A review of the novel “China Dream” by Ma Jian

Ma Jian was born in the Chinese city of Qingdao in 1953, the same year as Xi Jinping who is now President of China without term limits. Both men were caught up in the horrific events of Mao’s Cultural Revolution which killed anything up to three miliion and ruined the lives of many millions more. Since 2012, Xi Jinping has used the phrase “the Chinese Dream” to describe “the great rejuvenation” of the nation. However, following the publication of his first book in 1987, Ma Jian has had all his work banned in China, where consequently he is unknown, and he now lives in exile in London.

The protagonist of this short and disturbing novel is Ma Daode, the director of the newly created China Dream Bureau, dedicated to ensuring that the Chinese Dream enters the brain of every resident of Ziyang City. Like so many Chinese officials, he is corrupt and a philanderer but working hard to reconcile his personal memories with the contemporary dominant political ideology. He would dearly like to forget the Cultural Revolution which caused the suicide of his parents but is hardly discussed in China today. 

His brainwave is to develop the China Dream Device, a microchip to be implanted into the brain of every citizen so that painful memories can be replaced by the thoughts of the political leadership. Since this is clearly going to take some time to design and his personality is already falling apart with ever-more frequent memories of the Cultural Revolution, he attempts to concoct something called Old Lady’s Dream Broth, a substance with revolting ingredients and dubious efficacy.

This Chinese version of “Brave New World” or “1984” is not going to end well for Ma Jian. But what about for Xi Jinping’s China? I’ve visited the country four times and travelled extensively within it and the simultaneous growth of both the economy and the repressive regime makes one wonder whether the dream might one day become something of a nightmare. 


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