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Ma Jian: 中国梦 (China Dream)

The title comes from the Chinese term 中国梦, used to describe a set of personal and national ethos and ideals in China and the Government of China. Much of the book is spent mocking this idea.

Ma Daode is the director of the China Dream project in Ziyang. He is also a would-be writer, having self-published a thousand copies of his essay collection, Cautionary Sayings for the Modern World, five hundred of which are still stacked, unsold, inside the cupboard behind him.

The purpose of the China Dream project and Ma Daode’s unit is to replace private dreams with the China dream, a dream where the Chinese ideal takes over the world though, before it does that, it has to take over China.

As well as literary ambitions and his job, Ma Daode has one other interest – sex. He is married with a daughter who is studying in London. She is a devoted communist. When President Xi visits London, she and her friend try to conceal the placards telling lies about the Tiananmen Square massacre and cannot understand why the police do not arrest Tibetans waving separatist flags.

Her father, however, is more interested in his mistresses, of which he appears to have many. Indeed, he has list of his twelve top all-time mistresses. He is constantly acquiring new ones and getting rid of old ones. Despite his many mistresses we also see him visiting prostitutes. Throughout the novel he will be texting/sexting his various mistresses (for which he has three phones) and they will be texting/sexting him, including while he is attending important meetings.

One of the projects he is proposing is developing a neural implant, a tiny microchip, which we could call the China Dream Device. When the prototype is ready, I will insert it into my head, like this, and any dream from my past still lingering there will vanish into thin air. In other words, ordinary dreams will be replaced by the China Dream.

However, Ma Daode has already discovered one problem with this idea. He was alive and a young man in the Cultural Revolution. His father was considered a rightist (despite having been a good communist) and his mother a spy as she had worked for an English family. He himself became sent-down, i.e. as a bourgeois he was sent to a rural area to do agricultural work. The family moved to Yaobang, the village next to where he currently is, where his father was re-educated. He himself joined the East is Red unit, a faction in direct opposition to the Million Bold Warriors.

The East is Red unit was involved in what can only be called civil war with the Million Bold Warriors. The two sides fought brutally, with much slaughter and much cruelty. Ma Daode and many of the others involved, some of whom now have high government positions like Ma Daode, have tried to put those events behind them, even though some of them, Ma Daode included, killed people and worse. Ma Daode’s problem, which seems to be linked to the China Dream project, is that these past memories keep flooding back, to the extent that he continually sees and hears events and people from that era. Indeed, we get a detailed description of many of the horrific events committed by all involved.

Ma Daode’s problem is made worse, as these events suddenly flood back at key times, e.g. during important meetings, and he suddenly comes out with comments and responses to these events, with other people wondering what he is talking about or, worse, knowing what he is talking about and wondering why. Inevitably, Ma Jian has great fun with this.

Ma Daode is also worried because part of the microchip project he is proposing will mean that officials can see everyone’s dreams and clearly there are some things he did that he would not want anyone to know about, least of all his superiors.

Ma Daode gets involved in one other project. The village of Yaobang, where his family was sent during the Cultural Revolution, is to be razed to the ground and new buildings built there. Not surprisingly, the locals are neither happy with their property being destroyed and confiscated nor are they are happy with the compensation on offer. When the authorities tried to clear them, they resisted. As a result Ma Daode, as a former inhabitant of the village, is sent in to persuade them to leave. It does not go well.

Gradually, the problem with the past resurfacing gets worse, with inevitable consequences. He goes to a Qigong healer for help, which causes its own problems.

Ma Jian is clearly enjoying mocking Chinese officialdom, from President Xi (and his dumplings) on down. Ma Daode is corrupt (we see him taking many bribes) and lascivious. He is ambitious but, essentially, talentless. Most of his colleagues are the same. Many of the scenes in the book show Ma Daode misbehaving. He also has a past, as we gradually learn about what he did in the Cultural Revolution, from betraying his parents to burying alive an enemy.

Ma Jian has made no secret of his opposition to the current situation in China and to President Xi. In an afterword, he mentions a museum of Chinese history since 1839that President Xi visits, which chronicles China’s humiliation at the hands of colonial powers, the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 and the nation’s subsequent rise under Communist Party rule. What it does not show is any of the horrors committed under Mao, the Cultural Revolution nor the 1989 massacre of peaceful pro-democracy protestors in the streets around Tiananmen Square. This book shows all of those.

Publishing history

First published in English in 2018 by Chatto & Windus
No published Chinese translation
Translator: Flora Drew