Flora Drew

Barrelhouse Reviews: China Dream by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

Review by Katie Smith


Counterpoint Press
Release date: May 7, 2019
Hardcover | 5.5 x 8.25, 176 pages
ISBN 9781640092402

“In evil dictatorships, most people are both oppressor and oppressed,” writes Ma Jian in the forward to China Dream, a relentless and absurd satire of modern Chinese politics and society. The oppressor in this case is China’s President Xi Jinping, whose “China Dream of national rejuvenation” promises even greater wealth if China remains under communist rule. The dream is binary: the collective dream to restore China to its former glory, and the individual dreams of the country’s people, which must always come second. As Ma Jian continues, “China’s tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people’s lives: They have always sought to enter people’s brains and remold them from the inside.” It was, he cites, Chinese Communists who first coined the term “brainwashing” in the 1950s.

Ma throws a glass of cold water on the collectively dreaming Chinese society in this novel of dichotomies. China Dream opens as its protagonist, Ma Daode, is named director of the newly created China Dream Bureau, tasked with replacing individuals’ dreams with President Jinping’s vision through a yet-to-be-designed China Dream Device. He’s a company man with more secrets than he has gold bars hidden away at home: He accepts bribes, has a dozen mistresses at any given time and, worst of all, cannot stop dreaming. 

In seven misty vignettes, readers learn of Director Ma’s upbringing during the Cultural Revolution, what Ma Jian calls a “decade of mob violence, chaos and stagnation.” Memories of fallen friends, fights to the death between teenage factions, and his parents—whom he denounced as class criminals—break jarringly into his daily life. After bizarrely talking about the Cultural Revolution during a very public anniversary ceremony in honor of countless elderly lovebirds, he’s suspended from the China Dream Bureau.

“I thought my troubles were all behind me,” Director Ma says as he begs a renowned healer for help. “But in the last few months, forgotten episodes from my youth keep jumping back into my mind, disturbing me so much that my job is now under threat. When I open my mouth, I start sprouting words I said when I was sixteen, and past events unfold before my eyes as though they are happening right now.”

Ma Jian’s brutal political discourse would be nothing without the power and creativity he wields as a writer. His level of detail is damning. “He leans back into his chair and the cool breeze from the air conditioner wafts up to his shoulders, lifting the hairs at the back of his toupee,” he writes with particular relish of one corrupt and complicit bureaucrat. Ma is no kinder to our protagonist, who’s introduced in the novel’s first page as “dozing in his swivel chair, his shoulders hunched over and his pot belly compressed into large rolls of fat.”

Director Ma, famous for his aphorisms, juggles so many lies that he can’t keep straight which turns of phrase he’s penned, and which are from a chain email. He has so many mistresses that he often can’t work out which woman is the author of the saucy texts he receives at work. He is clearly not a good guy, and readers aren’t supposed to like him. But we are definitely supposed to understand him, to know that he is trying to survive in a system that is pressure-cooking the individualism out of him. 

When he finally breaks in the novel’s final section, Director Ma wanders back to his hometown, where he experienced much of the Cultural Revolution. The past and present have become so nebulous and confusing that he dons a cardboard sign with his name and title as an anchor. Desperate for the memories to stop and his life to go back to normal, he climbs to the top of the Drum Tower in Ziyang and downs a flask of Old Lady’s Dream Broth, said to be what the dead drink to forget their past lives in order to be reborn, before jumping.

“His memories have already vanished and his mind is completely clear,” Ma Jian writes. “He is certain that this heavenly scene unfolding before him is the China Dream of President Zi Jinping.”

For Director Ma, the collective China Dream was no match for his soul, his individual will and lived experience. And neither was it for Ma Jian—though the government has certainly tried. All of his works are banned in China, and the author lives in exile in London. 

We are now in a state of turmoil, in a state of flux, where there is a loss of faith in all leaders, where truth is under threat,” Ma said in an April interview with TIME. “I hope that this book can show that is vital that individuals never give up asking questions. If you stop reflecting on the past, if you don’t question what is fed to you, if you don’t question the motives of the people who are leading you, we will all share a common fate, and that is that we will all be controlled by people that are more stupid and evil and than us.”

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer and immigration paralegal. Find her on Instagram at @realmoaningmyrtle for cat pics.