-On the Philosophical Implications of Ma Jian’s Novel Beijing Coma
Twenty five years have passed away since the massacre on the June Fourth 1989 in Beijing. The history provides inspiration for many stories. However, the dictatorial suppression by the Chinese authorities is still alive. The Chinese writer Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma (2009) is an epic novel focusing on the June Fourth Tragedy. Today it draws more attention to its meanings in both history and reality and its literary values. In my opinion, it is a novel with philosophical implications.
A Book about the Metamorphosis in China
The narrator and hero is Dai Wei, a student activist, one of the organizers of the 1989 protests for freedom. He spends ten years in a coma after he was shot in the head during the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square. It is an irony that after ten years in a coma, Dai Wei awakes and finds that the darkest page of Chinese history has disappeared completely from the national memory, but he remains live with vivid and articulate memories of the events and still seeks love in his recollection of past times.
In his essay “Circling the Square”(The New York Times, July 13, 2008), Jess Row tries to explain the meaning of the novel’s original title “Rou Tu”: “The Chinese character ‘rou,’ meaning ‘flesh’ or ‘meat,’ is a three-sided figure with two sets of diagonal slashes inside, meant to resemble a flayed carcass. It’s an instantly memorable, if unpalatable, image, and the same is true of the Chinese title of Ma Jian’s new novel. ‘Rou Tu’ (‘tu’means ‘earth’ or ‘land’) translates, awkwardly, as ‘Meat Earth’ or perhaps ‘Land of Flesh.’”
In my opinion, here the character ‘rou’means ‘body’ from the dualist conceptions of ‘rou’ (body) and ‘ling’ (mind). In different meditation traditions, body-mind is a compound of body and mind, and the mind–body problem in philosophy can be viewed as a paradox. The original title “Rou Tu” should be translated “The Earth of the Human Body”.
First I look this novel as a new Metamorphosis because the Metamorphosis (perhaps by Franz Kafka) is among Dai Wei’s favorite-books. The author does not mention it is Ovid’s or Franz Kafka’s, but he mentions more than one time Kafka and his “Castle”. Dai Wei feels that Kafka gives him a lesson on how to see the true face of himself and the society, inspiring him to understand that the distortion of human nature is due to this system.
Shanhaijing (i.e, The Legends of Mountains and Seas), a Chinese classic text and a compilation of early geography and myth, is the most attractive book for Dai Wei. In the book, whose shadow falls heavily over large sections of the novel, Dai Wei finds so many transformations: from human beings to different animals. He has many dreams about transformations, dreaming of himself becoming a fish or a frog imprisoned in the prison of its own body.
In my eyes, Shanhaijing is oriental Ovidian Metamorphoses, which include both active and passive transformations. The legend of Jingwei filling up the sea in the book is a story dealing with positive transformation. A girl unfortunately drowned in the sea. After her death she transformed into a bird named Jingwei in order to exact revenge upon the sea by bringing small twigs from the mountains in an effort to fill it up. Jingwei mentioned in Beijing Coma can be regarded as a symbol for the victims of the June Fourth Massacre and an everlasting tragic thirst. The story of a monster having been changed into a stone in Shanhaijing mentioned in Beijing Coma can be regarded as a passive transformation.
In my opinion, “Rou Tu”, the original Chinese title of the novel, should be explained from the perspective of Chinese philosophy or Buddhist philosophy. According to the theory of the Wu Xing or the Five Elements(Wood, Fire, Earth , Metal and Water) as the basic elements of cosmos, including the small cosmos of human body, the title suggests that the Five Elements of the human being have transformed or reduced into the only one(Earth) without the most spiritual elements: Fire and Water. The organ of heart is seen to have correspondences to fire and its function is to think. The English title, Beijing Coma, in the Chinese eyes, suggests that the human being has transformed into a kind of plant, because the word coma is changed into Chinese Zhiwuren or plant-human. The English title is better because it can symbolize that Beijing, China’s heart, is in a coma. Therefore, the novel can be regarded as a book about the Metamorphosis in China.
A Book about Alienation in China Today
The passive transformation is a kind of alienation, the separation of things that naturally belong together, or antagonism between those who are properly in harmony. In the novel and his interviews, Ma Jian has never mentioned theories of alienation, but I think that it is a masterpiece dealing with a topic of alienation. The meaning of the text is richer than the author’s creative intention.
According to the Young Marx’s theory of alienation, the laborers are alienated from the fruits of their labor as a result of having to sell their labor to the capitalists. They are also alienated from their human essence, becoming machines in the mechanical system of production.
At the turn of the early 1980s, the Chinese philosophers Gao Ertai and Wang Ruoshui talked about socialist alienation. The discussions had inspired a generation of Chinese people to think, though they could not touch the essence of the society.
