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Book Review

Book Cover

China Dream (Hardback)


Author: Ma Jian
Publisher: Penguin Books
RRP: £12.99, Cdn $27.99
ISBN: 978 1 784 74249 2
Publication Date: 01 November 2018

Writings by dissidents can come in many flavours. The act of dissension presupposes an act of rebellion. Anyone can rebel against what they see as injustice, but I have yet to read a writer who can do it in such a poetic manner as Ma Jian.

China Dream (2018. 179 pages) is the latest novel by Ma Jian. Born in Qingdao, he is as celebrated as he is banned in China. The book takes its title from an idea which is increasingly espoused by Xi Jinping, secretary General for Life of the Communist Party of China. The idea is linked with returning China to a state of greatness it feels it deserves. Unfortunately, for the usual newspeak reasons this also seems to mean the denial of their collective past.

One of the most climatic parts of China's past was the Cultural Revolution, a civil war of exceptional violence. The revolution ran from 1966 to 1976, which means that there are many Chinese who not only remember the war, but also took an active part.

Ma Daode is the director of the newly created China Dream Bureau, a ministry set up to develop a chip which will literally download a citizen’s dream for interrogation. Although he keeps the public face of a good member of the party, in reality, Ma has mistresses, takes bribes and spends nights with prostitutes.

The writer is extremely clever in not making Ma an object of either hate or derision. As the dreamlike sequences pass, we see a disturbed and sad Ma. His past constantly impinges on his present, something he cannot even talk about as mention of the Cultural Revolution is discouraged. Through the book we witness his gradual disintegration as he is not allowed to express his traumatic past experiences.

Ma is not a monster, though he may have done monstrous actions, but then he lived through a bitter civil war.

I find it odd that China does what it can to limit news and discussion of the Cultural Revolution, given it was such a significant part of their history. It contrasts with many western countries which openly discuss the less salubrious part of their history. Maybe China needs its own Ken Burns to produce a balanced documentary.

In the end I felt sorry for Ma, traumatised by his past and constrained by the inconsistencies between his public life and inner turmoil, the pressure on Ma literally starts to tear him apart.

A big nod must go to Flora Drew, who produced the translation from the Chinese, who was able to retain the poetic prose of Jian's text.


Charles Packer

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