In China Dream, Ma Jian’s biting, surreal, and sometimes nightmarish satire of modern China, the past cannot be sanitized. The (semi-fictitious) China Dream Bureau is tasked with bringing the subconscious and most private thoughts of the Chinese people in line with Xi Jinping’s grand dream of a grand, unified China. The organization believes it can replace the nightmares of history, the book brutally shreds the notion that any country (or individual) can wipe away their misdeeds so easily, and posits that the past will continue to haunt (sometimes literally) anyone who refuses to reckon with it. China Dream is and horrifyingly serious as its message, but the slim novel’s shrewd sense of irony, surreal juxtaposition of dreams and reality, and a cartoonish everyman protagonist help ease the pain of its stiletto-sharp jabs.
Ma Daode is the head of the China Dream Bureau, a job he mainly enjoys for the perks—a bevy of mistresses, a duplex apartment, and numerous favors from higher-ups in the Chinese government. Then, during a planning meeting for a Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration for Chinese couples, Director Ma is suddenly confronted with a vision of himself as a teenager during the bloody mob violence of the Cultural Revolution. As Ma continues to build the ideal future for his country, his own hand in its violent past continues to tug at his every step, threatening to destroy his grip on reality even as he tries desperately to blot out his (and China’s) bloody past with a blindingly bright dream of the future.
With brutal and delicious irony, China Dream deconstructs the falsity of national pride build on sanitized, idealized visions of the past, contrasting dreams of a golden, utopian China with the gruesome reality of history. The planning committee for the “Golden Wedding Anniversary” padding the numbers so the decrepit couples don’t “bring down the mood of optimism” when they’re herded through an incongruously lavish ceremony. The nightclubs where the hostesses wear Red Guard uniforms without realizing their bloody symbolism. Ma Daode turns to increasingly fantastical means (microchips, dream encryption, amnesia soup) to shape the legacy of a country that favors banning even the vaguest mention of ghosts in their media. It’s not exactly comedic, but Ma Jian definitely favors a sharp sense of the absurd, blending factual accounts of atrocities with more surreal touches—dream-editing technology, the viral invasion of the past into the present—that underscore the pitch-black satire, and absurdist horror elements and brings it into sharp relief.
That we view this absurd world through the eyes of Ma Daode—a craven, corrupt, overly nostalgic bureaucrat—amplifies the message. He’s the perfect embodiment of Ma Jian’s view of a China swept up in the president’s “New Dream.” Ma Daode is occasionally lost in his more pleasant memories, but continually threatened by the darker ones he refuses to face. He’s an active participant in shaping the dystopia, but not so fully invested that he ignores the implications of his actions; he’s driven to increasingly more desperate means to ease his conscious, with disastrous results. While it’s difficult to call Ma Daode anything like a sympathetic figure, there is a certain pathos to the events that befall him. The pain caused by his brief slivers of remorse drive home the twisted horror of his situation, putting a human face on a national struggle.
China Dream (which was published in Chinese last year and translated into English by Flora Drew) is an unnerving book, but an entirely necessary one. While Ma Jian—a Chinese dissident and exile whose books have been banned in the county for decades—is specifically calling out China for its attempts to erase the past, it is far from the only country trying to build a rosier present by romanticizing or ignoring the blood shed to build it. It’s ruthless and sometimes horrifying satire of the danger posed by a government that believes it owns history, and a cautionary tale to any who would think to ignore such painful truths. It’s a book for today, and a book for the world.
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