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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
By: 
Ma Jian
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Award Year: 
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A-Beijing ComaMa Jian’s previous works include a novel, a short story collection, and Red Dust (2002), a book recounting his travels through western China and Tibet. He lives in London, and his books are banned in China.

The Story: Dai Wei, a student activist, is shot in the head during the 1989 confrontation in Tiananmen Square and remains in a coma for the next 10 years. While to his mother and others he seems a "vegetable," he remains acutely aware of the outer world as well as the inner world of memory and reflection. Drawing on both these sources, he chronicles the pro-democracy uprising and the decade that followed, sparing neither China’s Communist regime nor his friends who opposed it and who, years later, sometimes failed to live up to their ideals. He also sustains himself by recounting stories from China’s mythical past, suggesting that they might also represent hope for its future.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 586 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0374110174

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Beijing Coma is an important contribution to a new kind of Chinese fiction and memoir, what might be termed a literature of unremembering. … Ma Jian has asked, as have a number of other Chinese writers, ‘Who were we before we were destroyed?’ The answer here—without giving away the ending—and the answer in similar works are often the same: We were free." Earl Pike

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Beijing Coma is a strange, and long, book, by turns dull and riveting. … Beijing Coma doesn’t just explain what happened in the spring of 1989. It lives all its breathless hope and anxiety, its immaturity and optimism and terror and monotony, its courage and tragedy, from inside the prison of Dai Wei’s living corpse." Christine Smallwood

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Great books require great themes, Melville once wrote. So it seems fitting that Ma Jian, one of China’s finest writers (and now nearly 20 years in Europe as an expatriate), has taken up the subject of one of his country’s ‘great leaps’ forward, from the abysmal days of the Cultural Revolution to its present-day ascent as a major economic power." Alan Cheuse

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Ma Jian, who now lives in London with his translator and partner, Flora Drew, offers the Chinese people an avenue through which to retrieve their souls and emerge from their collective coma. He gives us two choices: remain society’s slaves or lose everything and find freedom." Belle Yang

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What makes Beijing Coma enthralling, despite its political weightiness, is the way Ma Jian brings his characters—including the silent Dai Wei—to noisy life. … Throughout the novel, Mr. Ma drops hints that, like Dai Wei, the people of China are in a coma they need to wake from." Anne Morris

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Beijing Coma is nothing less than a comprehensive story of China in the 20th century. It often reads like the script for a documentary, but the wraparound story is intimate and believable." Valerie Ryan

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The novel, while expertly translated into idiomatic English by Flora Drew, is desperately in need of editing: there are passages of extraordinary power, which in chronicling the horrors perpetrated by the Chinese government in the Mao era and after, belong in the pantheon of dissident literature; and yet there are also long, meandering sections, minutely chronicling petty squabbles among student leaders." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Even reviewers who found serious problems with Beijing Coma admired its political honesty and narrative premise. They suggested that anyone reading this book would learn much about the circumstances leading to the confrontation in Tiananmen Square and the changes that have taken place in China since. But critics disagreed over the value of Beijing Coma independent of its clear importance as a work of dissident fiction. For example, some critics thought that Ma Jian’s detailed descriptions of relationships between student activists slowly built suspense in the novel or demonstrated how individuals can be redacted in the successive drafts of history. Others simply felt that the book needed stronger editing. These differences of opinion reflect that Beijing Coma is an important novel and essential reading for anyone interested in China and its future—but that it might not engage all readers through its plot and characters alone.