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China's "forgotten" past

China Dream
translated from Chinese
Forfatter: Ma Jian
Forlag: Chatto & Windus (Storbritannia)

Looking back on the protagonist Ma Doade's past as a Red Guardian during the Cultural Revolution, China Dream challenges the extensive forgery of history in China.

China Dream is the author Ma Jian's satirical response to "the Chinese dream" – the vision that Chinese President Xi Jinping launched in a speech late in 2012. The speech was held just after he was elected chairman of the Communist Party, and a few months before he was elected president. The dream he described has become a motive for social development in China. It builds on the myth that Xi is the father of the country and the guarantor of welfare, unity and harmony, and is used for everything it is worth by the propaganda apparatus.

Like several other novelists, Jian has challenged this ideal; he did so already in his debut Stick Out Your Tongue ("Stick your tongue out"), which came out in 1987. The book is based on journeys he made in Tibet, showing how the Chinese invasion and annexation of Tibet destroyed both people and religion in the ancient nation. The book was quickly banned, and the censorship also banned all future books by Jian. So in 1987 he moved to Hong Kong, in 1997 he went to Germany, and 1999 he moved to London. He has lived there ever since – now with a British passport.

Decadent privileges

Until he was banned from entering China in 2011, Jian visited his home country regularly. Among other things, this resulted in the novel Beijing Coma (2008, in Norwegian Beijing Koma, 2010), which depicts 4. the June massacre at Tiananmen Square, and The dark road ("The Dark Road") (2012), which deals with the one-child policy that was brutally enforced until 2016. The Cultural Revolution is the backdrop for China Dream. Ma Doade, newly appointed director of the "China Dream Agency" – a state propaganda agency to disseminate Xi Jinping's Chinese dream among the population – wakes up from a dream in his office in Ziyang Province and sees his own figure standing before him. He is the character himself as a teenager, a red-guard in the mid-1960s who harassed and abused schoolteachers, and who, in addition, identified his own parents as reactionary right-wing protagonists. This resulted in his own parents committing suicide. Doade also participated in regular close battles against rival factions of the Red Guard, and was known as a fearless and cruel foot soldier who killed opponents without scruples.

Shanghai, China 20181019.
The sun goes down behind apartment blocks outside Shanghai.
Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix

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Forty years later, he is the head of a government agency and enjoys all the benefits of corruption. He is, in a sense, still a foot soldier, not for Chairman Mao, but for Chairman Xi; not for the China Revolution of Culture, but for the China of Globalism; not for millions of homeless farmers, but for pumps high up in the party apparatus that spits capital into real estate and development projects. Projects that require the eradication of entire villages and agricultural areas to establish high-rise buildings, shopping malls and highways.

The hometown of Ziyang is loaded with memories of abuse, harassment, murder, executions and bloody factions.

And the same pumps have a mistress on every finger – including Ma Doade – his cellphone is bombarded by ladies who demand sex, money or help open doors to the right people. Red Guard Nightclub is also located in Ziyang, where Doade is a regular customer. He usually rents the room under the designation "Chairman Mao's train compartment" – a reconstruction of Mao's private compartment that he used when traveling and where he welcomed young women he had sex with. Doade follows in Mao's footsteps, and even surrounds young prostitutes. He sprinkles money and champagne on them, quotes classic texts and poems by Mao, and tells the young girls about the cultural revolution. It is an unholy blend of doctrine and drunken orgy, and Ma Doade enjoys fully her decadent privileges as a pamp.

On the rise in a corrupt system

Yet he still gets inexplicable, hallucinating flashbacks from his time as a Red Guardian. The hometown of Ziyang is loaded with memories of abuse, harassment, murder, executions and bloody factions. Incidents in which he and other Red Guardians were involved, but no one talked about anymore.

The Cultural Revolution is the backdrop for China Dream.

And Doade sits as director of a dream agency whose mission is to realize Xi's future visions for China – eventually also for the rest of the world: China Dream should be Global dream. Prosperity growth under state control and supervision is the mantra, and the dream agency will provide the people with the right notions of both past and future. Then it is important to cover, distort or destroy past wrongdoings.

Ma Doade is a classic representative of the little man who climbs slowly and patiently upwards in a corrupt system until he reaches a height where every little mistake, every trivial mistake, every impulsive, thoughtless and spontaneous statement has fatal consequences for his entire career. And around Doade there are other former Red Guardians. They are competing for the same luxury goods and positions of power, just waiting for him to make mistakes so they can trap him. As a classic novel character, Ma Doade also falls from the height. But the fall is due to past sins, wrongdoings and crimes – the same past that Xi and the entire party and security apparatus will remove from the Chinese consciousness through active falsification of history. First and foremost to avoid settling the story. With China Dream Jian makes a settlement with the forgery of history in China. Perhaps a small shock to the world's largest political party and propaganda apparatus, but no less than that the same apparatus prohibits the novel from being published and read by the common man.

Kurt Sweeney
Literary critic.

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