Book Reviews

Ma Jian's China Dream

From ALR No. 9, Autumn 2008: read James Kidd's interview with Ma Jian.





For laughter makes men human and courageous: 

Reading Ma Jian’s China Dream


It’s China in 2018, the year that China’s president Xi Jinping launched his grand vision, ‘China Dream’. In a city called Ziyang, Ma Daode (whose name means ‘Virtues of a Horse’) heads the local China Dream Bureau. He decides that from today he will only dream positive dreams; but however fervently our protagonist tries to hold to his decision, the splendid future eludes him and horrors from his past begin to haunt him with increasing intensity. Ma Daode realises he has to make a sacrifice. Instead of waiting for a high-tech solution to erase the past forever, he follows a gruesome recipe sold to him by a Qigong healer. The denouement is operatic and unnerving. 

 I love literary novels that include recipes you can repeat at home. Somehow it adds a playful aspect – and just imagine a novel suddenly developing taste buds! That makes it more eye-catching and more instagrammable. It’s cool to be a writer. 

Ma Jian is one of the sharpest contemporary Chinese writers. Sharp, because his prose is like a Chinese cleaver dripping an aged, black vinegar. In China Dream he portrays the country in a witty, extravagant, and satirical vein. The interaction between the social and the literary, combined with the meanings of dreams, compels the author to compose a bold, two-layered narrative that travels seamlessly between the present and the time of the Cultural Revolution. Ma Jian’s realism is brutal and violent. Nevertheless, despite the cruelty and crudity featured in China Dream, I laughed from page one. Maybe it is because I survived the Cultural Revolution as a baby, but my stubborn Chinese genes have left me no tears of my own to cry and I have to borrow someone else’s.  I didn’t make that up: in the novel, the ruling bureaucrat suggests to his subjects: ‘Those who have tears, lend them to those who have none. Your reward will come in the next life.’ 

Life is a cycle. China Dreamis also about this cycle, sprinkled with cruel, hilarious, heart-breaking literary charms. Ma Daode is loyal to the Party. He masters the art of corruption and indulges in carnal adventures. Presently, he is confronted with a simple, yet obviously not-simple social experiment which begs the question: what does it mean to be Chinese in this day and age?  Ma Jian’s true-to-life satire, oriented around questions of being Chinese, reminds me of Rabelais minus toilet humour and Kadare plus Eastern hocus-pocus full of symbolism, glaring self-awareness and a tone of dark, ironic comedy. And the irony runs even deeper when our China Dream Bureau chief visits a local communist brothel. Once again, the lifelike scene ponders upon the question of being Chinese. In today’s globalizing world, is Chinese identity validated only through business deals? 

Indeed, economy – trade – is the new Chinese fairy-tale in the Western imagination. If you removed this, nothing would be left of China but one large, empty page. But what if I tell you this is also the way the Chinese people treat themselves? In today’s China, every aspect of life, every aspect of human relationship is business, including love between man and woman.  It’s as if, without business, your Chineseness is jeopardized.  There is no other way to be authentically Chinese, except to sell cut-rate, cheap things. Perhaps this is why Ma Jian’s female characters like to share erotic poems with our China Dream Bureau chief. Eroticism becomes darkly comic and cannibalistic. Every woman is painfully aware that she exists to be sold and, if nobody cares to sell her, she must dutifully fulfil that task herself. Ma Jian implies that it is difficult to define what it means to be a woman in China, but perhaps the key requirement is to have money close at hand. More money more poverty; more greed more hunger. This is the hardest place on Earth. The president says: Dream. The president says: Fear. To feel safe, he suggests, you have to get rid of your private thoughts. 

Orwell believed that reading prose should be like looking through a clear pane of glass at the story unfolding on the other side. Reading Ma Jian is like watching a large stained-glass window reveal a wide spectrum of absurdity before you can finally discover the hidden truth. This absurdity is literature, but even more alarming: this is what’s central in a country that is a rising superstar on the world stage. Its daily life is dominated by grotesque primary needs, by eating, drinking, defecating, urinating, and sex.  In the end, the fairy-tale of the China Dream is not too mysterious.

Ismail Kadare once said there is no such thing as a political writer when it comes to literature. Kadare was a communist bigwig before he claimed political asylum in France in 1990. Like him, Ma Jian lives in exile. He speaks unflinchingly of freedom in a country whose leader chooses a dream that must be dreamed by all citizens of China. The dream is a magic wok where the country’s leader handpicks every idea that pops into his mind to stir-fry them into a single irresistible dish. For China Dream is gloriously singular; a breath-taking concept that can ward off evil and change bad luck into good fortune. The homeland of China Dream runs on really good, positive energy. 

Flora Drew’s English translation is quite enjoyable. The story reads smoothly for a reader whose ample cultural knowledge allows her to appreciate the jokes fully.  Drew’s style is consistent and self-assured, though perhaps a little too assured and safe for my taste. Contemporary Chinese language literature urgently needs to launch authors of Orwell’s calibre. Readers should approach China Dream not as a political or anthropological study, but as a timeless story that holds a mirror to the scars of human nature and throws stark light upon it.

China Dream by Ma Jian is translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew (Chatto & Windus, 2018)

ISBN 978-1784742492

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