We must know that the social alienation under dictatorship and totalitarian leadership is much heavier. In a volume of Bloom’s Literary Themes, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is described as the “supreme literary portrait” of alienation. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis can be regarded as a powerful prophecy of the alienation brought on by the Totalitarianism-social structure.
Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, with its ironic drama, its vast panoply of characters, its emotional generosity, and its allegiance to China’s reality, highlights the alienation of Chinese people and the widespread and growing social alienation. In some aspects, the author’s descriptions and the ideas on alienation expressed by Gao Ertai and Wang Ruoshui and others can be elucidated by each other, but the former has a depth of thought, which could not be achieved or expressed by China’s intellectuals at the turn of the early 1980s.
Corruption and degeneration were the major factors that led to the protest in1989. After the June Fourth Massacre, the alienation due to the corruption and degeneration safeguarded by guns has never been so pervasive as today. The socialist utopia has been replaced by moneytheism, the belief in the only supreme god of wealth. The absolute political power above law becomes the most powerful and the easiest means to rob money. The critical situation of alienation of production itself is difficult to be endured by the labors. In Beijing Coma, some 1989 protests have become predators as developing business men. Dai Wei’s mother once followed the Party, but sadly she is so poverty that she has to sell one of his kidneys to pay for his medical expenses. At the end of the novel, the author describes the forced house demolition, the most extreme form of alienation, bloodier than the enclosure movement of the sheep eating people in the period of the primitive accumulation of capital. Thus it can be seen that the huge social wealth produced by Chinese people has been, in most part, alienated to those in power.
Under the totalitarianism as a totally dehumanizing system, the alienation of human’s essence is also more brutal and more violent than under the capitalist system.
The time span of the novel is to cover a period of ten years following 1989, but the narrative sometimes goes back to the first days of the Republic and the years of the Cultural Revolution. The novel shows us that the heavy alienations had already occurred in 1949 When the Communist Party seized power. Due to his family’s background and his own experiences Dai Wei is finally able to find out precisely what “Jiefang” (to liberate or liberation) is and asks himself: “Whom have been liberated? My mother had become a poor woman after her house was searched, due to my father, who had been liberated as a rightist. My grandparents had been made to death by the Communist Party. If someone says that people living in countryside had been liberated, I would say that all the peasants I had seen were so poor that they did not know where the next meal came.”
Here the word Jiefang should be replaced by the word brand, as used by Western critics. In China, those who have been branded are not only the Rightists and other black elements but also the Chinese peasants. In his lecture on literature at the Library of Congress of USA (May 24, 2013), Gao Ertai mentions the Chinese writer Mo Yan, pointing out: As a peasant writer, he has told many stories of the (Chinese) peasants, but he has never touched their identities as serfs with one word.
As for the alienation of humanity before and during the Cultural Revolution in which Dai Wei’s father participated, we can find the more terrible nightmare in the novel: in the villages some people had been buried alive and some people had been killed and eaten because of the class hatred or hungry. The great writer Lu Xun in his story “A Madman’s Diary” attacks on the cannibalism of traditional Chinese culture. To a great extent, the cannibalism in the story is symbolic, but the self-cannibalism under Mao’s time and in Beijing Coma was and is a living practice. Human beings have been alienated to their own food.
Beijing Coma is not mainly a novel about the peasants, but it tells us that the so-called Jiefang, or the liberation of Chinese people including the peasants is not a real liberation. The word has lost its original meaning. Ma Jian uses rhetorical irony to expose the different forms of alienation including the alienation of the Chinese language. The root reason is the alienation of the so-called proletarian regime itself.
The different forms of alienation embody clearly in Dai Wei’s father, the important artistic figure in the novel. It had just happened under this dictatorship that the violist, who returned to his country from abroad and took part in the Communist Party during the early days of the republic, had alienated into a non-artist, and even into a non-human. The author describes Father’s mental experiences vividly: “I suddenly find that while playing violin, I am like a machine without emotions and my life of art has died after returning to my country.” Dai Wei finds: “Six years later after returning the country, my father was no longer a violist and became a person without identity, … like a rabbit in a laboratory,…lived as animal….”This figure shows us that nearly all the party members are only the “obedient tools of the party, “ in other words, they have been alienated into things. This kind of alienation is both the claim of the Party and the wish of the members. In spite of this, many of them are branded as the enemies of the Party.
The Chinese language has also alienated into non-language. Dai Wei’s father dared not to take notes under Mao’s time, in my opinion, because of both the alienation of the Chinese language by turning it away from its use as a poetical and peaceful medium of exchange to non-language, i.e. the lies and the language of violence, and the danger of speaking and writing the truth. In the years of the relative improvements after Mao’s death in 1976, he started to take notes about his life when the Rightists dared to write letters.
