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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

An Interview: Novelist 'astonished' over Tiananmen

October 13, 2010

By Muhammad Cohen
Asia Times
October 8, 2010

UBUD, Bali - Beijing Coma author Ma Jian believed
the crackdown on anti-government protesters in
1989 would kickstart the end of Communist Party
rule in China. But things haven't turned out that way - yet.

"What astonished me after the Tiananmen massacre
was to see one communist regime after another
topple in Eastern Europe, while in China the
communists not only retained, but strengthened,
their control," Ma said. "The changes that I
expected - a move to freedom, democracy and
respect of human rights - are, I still believe,
inevitable, but it appears they will take much longer than many had hoped."

Born in Qingdao in 1953, Ma first gained
attention in China with the publication of Stick
Out Your Tongue in 1987, a collection of stories
set in Tibet which triggered protests by Tibetans
for its explicit, unflattering portrayal of the
region. The book was banned by the Beijing
government. After moving to Hong Kong, he wrote
satirically about capitalism in The Noodle Maker.

Ma's 2008 novel Beijing Coma has been praised
widely for its depiction of the 1989 Tiananmen
Square crackdown and the subsequent decade where
economic development trumped politics. In the
book the protagonist, injured in the crackdown,
emerges from his coma remembering events of 1989
that the conscious people around him forget.

Asia Times Online spoke to Ma Jian ahead of the
Citibank Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Ubud, Bali, running October 6-10.

Asia Times Online: Did you write Beijing Coma
based on your personal experience or imagination?

Ma Jian: I took part in the 1989 democracy
protests in Beijing, joining the marches, camping
out in the square, so I had direct experience to
draw on. I could remember the heat, the
rainstorms, the smell of urine and rotten fruit
peel in the square, the slogans blaring through
the student megaphones, the feeling of being
swept along and crushed by elated crowds, and
behind all of this, the sense of impending doom.
When it came to writing the book, I filled gaps
in my knowledge through extensive research: I
read memoirs, factual accounts, interviewed
student leaders and intellectuals. But although
based on personal experience and research,
Beijing Coma is a novel. The main characters are
imagined. Every element of the book serves primarily a literary purpose.

ATol: Beijing Coma also covers the decade after
Tiananmen Square. What surprised you most about
what happened in those years and thereafter? What
changes did you expect after Tiananmen Square that haven't materialized yet?

Ma: What astonished me after the Tiananmen
massacre was to see one communist regime after
another topple in Eastern Europe, while in China
the communists not only retained, but
strengthened, their control. Like many others at
the time, I presumed that the brutality of the
massacre would destroy the regime's legitimacy,
and that a new, democratic system would
inevitably emerge. I hadn't expected that the
Chinese people, numbed by the horror of the
crackdown, would acquiesce so quickly and return
to their previous state of subjection. The
changes that I expected - a move to freedom,
democracy and respect of human rights - are, I
still believe, inevitable, but it appears they
will take much longer than many had hoped.

ATol: Why does it matter if China's government
acknowledges what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Ma: It is crucial that China's government
acknowledges what happened in Tiananmen Square.
The Chinese psyche is crippled by historical
taboos. There's 1989, but also the catastrophe of
the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist
Movement, and the Cultural Revolution. An
estimated 70 million Chinese people have lost
their lives due to communist rule, and until the
government acknowledges the injustices they have
committed and apologizes publicly, the nation
will continue to live in an amoral, ahistorical limbo.

Today, parents are unable to look their children
in the face and talk honestly about their pasts.
There is a collective fear of truth, of personal
memories. So it is important to address the past,
not only to commemorate the dead, but to allow
the living - the survivors - to regain their
personal histories and their sense that each
human life should be afforded dignity and respect.

ATol: There's concern in Asia and the West about
rising nationalism in China. How do you interpret
nationalist sentiment in China? How does in
differ from the sentiment of your generation?

Ma: As is well known, the Chinese have
traditionally believed themselves to be the
center of the world, a power to which foreign
countries should pay obeisance. Over the past 20
years, nationalist sentiment has been deepened by
government leaders, who keep reminding China's
citizens of the country's past humiliations at
the hands of the West. China's sudden rise to
economic superpower status has given the Chinese
an arrogant swagger. Today the Chinese feel both
aggrieved and unstoppable, and this is a dangerous combination.

Twenty years ago, the mood was very different. We
were patriotic rather than nationalistic. We had
ideals - we wanted to learn from the West in
order to change our country for the better, to
make it a more open and democratic place. Today's
nationalism is anti-foreign. Many young Chinese
are antipathetic to the concepts of human rights
and democracy. They want China to learn from the
West (its science and technology, not its
politics), in order, eventually, to defeat the West.

