Ma Jian: A note to remember

JP/Stanny
JP/Stanny

Chinese writer Ma Jian, 57, whose works are banned in his home country, never tires of reminding people of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, which took place more than 20 years ago.

His latest book, Beijing Coma, recounts the story of a young student activist who falls into a coma after being shot during the Tiananmen protests. Through Ma’s protagonist Dai Wei, the reader finds out what it must have been like to grow up under communist rule.

For Ma Jian, who was present during the 1989 protests, his protagonist’s comatose state is a metaphor for the Chinese people, who after 20 years have either forgotten or ignored the death of the thousands of unarmed citizens on June 4.

“This is a problem in Asia as well as China. As long as people’s living standards improve and they live a comfortable life, they don’t care so much about abuses of human rights,” Ma Jian said recently in Ubud, Bali, as translated by his wife Flora Drew. He noted that many East Asian countries had grown economically but remained undemocratic.

Ma said he wrote Beijing Coma “not only to remind the young people [of China] about this history they may not know about but to also tell them about the idealism and optimism of young people 20 years ago”.

But given Ma’s books are banned in China, youth there is not able to access his books freely. Ma, who lives in London, said he knew more about what was happening in China than the people living there because of the government’s tight policy on information dissemination. He also has more freedom to express his views compared to his friends who live in China.

“Some writers in China perhaps feel they have freedom of expression – that things have improved but they are fooling themselves,” he said.

“Young Chinese writers have grown up in this culture. They are somehow able to circumvent it through the Internet but they can’t use sensitive words, otherwise access to their content will be blocked,” he said.

Ma hopes the Internet will help Chinese youth read his works.

Ma and Drew attended the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The day Ma talked to The Jakarta Post, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced imprisoned Chinese and human rights activist and writer Liu Xiaobo had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“These things indicate the West is putting pressure on China to respect freedom of speech,” Ma said.
Ma moved from Beijing to Hong Kong in 1987 shortly before his books were banned there. He now lives in London with Drew and their four children. Every time he came back to China, he was under constant monitoring, he said. In 1989, he joined the student protests, but a few days before the day of the massacre, Ma returned to his hometown in Qingdao as his brother fell into a coma after an accident.

Ma said that had he stayed in China, one of two things would have happened. “One, I would have remained a writer and would be in jail. Or, I would have given up writing altogether because if I cannot write freely, I would prefer not to write.”

Ma met Drew in 1997 on the night Hong Kong was handed over to China. Drew, who had studied Chinese in London, was at that time making a documentary for an American television station. She read Ma’s books, which he showed to her, and was convinced they needed to be translated into English.

After Ma moved to London, Drew translated his memoir Red Dust for almost two years while he was writing. The book about Ma’s precarious three years of traveling in China in his early 30s, at a time where travel permits were required to travel anywhere inside China, went on to win the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

Red Dust was published in China under a pseudonym, but only after half of the content was censored, Ma said.

Ma set off on the journey because he wanted to see China through his own eyes. He was a state journalist before and explained everything that was shown to him was pre-arranged to paint a rosy picture. When he reached Tibet, he penned his findings in his first book Stick Out Your Tongue, about Tibet’s underbelly.

China is still Ma’s spiritual homeland, which he will continue to stay connected to. He said living away from China helped him see the country more clearly, like looking at a mountain from afar.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Ubud, Bali | People | Thu, October 21 2010

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