Dai Wei, a PhD student and protestor in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, was caught by a soldier's bullet and fell into a deep coma. But as the millennium draws near, he begins to emerge from unconsciousness, and to sense the massive changes in his country. At once a powerful allegory of a rising China, and a seminal story of the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing Coma is Ma Jian's masterpiece.
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About the Author
MA JIAN is the author of a memoir, Red Dust, as well Stick Out Your Tongue as the story collection, Stick Out Your Tongue, which was banned by the Chinese government. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
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.
You reach for a pillow and tuck it under your shoulders, propping up your head so that the blood in your brain can flow back down into your heart, allowing your thoughts to clear a little. Your mother used to prop you up like that from time to time.
Silvery mornings are always filled with new intentions. But today is the first day of the new millennium, so the dawn is thicker with them than ever. Although the winter frosts haven’t set in yet, the soft breeze blowing on your face feels very cold.
A smell of urine still hangs in the room. It seeps from your pores when the sunlight falls on your skin.
You gaze outside. The morning air isn’t rising from the ground as it did yesterday. Instead, it’s falling from the sky onto the treetops, then moving slowly through the leaves, brushing past the bloodstained letter caught in the branches, absorbing moisture as it falls.
Before the sparrow arrived, you had almost stopped thinking about flight. Then, last winter, it soared through the sky and landed in front of you, or more precisely on the windowsill of the covered balcony adjoining your bedroom. You knew the grimy windowpanes were caked with dead ants and dust, and smelt as sour as the curtains. But the sparrow wasn’t put off. It jumped inside the covered balcony and ruffled its feathers, releasing a sweet smell of tree bark into the air. Then it flew into your bedroom, landed on your chest and stayed there like a cold egg.
Your blood is getting warmer. The muscles of your eye sockets quiver. Your eyes will soon fill with tears. Saliva drips onto the soft palate at the back of your mouth. A reflex is triggered, and the palate rises, closing off the nasal passage and allowing the saliva to flow into your pharynx. The muscles of the oesophagus, which have been dormant for so many years, contract, projecting the saliva down into your stomach. A bioelectrical signal darts like a spark of light from the neurons in your motor cortex, down the spinal cord to a muscle fibre at the tip of your finger.
You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning.
‘Waa, waaah . . .’
A baby’s choked cry cuts through the fetid air. A tiny naked body seems to be trembling on a 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 the pool of blood that gathers around 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. The doctor on duty didn’t dare offer to help bring this ‘son of a capitalist dog’ into the world. Fortunately, my mother passed out after her waters broke, so she didn’t feel any pain when I pushed myself out into the hospital corridor.
And now, all these years later, I, too, am lying unconscious in a hospital. Only the occasional sound of glass injection ampoules being snapped open tells me that I’m still alive.
Yes, it’s me. My mother’s eldest son. The eyes of a buried frog flash through my mind. It’s still alive. It was I who trapped it in the jar and buried it in the earth . . . The dark corridor outside is very long. At the end of it is the operating room, where bodies are handled like mere heaps of flesh . . . And the girl I see now – what’s her name? A-Mei. She’s walking towards me, just a white silhouette. She has no smell. Her lips are trembling.
I’m lying on a hospital bed, just as my father did before he died. I’m Dai Wei – the seed that he left behind. Am I beginning to remember things? I must be alive, then. Or perhaps I’m fading away, flitting, one last time, through the ruins of my past. No, I can’t be dead. I can hear noises. Death is silent.
‘He’s just pretending to be dead . . .’ my mother mumbles to someone. ‘I can’t eat this pak choi. It’s full of sand.’
It’s me she’s talking about. I hear a noise close to my ear. It’s somebody’s colon rumbling.
Where’s my mouth? My face? I can see a yellow blur before my eyes, but can’t smell anything yet. I hear a baby crying somewhere in the distance and occasionally a thermos flask being filled with hot water.
The yellow light splinters. Perhaps a bird just flew across the sky. I sense that I’m waking from a long sleep. Everything sounds new and unfamiliar.
What happened to me? I see Tian Yi and me hand in hand, running for our lives. Is that a memory? Did it really happen? Tanks roll towards us. There are fires burning everywhere, and the sound of screaming . . .And what about now? Did I pass out when the tanks rolled towards me? Is this still the same day?
When my father was lying in hospital waiting to die, the stench of dirty sheets and rotten orange peel was sometimes strong enough to mask the pervasive smell of rusty metal beds. When the evening sky blocked up the window, the filthy curtains merged into the golden sunlight and the room became slightly more transparent, and enabled me at least to sense that my father was still alive . . . On that last afternoon, I didn’t dare look at him. I turned instead to the window, and stared at the red slogan raise the glorious red flag of Marxism and struggle boldly onwards hanging on the roof of the hospital building behind, and at the small strip of sky above it . . .
During those last days of his life, my father talked about the three years he spent as a music student in America. He mentioned a girl from California whom he’d met when he was there. She was called Flora, which means flower in Latin. He said that when she played the violin, she would look down at the floor and he could gaze at her long eyelashes. She’d promised to visit him in Beijing after she left college. But by the time she graduated, China had become a communist country, and no foreigners were allowed inside.