The good years, however, were only a flash in the pan. Dai Wei meets the same trouble. He recognizes: “Since writing my self-criticism in the public security bureau, I have no longer affinity to the Chinese characters and very rarely take notes”.
In his work “Yihua xianxiang jinguan (The Latest Spectacle of the Phenomena of Alienation, 1979), Gao Ertai points out that the socialist alienation was the inevitable outcome of the “absolutization of class struggle”. This struggle “has been extended not only to every family but also to each individual’s inner heart and forces each one to became one’s own enemy, fighting against oneself and insulting oneself.”
The students of 1989 had not the consciousness of class struggle and intention of overthrowing the Party, but the Party branded them as its enemies and continued changed the language into the means to force people to insult themselves.
Therefore, such literature and poetry as Gao Ertai’s works and Ma Jian’s Novels are attempts to clarify the confusion of the Chinese language and bring it back to poetical language.
Hamlet says that the world is a prison and Denmark is one of the worst dungeons. In the totalitarian societies, nearly all the lands have been transformed into gulag archipelago or labor camps. Thus it can be seen that the bureaucratic terms cover up always the truth and poetic terms can capture the essence of the society. Dai Wei’s father is imprisoned twenty-two years in a labor camp. Dai Wei can’t speak or move in many years, but he is kept under constant surveillance by the police. His mother as a member of the “heretical organization” was arrested in the Falun Gong crackdowns and sent to a detention center, where her arm was broken by police wielding electric batons. At last she finds: “China is a huge prison. Whether we’re in the jail or in our homes, each one of us is a prisoner.”
Talking about China’s growth of economy, Ma Jian deeply points out: “The so-called society of harmony is piled up by the bricks of political terror, and gotten at the costs of freedom thought and morality. This garden of Eden is, in fact, a Five-Star prison…”There are several metaphors in this description. Ma Jian is versed in capturing the reality with metaphors: China’s society, from the basis to superstructure, has totally dehumanized those who live in it.
If we want to understand the phenomena of alienation in the early days of the Republic, the first thing we have to know is that in developing theory of class struggle, Marx failed to recognize that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be short-lived because of the evil human nature. In other words, the power thirst of the so called leaders of the proletariat must immediately lead to the alienation of the dictatorship of the proletariat from its majority rule to Stalin’s or Mao’s one-man the dictatorship, i.e. the dictatorship of Totalitarianism. The Communist Party has already been alienated into a totalitarian party.
So when we return the problem of alienation of human essence, we can find an unexpected irony: Even if those in power have the power above law or the Midas touch, they have transformed themselves into non-human beings, as the Chinese saying goes, into “bloody beasts in human dress”. In Beijing Coma, we see such ugly faces and their caricatures. The author, however, does not describe the alienated people as evil people. Dai Wei recognizes that they aren’t evil, they’re just the products of an evil system – corruption breeds corruption.
Therefore, in the land of corruption, Dai Wei is in a dilemma after awakening from his coma. The author gives a psychological description of the protagonist: “I really want to awaken and rise from the dead sleep and go into the unconscious crowd in the world? Even if my body is alive in the comatose society, my brain is apathetic, and I must get to lose a half of myself…” Well…at least he still keep the last hope in his heart: to study Shanhaijing, and “travel again along that mountains and rivers in order to write a book about geography, plants and animals in modern China….”
I think this is an important passage of the novel in understanding it. The protagonist’s last hope is a refraction of the author’s creative intention: to write a book of Metamorphosis with Chinese colors in modern China. The intention has partly been fulfilled. Beijing Coma can be regarded as a new Metamorphosis with tragic irony and Kafkaesque humor.
However, looking from the perspective of philosophy, it is a book trying to describe the total alienation of China’s society. We see a dark comedy in the novel’s description about Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 and some people’s attitude of snubbing “the Basic Law”. In fact, the author issues a warning to Hong Kong’s people: If no resist ever happened then the land of freedom would face the danger of being alienated.
Memory and the Returning of Humanity
Hong Kong’s people keep always the memory of the June Fourth. Memory is a topic of great importance that has influenced the novel’s theme, plot, characterization, and imagery.
With poetic license the author writes some lines or epigrams about memories scattered in the novel, for example, “Memories are some overlapping alleys”. “Memories flash as an electric torch.” “You let memories fly away along the ray to run after and kill the shorts that have already withdrawn.”
Dai Wei wants to find the dark tree in the maze valleys mentioned in Shanhaijing, because its flowers are brilliant and one bearing such a flower shall not loss his or her way. At the same time, Dai Wei is surprise when he hears for the first time that there is not death sentence in some countries. This is an ironic contrast to the June Fourth Massacre.
