worth me ploughing ahead. I’m pleased that I persisted, because the sheer weight of the information presented builds momentum. By the time you reach the horrifying climax — the tanks rolling in and the soldiers mowing down innocent bystanders — it’s like being hit over the head by a tonne of bricks, as the full force of all that detail rains down on you. It is, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic endings to a novel I’ve ever read.

Beijing Coma held my attention for an entire month. It is a brave and audacious book, brimming with idealism, chaos and horror. If you like your fiction rooted in fact, with a choppy, fast-paced narrative, and a conclusion that leaves you reeling, then do add this one to the list.

9 thoughts on “‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian”

  1. Obviously a massive read. You have written a fine review here which lets your readers get an in-depth review of the book. I am not sure I would have the stamina to read it at the moment as I’m already committed to a couple of lengthy tomes.
    Penguin have sent me two books by Hong Ying which I may attempt soon – they are at least a little shorter!


  2. Be interested to know what you think of it, Lisa. It’s hard work but I thought it was worth the slog — and I found out so much about the pro-democracy movement that I did not know before. The book took on an extra level of importance when I stood in Tianamen Square earlier this month and our local guide told us “something terrible happened here but I am not allowed to tell you about it”. I told the others in our group to read “Beijing Coma” to see what she was eluding to.


  3. Funnily enough I bought this book about 18 months ago and kept putting it off because I couldn’t face the thought of wading through 600-plus pages! I should probably have pointed out in my review that there are no chapter breaks either, and the text is tiny, but I didn’t want to put people off too much 😉
    Not heard of Hong Ying — must look her (?) up.


  4. No chapter breaks and text is tiny… wow.. that sounds daunting. I must find a good state of mind to read this, but your review has convinced me that I must read it.
    Thanks for as always brilliant review! Merry Christmas!


  5. This sounds rather incredible Kim, its a book I have seen at the library a few times and thought ‘maybe its too long’ or ‘would I like the subject matter… I mean would I really?’ and havent been sure. Now on your word I will have to try it for definite.


  6. This sounds fascinating. I have vivid memories of watching the coverage of Tiananmen Square at a friend’s house when I was in high school. It’s one of a small handful of events from that time that made an impression on me, even though I didn’t really know what it was about or understand the details that made the news. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the context of it, and this book sounds like an excellent way to learn more.


  7. I read this book for a book club a few years ago and I agree completely with you about it staying with you for a long time. I did find it a bit long and feel some editing would have done the book a world of good. But all in all, a great book!


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