Friday, January 30, 2009

Writing about Tiananmen

This week, having nothing else to do with my time, I finally got around to reading Ma Jian's Beijing Coma (I gather its Chinese title is the more obscurely allusive 土肉, tu rou, which means something like 'flesh world'), and I wrote an extended review of it yesterday over on Moonrat's BookBook review blog. Since I devoted much of an afternoon and upwards of 2,000 words to this piece (quite restrained, really, considering that the book is something like 300,000 words long), I feel I should encourage as many people as possible to go and take a look at it.

Be warned, though: this is the most overwhelmingly negative assessment I have ever produced. I found this novel soporifically tedious and embarrassingly badly written, and would only recommend it - hesitatingly, and with significant qualifications - to people who are passionately keen to learn more about its core subject, the student protests in Beijing in 1989 (even then, my advice would be: skim).

Even as an insight into history (a largely concealed and these days, sadly, largely forgotten corner of history) it is disappointing. On one of the key issues - whether or not there were any shootings in Tiananmen Square itself - the author seems to take an equivocating position; he largely follows the official account that the Square was cleared without loss of life, but makes much of some shooting incidents at the entrance to the Square when the troops first arrive, and later throws in a claim (without any further comment) from a panic-stricken student running from the direction of the Square the following morning that a 'massacre' is then in progress, some hours after the main clearing process had been completed. He does seem to be taking issue with the official death toll in a scene where he suggests that a single hospital has seen well over 300 fatalities, which might put the city-wide total into the thousands (most sources I've seen now seem to agree that the death toll was around 200; although the number of serious injuries was probably at least 2,000, and this total may have been significantly under-reported as a result of doctors and hospitals concealing treatment records to try to protect the victims from further reprisals). I felt frustrated that there was no discussion of how closely Ma Jian was attempting to record the actual events, or what his sources were and how far they might be at variance with accounts given by the Chinese government. In the original Chinese version, I gather, there is a Preface, but I don't know if it touched on these points; and, strangely, it was entirely omitted from the English translation.

However, the one worthwhile thing I took away from the book (something I omitted to mention in my earlier review) was its portrait of the student protest movement and its leaders - which is hardly very positive, but very realistic. There is a natural tendency for us Westerners, with our liberal democratic traditions, to idealise these protesters and their cause, to assume that they had a coherent reform programme to promote and that it was based on concepts of freedom, democracy, and human rights that would be familiar to us. Ma Jian portrays the movement more as a phenomenon of mass hysteria, with the students' motivation - at least early on - being mainly a naive competitiveness and institutional pride ("If Tsinghua University is bringing 1,000 students on the march, our university should bring even more!" "If the Foreign Languages Faculty has 50 students joining the hunger strike, why doesn't the Science Faculty have as many?"). There never seems to be any very clear agenda. Many of the protesters embrace a rabid extremism - forming "suicide squads" determined to put themselves in harm's way, vowing to starve themselves to death or to set fire to themselves, advocating armed resistance to the soldiers who are approaching to clear the Square. Even the more rational leaders who emerge are constantly indulging in petty squabbles with each other (and occasionally suffering allegations of embezzling of support funds donated by the public), and seem to be driven as much by the sudden thrill of power and the flattering attention of the domestic and international media as by any political ideals.

It's not at all a flattering portrait of the movement, but it is nevertheless a sympathetic one, and, for me, it had the ring of truth about it.

I couldn't help but think - though this is not something that Ma Jian explicitly considers in the book - that the students' sudden upswell of political fervour was a very Chinese phenomenon, conditioned (though they might not have realised it, and might not have been comfortable with the fact if they had) by the revolutionary rhetoric of the Mao years. I also get the impression that the driving force for this movement, the root of the young people's anger, was not really any considered critique of the ills of the present government but a legacy of bitterness from the traumatised generation that had raised them. These students had all grown up during the hellish years of the Cultural Revolution. Most of them would have been too young, perhaps, to feel its effects very directly themselves, or at any rate to fully comprehend them at the time; but the physical privations so many of their families would have suffered, and the climate of fear and brutality in which they had spent their early childhoods must surely have left their mark on them. Ma Jian suggests that his protagonist's political zeal is born of the sufferings of his father (condemned to years in a labour camp as a 'rightist'), and of his later discovery of the full scale of the atrocities committed in that era.

Chinese students and young people today, growing up in a period of dawning prosperity and optimism in the '80s and '90s (and, yes, even a certain amount of political liberalisation - not much, but some), don't have that vengeful spark within them to get their motors turning.

Well, not unless their parents or grandparents have been following the wrong exercise programme, anyway.....

No, I don't see much prospect for such a mass movement arising out of the universities again. I'd like to see some kind of commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the '89 movement, but I rather doubt if anything will happen.

Anyway, please go and read my review, and let me know your thoughts - on the book, on my review, or on these wider issues touched on here.


stuart said...

"...largely follows the official account that the Square was cleared without loss of life..."

Sound like this book had state sponsorship.

Any mention of the parents gunned down the following morning when they arrived at the Square to look for their missing kids?

"I'd like to see some kind of commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the '89 movement"

Amen to that.

The continued denial of any discussion of this issue is a marker for irresponsible and insecure government. A simple act of acknowledgment on this year's anniversary would at a stroke bring the CCP both domestic and international respect.

Won't happen, of course; they're too entrenched in their 'waiting game' strategy. And twenty years isn't long enough.

Froog said...

Agreed, Stuart.

I would have liked to have seen them make a start a year or two ago, ahead of the Olympics - something along the lines of the 'Truth and Reconciliation' commissions in South Africa.

I think the main reason nothing like this will happen for at least a few more years yet is that Comrade Hu was too closely involved in these events.

That, and the Chinese aren't in general good at the 'admission of error' thing.

I really don't know where Ma Jian is coming from with this book; he's hardly an apologist for the government, but I rather suspect that The Tiananmen Papers is his main source for a lot of it, and that is a somewhat tainted source.