Released to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, Ma Jian’s China Dream is a razor-sharp indictment and fully loaded analysis of China’s recent history and the future to which it may be headed: the centralized control of people’s lives via technology.
The novel is centered on Director Ma Daode, who is in charge of the newly created China Dream Bureau. His mission is to replace individual dreams during sleep with a unified and constructed dream for all. The Bureau’s dream is “not the selfish, individualist dream chased by Western countries. It is a dream of the people, a dream of the whole nation, united as one and gathered together into an invincible force.” This dream is on the tips of the tongues of those in modern-day China.
China Dream follows Director Ma as he begins to confront the past as it seeps into his daily life. The novel breaks new ground through its ability to aim at the heart of the ways power seeks to control people’s lives. Through his subtle integration of what is and what may be, Ma is able to critique the current state of China while leveling a critique of the processes and pathways that brought the country to where it is today, therefore incorporating a commentary on the future as well. This sense is heightened through the flashbacks Daode has between the present and the late 1960s of the Cultural Revolution. In this way, the critique derives strength through a continuum between the Cultural Revolution and the future.
The quotidian brutality and drollery of the Party — much of which is based on reality, including the China Dream Bureau, a real thing in today’s China — and its administrators is at the forefront of China Dream. The book removes the veil the Party (both in the book and in reality) wishes to drape over the eyes of its citizens and demonstrates the excesses, foibles, and follies of a government trying to control not just practices but also thought. This critique of the Party is seen in Daode’s opulence, from bribes of gold bars in mooncakes to the Red Guards sex club room, a replica of Chairman Mao’s train carriage.
As China Dream progresses, Daode’s grip on the present and past continues, with violent reminiscences of the Cultural Revolution intruding. The memories focus on ideological feuds between former sectarian groups, scenes of killings, and the intermingling of the slogans “Long live President Xi!” and “Long live Chairman Mao!” Like in Ma’s first novel Stick out Your Tongue, which was considered so threatening that all his books since then have been banned in China, history cannot be contained through expunging other cultures, peoples, or selves. The role of history is important on an interpersonal level as well as in society, as the China Dream wishes to both banish nostalgia while capitalizing on a yesterday in order to inflect a sanitized progress narrative tomorrow.
The book is a distillation of what Milan Kundera once wrote: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Like Kundera, Ma is an exiled author who has shed light on totalitarian regimes and their machinations. Similarly, Ma is able to trace the fragments of the past without jingoism or the sentimentality or bitterness of a lost homeland. The mechanism of oppression for the Soviets in Kundera’s work was the gulag; for Ma’s China, it is expanding its control through technological advances.
Director Ma shares the same last name as the author, and with a first name that translates to “ethics,” there is a recognition that bureaucrats are more like each of us than it may seem, and that, “in evil dictatorships, most people are both oppressor and oppressed.” Pushing against portraits of the monolithic, Ma refuses to give up the individuality of bureaucrats, and, in so doing, stakes out a claim forward for change.
This book is a farsighted statement about the present and the ways the past is being mobilized and sterilized for the purposes of control. While about China, the book resonates with instantiations such as the rise of the alt-right, the continued suppression of democratic alternatives, and the increasing violence overseen by governments and corporations. It expresses and exposes the structures and forces creeping into everyday lives and challenges us to see our own involvement in these processes.
Frank G. Karioris is visiting lecturer of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Center for Critical Gender Studies at the American University of Central Asia.