Ma Jian’s seventh novel is, by his own account, an attempt to write about
“the rabid consumerism encouraged [in China] in the last thirty years… which, along with inflated nationalism, lies at the heart of the China Dream [and] is turning the Chinese into overgrown children who are fed, clothed and entertained, but have no right to remember the past or ask questions.”
“out of rage against the false utopias that have enslaved and infantilised China since 1949, and to reclaim the most brutal period of its recent history – the ‘violent struggle’ phase of the Cultural Revolution – from a regime that continues to oppress it.”
China Dream is a deeply political book, then, a book for those of you interested in learning what contemporary life in China is like. Or rather, it is Ma Jian’s view – which isn’t to say Ma Jian’s view is wrong – but his anger (he’s currently forbidden from returning to China, and lives in London) is as personal as it is political.
What we have here are “seven dream-like episodes” (which may make you think you are about to read short stories – you are not, this is a novel) revolving around the slow disintegration of a provincial politician called Ma Daode who cheats on his wife with gusto (he has scores of mistresses, a great many of whom seem to irritate the shit out of him), accepts all manner of bribes, undertakes various nefarious and underhand actions on behalf of the Government (such as trying to talk villagers peacefully out of their ancestral homes so a community can be bulldozed) and seems haunted by the violence he has seen in his past, violence he cannot talk about with anyone.
Working out of the China Dream Bureau, Daode’s aim is to create the China Dream Device, a machine that would “impregnate the mind” and wash away “all private remembrances and dreams”. As Daode’s own bloody remembrances start to percolate like a boiling coffeepot so his grip on the various cheats and connivances of his daily life starts to loosen.
“When I open my mouth, I start spouting words I said when I was sixteen, and past events unfold before my eyes as though they are happening right now.”
Duly chastened by a visit to a renowned Qigong healer named Master Wang, Daode goes in search of the ingredients to Old Lady Dream’s Broth of Amnesia, which he’d like to use as the basis for his Dream Device. But with ingredients including 2 DROPS FATHER’S TEARS and 1 DROP MOTHER’S MENSTRUAL BLOOD (Daode’s parents are long dead) and 2 GHOST SOULS and 1 SLICE GINGER, SUCKED BY A CORPSE, never mind 9 TEASPOONS BLOOD FROM 9 BLACK CATS… well, let’s just say concocting Old Lady Dream’s Broth of Amnesia is easier said than done.
Chaos gives rise to greater chaos, then (much as you might find in, say, the work of Terry Southern), but the comedy is acid-tinged. China Dream is a book that reads like an intense provocation (you can see Ma Jian cocking a snook at President Xi Jinping at every turn). You can see why artist Ai Weiwei, himself “disappeared” for a while in 2011, would provide the cover for the book (say what you like about China Dream, it’s a book with a terrific cover).
As you’d expect, the closer you are to the situation in China, the more this book will speak to you. Undoubtedly, given China’s pre-eminence on Amnesty’s list of countries that undertake Human Rights violations, we need people like Ma Jian in the world (if only to counterbalance the kind of nonsense spouted by people who would say things like “ah but look at how strong their economy is” – when they had a strong economy). For a reader uninitiated in the politics of China, it may be China Dream is a strange and bewildering read – but that is possibly as it should be, and surely the hope would be that the strangeness of China Dream would, in turn, provoke a reader into finding out more…
Any Cop?: An unusual dystopia for an age in which we are overwhelmed by dystopias both real and imagined, Ma Jian’s China Dream is a challenge, certainly, but a welcome one.