Beijing coma

September 6, 2010

‘You live in Asia but you are white. We are so close but so far apart.’ This is how Chinese writer, Ma Jian, speaking on the final day of the Melbourne Writers Festival, began his talk. I had to wonder what the portion of the Melbourne population that is not ‘white’ felt about this remark, but it is an interesting comment on the image outsiders have of Australia. Since I moved to Melbourne three years ago I have been surprised by the multicultural mix of the city. I can hear several languages in one day and I love that about living here. But Ma Jian’s remark brought back another discussion I had with a Korean friend of mine five years ago. She has lived and worked in Paris for 20 years but she said that she had always felt inferior to white people. This is a woman who is well-educated, has travelled the world, is fluent in three languages and teaches classical guitar at one of the Parisian music conservatoires. For me, her Korean ethnicity, her Asian-ness, is just another aspect of her character. In my mind, she is no different from any of my friends but am I kidding myself in thinking so? I am white but I live in Asia.

Ma Jian speaks in colours. He is known for his book, Red Dust, a travelogue that takes the reader around his country. His more recent novel, Beijing Coma, is about one of the defining moments in Chinese history – a moment that a young Ma Jian was there to witness – the confrontation between the people and the state in Tiananmen Square. In his story, a man who happens to be following his girlfriend into Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989, gets hit by a stray bullet and enters a coma. It is a tragic tale alleviated only by Ma Jian’s black humour. ‘You call it “black humour”. For me, I call it “red humour”,’ he tells us. Perhaps Ma Jian speaks in colours because he began his career as a photojournalist, or perhaps it is because of the images he has seen since, covertly passed to him by PLA soldiers. These images are shocking – there is a massive irony that communism is associated with ‘red’. The most horrific image is that of a man after a tank has rolled over him. I would not have recognised any part as human – all that remained was a smear like strawberry jam on the road. A squashed bug. ‘No matter how absurd things are in my writing, you can find more absurd things in reality,’ Ma Jian says.

The other morning as I stepped into the shower I realised that a small moth was caught in the cubicle. It was waterlogged and drowning, trying to pull itself away from the water droplets on the corner edge of the bath. I thought, should I save it or should I put it out of its misery? If it was a butterfly I would definitely save it, and a moth is not so different from a butterfly. Why should it be killed just because it is drab and grey rather than bright and colourful? So I saved it. I do not like to even take the life of a bug. What thoughts went through the tank driver’s mind on June 4th? Who cleaned the road afterwards? It is hardly surprising that China suffers a collective amnesia in the face of such history. ‘June 4th’ is the most difficult internet search term in China’ Ma Jian tells us. ‘Collective amnesia is about survival,’ he explains. But it is writers like Ma Jian that China needs if it is going to develop beyond mere economics and escape from its own moral coma.

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