I remember the black, rotten molar at the side of his mouth. While he spoke to us in hospital, he’d stroke his cotton sheet and the urinary catheter inserted into his abdomen underneath.
‘Technically speaking, he’s a vegetable,’ says a nurse to my right. ‘But at least the IV fluid is still entering his vein. That’s a good sign.’ She seems to be speaking through a face mask and tearing a piece of muslin. The noises vibrate through me, and for a moment I gain a vague sense of the size and weight of my body.
If I’m a vegetable, I must have been lying here unconscious for sometime. So, am I waking up now?
My father comes into view again. His face is so blurred, it looks as though I’m seeing it through a wire mesh. My father was also attached to an intravenous drip when he breathed his last breath. His left eyeball reflected like a windowpane the roof of the hospital building behind, a slant of sky and a few branches of a tree. If I were to die now, my closed eyes wouldn’t reflect a thing. Perhaps I only have a few minutes left to live, and this is just a momentary recovery of consciousness before death.
‘Huh! I’m probably wasting my time here. He’s never going to wakeup.’ My mother’s voice sounds both near and far away. It floats through the air. Maybe this is how noises sounded to my father just before he died.
In those last few moments of his life, the oxygen mask on his face and the plastic tube inserted into his nose looked superfluous. Had the nurses not been regularly removing the phlegm from his throat, or pouring milk into his stomach through a rubber feeding tube, he would have died on that metal bed weeks before. Just as he was about to pass away, I sensed his eyes focus on me. I was tugging my brother’s shirt. The cake crumbs in his hands scattered onto my father’s sheet. He was trying to climb onto my father’s bed. The key hanging from his neck clunked against the metal bed frame. I yanked the strap of his leather satchel with such force that it snapped in half.
‘Get down!’ my mother shouted, her eyes red with fury. My brother burst into tears. I fell silent.
A second later, my father sank into the cage of medical equipment surrounding him and entered my memory. Life and death had converged inside his body. It had all seemed so simple.
‘He’s gone,’ the nurse said, without taking off her face mask. With the tip of her shoe, she flicked aside the discarded chopsticks and cotton wool she’d used to clear his phlegm, then told my mother to go to reception and complete the required formalities. If his body wasn’t taken to the mortuary before midnight, my mother would be charged another night for the hospital room. Director Guo, the personnel officer of the opera company my parents belonged to, advised my mother to apply for my father’s posthumous political rehabilitation, pointing out thatthe compensation money could help cover the hospital fees.
My father stopped breathing and became a corpse. His body lay on the bed, as large as before. I stood beside him, with his watch on my wrist.
After the cremation, my mother stood at the bus stop cradling the box of ashes in her arms and said, ‘Your father’s last words were that he wanted his ashes buried in America. That rightist! Even at the point of death he refused to repent.’ As our bus approached, she cried out, ‘At least from now on we won’t have to live in a constant state of fear!’
She placed the box of ashes under her iron bed. Before I went to sleep, I’d often pull it out and take a peek inside. The more afraid I grew of the ashes, the more I wanted to gaze at them. My mother said that if a friend of hers were to leave China, she’d give them the box and ask them to bury it abroad so that my father’s spirit could rise into a foreign heaven.
‘You must go and study abroad, my son,’ my father often repeated tome when he was in hospital.
So, I’m still alive . . . I may be lying in hospital, but at least I’m not dead. I’ve just been buried alive inside my body . . . I remember the day I caught that frog. Our teacher had told us to catch one so that we could later study their skeletons. After I caught my frog, I put it in a glass jar, pierced a hole in the metal cap, then buried it in the earth. Our teacher told us that worms and ants would crawl inside and eat away all the flesh within a month, leaving a clean skeleton behind. I bought some alcohol solution, ready to wipe off any scraps of flesh still remaining on the bones. But before the month was out, a family living on the ground floor of our building built a kitchen over the hole where I’d buried it.
The frog must have become a skeleton years ago. While its bones lie trapped in the jar, I lie buried inside my body, waiting to die.
Excerpted from Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. Copyright © 2008 by Ma Jian. Translation copyright © 2008 by Flora Drew. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. What was your initial reaction to the opening passage of the novel, written with second-person pronouns that appear to address you directly? How did your understanding of this passage change at the end of the novel?
2. In what ways do the political affiliations of his father impact Dai Wei as a child? How does his mother's reaction further influence Dai Wei's life? How do his parents resolve the clash of family obligation and civic duty?
3. Ma Jian writes, "The literal meaning of the Chinese characters for 'revolution' is 'elimination of life'" (p. 55). How does this apply to Dai Wei's understanding of the Cultural Revolution in which his father participated? How does this statement play out in the novel's themes?
4. How does Dai Wei's attitude toward women develop and progress? What are the similarities and differences between the relationships he forms with the four primary women in his life -- his mother, Lulu, A-Mei, and Tian Yi?