The similar voice of conscience is faint in China today. Thousands of horses all struck dumb but one! In a preface Ma Jian argues that it is not Dai Wei but many Chinese people who are truly comatose. This opinion has also been suggested in the novel. In an episode, people discover that the hero’s years in a fasting, vegetative state have given his urine magical healing properties. According to the great Chinese doctor Li Shizhen’s book Bencao Gangmu (Compendiu of Materia Medica), healthy children’s urine is a kind of medicine for some disease. Dai Wei’s urine is named “A Decoction of Returning Vitality”. An advertisement in an evening paper reads: “A Comatose’s urine can cure terminal illness and a cancer patient is unexpectedly rescued”.
Thus it can be seen that the story of Dai Wei selling his urine suggests an irony that arouses people to wake up: this comatose is a healthy person with his spiritual integrity and many people in China, especially those official businessmen, are patients, and even heavy patients attacked by, with the Buddhist term, the tree poisons (of ignorance, attachment, and aversion). In other words, in the sense of symbolism which perhaps has not been realized by the author himself, they are alienated people and they are also searching for their returning of humanity.
However, just like the steamed bun soaked in the blood of an executed revolutionary, named Xia Yu in Lu Xun’s story “Medicine” (Yao, 1919), Dai Wei’s urine cannot cure the cancer of the political system and the coma of the people’s souls. The returning of humanity requires the reform of the system itself and spiritual food. Dai Wei is an artistic figure pushing the reform forward and searching for spiritual maturity. China needs thousands of such people.
Money worship can neither bring money to the majority nor satisfy their need of spirituality. In fact, due to the two kinds of alienation in Marx’s theory mentioned above, Falun Gong and other civil believes have been widely accepted in China since the 1990s. Dai Wei’s mother converted to Falun Gong from communism out of both an instinct for physical training and the need of spiritual enlightenment. The author writes about the mental experience and vision of Falun Gong practitioners: “Some feel that their souls leave the prison that is the human body, and some feel that with the Dhama body, which is transformed into by the high energy materials, they ride on red-crowned cranes and fly up.”
This is an active transformation and a dream difficult to be realized. For Taoists and Buddhists, to become immortal or Buddha represents the highest stage of the spiritual development of man. Looking from the perspective of Chinese philosophy mentioned above, human body cannot be merely the earth of body. The whole human body must have fire, wood, water, metal and earth.
The German poet and philosopher Schiller is recognized as the “father” of the concept of alienation. In his Aesthetic Letters, Schiller regards human nature as divided between body (sensual matter) and mind (rational, moral, ideal form). For him, only art or aesthetic education has the capacity to reconcile both these opposing aspects of human nature, in other words, to help us to liberate human beings from alienation and seek the return of human essence.
The totals social beings are only those who can think freely and have memory of history. Human spirituality requires first the freedom of religion. The first phase of aesthetic education is also memory because the Muses are the daughters of Memory. And then we have to fight against the censorship of controlling thought and get the freedoms of the creation and appreciation.
At the end of novel, the author uses crossed montage to link up the most shocking pictures: it is not only the “earth of human body” but also both the bodies and minds of Dai Wei and his mother, one mad, one mute, to withstand the bulldozers rolling toward the building for forced house demolition, like the Tank Man who confronts a column of tanks on the June Fourth Massacre. With its beauty of tragedy, the novel calls Chinese people to find the way of returning their humanity.
Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma and other books have been banned in China. The author once said: In fact, books are the human’s only Noah’s Ark standing up to money worship and all the problems. The metaphor is in line with Schiller’s spirit of freedom.
Beijing Coma let its readers to see that nearly all the ways of returning humanity in China have been blocked up，but cannot be blocked totally up. Therefore, the alienated Chinese people have still slim hopes of returning their human essence.
This article is written in both Chinese and English. The quotations of the novel are translated from the Chinese by Fu Zheng Ming.
Fu Zhengming, Chinese scholar and translator living in Sweden, was born in Shaoyang city in Hunan province in 1948 and graduated from the Chinese Department of Beijing University with a Degree of Master of Arts. Fu has written and published a number of books such as On the Ruins in Poland – Szymborska ‘s Art of Poetry and the Cultural Traditions (Beijing, 1998), Dark Poet Huang Xiang and His Colorful World ( New York, 2003), Comment on a Century of the Nobel Prize In Literature (Taipei, 2004), The Odyssey of the Tibetan Poets (Taipei, 2006)，The Structure of World Literature (Taipei, 2013) and A Parachute Jump from Dreams The Poetic World of Tomas Tranströmer (Taipei, 2013). In the area of translation, Fu’s numerous works include The Art of Greek Comedy (Catherine Lever, E-C, Beijing, 1988), A New Translation of English Lyrics(Taipei, Commercial Press, 2012).