ATol: How difficult is to write about China while
living overseas? Would you rather be living inside China?

Ma: Although based in London, I return to China
continually, so it's hard for me to accept that I
"live overseas". Before each new book, I spend a
long time in China and let the country seep into
me. While researching the novel I'm now working
on, I traveled through the Chinese hinterlands
for three months. But when I finally sit down to
write, I enter my own private universe, and it
doesn't really matter where I am, as long as I am
left in peace. And for me, peace is easier to find in London than in Beijing.

ATol: What about Hong Kong or Taiwan? Why not stay there?

Ma: Just before my first book was banned in 1987,
I moved to Hong Kong, sensing that the political
climate in the mainland would make it impossible
for me to continue living there. I stayed for 10
years, returning to China for long stretches.
When I saw the Chinese troops march over the
border during the 1997 handover, I knew it was
time to leave Hong Kong. I don't think I could
move back there now. But I love Taiwan - its
mixture of traditional civility and urban chaos. I feel utterly at ease there.

ATol: Materialism is nothing new, so why so much
emphasis on it in your works? What's so intriguing about materialism?

Ma: What separates humans from the beasts is our
capacity to contemplate the present, analyze our
past and dream about our future. Almost uniquely,
we are able to appreciate beauty and act
altruistically. A certain degree of materialism
is necessary and inevitable, but when life
becomes no more than a quest for material
satisfaction, the most precious parts of the human spirit begin to atrophy.

ATol: Stick Out Your Tongue depicts Tibet. What
are a writer's advantages and duties when writing
about a society as an outsider? How is it
different than writing about groups of which you are a member?

Ma: Whatever I write about, I always feel I do so
as an outsider - someone who has lived inside the
group but has chosen to step outside it to gain a
better view. The only duty I feel a novelist has
is to tell the truth. It can never be the whole
truth, or an impartial, factual, objective truth;
but it must be the truth - the philosophical,
psychological truth - as the writer sees it. What
historians and journalists write is another matter.

ATol: In an interview, you dismissed criticism of
what some feel was the book's brutal, even
barbaric depiction of Tibetan society by saying,
"The book is a work of imagination... it
shouldn't be read as reportage." In view of questions above, is that enough?

Ma: Yes, absolutely. Stick Out Your Tongue is
based on my travels through Tibet after three
years on the road in China. I arrived exhausted,
demoralized, hoping at last to find a corner of
the world in which I could feel at peace. I was a
Buddhist of sort at the time, and was looking for
some kind of affirmation of my faith. What I was
confronted with was a vast emptiness: the
cloudless skies, the endless, deserted plains.

The realization of the absurdity of my quest -
that futile attempt to find spiritual answers
from the external world - hit me in a very brutal
way. This is what I meant when I said the book
shouldn't be read as reportage - the stories are
a metaphorical depiction of a personal crisis. I
was not writing as a Han colonialist criticizing
the barbarity of a subjugated minority. Nothing
could be further from the truth.

The narrator of the book is Han, but he is a
vagabond, amoral, he passes no judgment. Whether
I'm writing about China or Tibet, I focus on
those at the margins of society; my sympathies
always lie with the underdog and the oppressed. I
describe life in all its ugliness and brutality,
and amidst the despair try to find beauty and a
sense of hope. When someone reads a book of mine,
I don't want them to simply say, "So that's what
China is like," or "That's what Tibet is like." I
want them to say, "So that, perhaps, is what my life is like."

ATol: The Ubud Festival is in Bali, like Tibet, a
culture that's outside the mainstream of its much
larger nation and a culture largely idealized by
outsiders. Do you see further similarities between Tibet and Bali?

Ma: I have never been to Bali before, so I'm not
able to answer this, but I'm looking forward very much to finding out.

ATol: What Chinese writers do you read?

Ma: I enjoy re-reading the classics - Dream of
the Red Chamber, Journey to the West - and I
admire Shen Congwen, Lu Xun, Zhang Ailing.

ATol: What do you think about the writings of
popular post-1980s writers such as Han Han and Yu
Jie? What is your view about contemporary Chinese literature in general?

Ma: Han Han's blog and Yu Jie's essays are
impressively honest. True freedom of speech and
publication are still denied to Chinese writers.
Consequently, as far as contemporary Chinese
literature goes, most of the novels that are
allowed to be sold in the bookshops contain many
good stories but not enough thought. What gives
me hope, however, is that books are still being
written in China that the government deems worthy of a ban.

Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen
told America's story to the world as a US
diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air , a
novel set during the 1997 handover about
television news, love, betrayal, financial
crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow Muhammad
Cohen's blog for more on the media and Asia, his adopted home.
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