5. How does memory influence the novel's theme, plot, characterization, and imagery? In what way do the five senses define and distort Dai Wei's recollection of the past -- and his recovery in the present?
6. Discuss the significance of cultural heritage and identity in Dai Wei and A-Mei's courtship. How does geography shape the characters later in the novel, especially in terms of the various provinces and countries affected by the protests?
7. What is the significance of The Book of Mountains and Seas? When he is left with only his imagination, how does Dai Wei's recollection of past events, places, and people merge with his memories of this book in particular?
8. How does his mother's strict adherence and loyalty to the Communist Party affect Dai Wei? How does this work to both distance mother and son and also bond them together? After Dai Wei becomes comatose, how does his mother's sense of nationalism change?
9. Discuss the following quote: "Leaders emerge in times of chaos, and it's always the radical ones who gain the support of the people" (p. 175). How does this apply to the several revolutions and counterrevolutions throughout history? What does it suggest about the students depicted in the novel, in particular those struggling for power during the protests?
10. What is the role of technology and information industries in Ma Jian's description of a modernizing China? How have hand-held cameras, telephones, and the foreign media transformed the process of protest?
11. Discuss the importance and perception of the father figure as portrayed in the novel, especially as it relates to Dai Wei and his family. How is this mirrored in other characters? In what respect did the Cultural Revolution of their father's generation shape their own student movements, which led to the protests of 1989?
12. The students seem to have vastly different stances and reasons for protesting. Discuss the factors of family, society, power, and politics as they influenced this spectrum of motivations. How would you have responded under similar circumstances?
13. What made the hunger strike particularly effective in helping the students gain the wide support among the Chinese people? Describe the parallels between the hunger strike and Dai Wei's comatose state. What does this imply for him both spiritually and as a revolutionary?
14. If Dai Wei had lost his ability to hear, how would his progress have been affected? How does the fact that Dai Wei can still hear shape his understanding of his surroundings and knowledge of his former friends?
15. What is the source of Master Yao's influence on Dai Wei and his mother? How does their life change after Yao is arrested and jailed?
16. What were your impressions of the sparrow described in the novel's closing scenes? How does the bird capture the potential of a new future for Dai Wei while relating to his past, especially A-Mei?
17. What does Beijing Coma teach us about the dualities of death and rebirth, despair and hope, and oppression and freedom?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The most striking feature about Beijing Coma is that Ma Jian incorporates factual and recent events into this epic novel about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, subsequently blurring the lines between fiction and reality. This book connects history with the present, as the characters of Beijing Coma struggle through various forms of political and religious oppression--from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and forced evictions of middle class homeowners in Beijing's hutong district of this decade. It is a very heartbreaking, intimate, and poignant novel, and although it is quite lengthy, it is definitely worth an ardent reader's time and consideration.
A fascinating portrait of China and its recent history. Beijing Coma is told through the eyes of Dai Wei, a student protester who falls into a coma after the Tienanmen Square protest of 1989. Dai Wei's recounting of the energy of the student protesters brings their movement to life and details of life in China highlight the practices the students were fighting against. However, one of the most interesting things about this novel is the depiction of the changes China experienced after the Tienanmen Square protest. Despite his coma, Dai Wei hears of the changes, of the new kinds of jobs, of new technologies, and the transformation of China he grew up in. I would recommend this novel to anyone with an interest in China today.
This is not a book for the faint hearted. Dai Wei lies in a coma after being shot in the head during the Tiananmen Square massacre. As a scientist, he is aware of the degradation of his body with clinical detail. His present -- tended by his faltering mother -- merges with his past, especially his months as a student activist and the final days of the democracy movement. Most of his friends have moved on -- some have moved abroad and some are prosperous members of the new China. It is clear, however, that the new China is as corrupt and oppressive as the world. Dai Wei is left to wonder if there is anything worthwhile left for him. This book is poetic, exciting in parts, a bit revolting (Dai Wei is hypersensitive to smells and records them in detail) and also is and feels very long. You will feel like you have truly experienced Dai Wei's Beijing coma.
a very captivating and powerful look at communist china, the cultural revolution, the student movement in 1989. engaging characters weave their way through historical events. very illuminating especially in light of the fact that americans tend to learn precious little of events in asia regardless of how significant they are. i recommend this book.
Ma Jian's Beijing Coma was a really enlightening novel. I learned so much about China- the good and the bad. This novel exposed me for the first time to the horrifying Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre- really important events that no one bothered to teach in high school history. What you find in this book will alternatively inspire and infuriate you, and at no time will Ma Jian leave you feeling apathetic. The writing in this novel is unique. The narration is delivered with a certain sparsity and emotionless quality, but is occasionally punctuated with incredibly poignant and striking images and revelations that take you aback and force you to pause and reflect. The novel reminds me a bit of the fiction of Sartre and Camus, but with distinguishing elements that are Ma Jian's own. In any case, the novel is brilliant. Read it. It is an accessible opportunity to experience the richness of another culture's literature.