“You will no longer have to rely on your memories to get through the day. This is not a momentary flash of life before death. This is a new beginning. But once you’ve climbed out of this fleshy tomb, where is there left for you to go?”
The Chinese author Ma Jian wrote one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever read in a novel he called Beijing Coma. There’s something so wonderfully tragic about the line that it gives me a sense of both hope and despair. It’s like a promise that one will make it through but is not guaranteed to enjoy what happens afterward. To me, it represents how most things in life don’t just turn out to be black or white, good or bad. Most of the time, we always end up with a mix of both. We always end up being complicated, and if you’re looking for a glimpse of the complexities of humankind, look no further because Ma Jian’s work covers exactly what I’m talking about.
Beijing Coma tells the life of Dai Wei, the protagonist, who was put in a coma after being shot in the head during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He struggles between life and death as his consciousness lies awake inside his deteriorating body; he can sense, hear, and feel the things around him but can’t seem to wake up. This condition gives him no other choice but to delve deep into his memory and recall his past leading up to when he was shot.
Through his eyes, we get an idea of what it was like to live in China during some of its darkest moments, specifically the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and everything in between and after those events. Ma Jian’s way of describing the injustices that occurred is so specific and graphic to the point that it’s arguably gruesome. He didn’t hold back even when painting disturbing images that tackled cannibalism, rehabilitation camps, the enforcement of the one-child policy, or even the much too violent oppression of citizens and students. There were so many moments wherein I just couldn’t believe what I was reading, and that all of it was based on true stories. I can’t even begin to describe how disturbing, maybe even frightening it is to point out how all these injustices happened because human beings were willing to do such things to other human beings. It’s disgusting to say the least.
The worst part about it is that this isn’t necessarily something left behind in the past. Humans are still capable of doing monstrosities to each other, in fact, such acts still occur to this day—it’s just that the people who instigate them don’t flaunt them. Beijing Coma exposes this deep maliciousness that can be found at the very core of human beings, something that can’t really be shaken off or buried so far down that it can’t be seen. As dramatic as everything I’ve said sounds, anyone would be surprised by how startling it is when one goes from understanding the gist of “people are sinful” to actually knowing how far that statement can go; after being shaken by a piece of literature, I can only imagine how much worse it was to live through or witness the things that was described in the novel.
Despite all this and the novel’s in-depth exploration of how despairing humanity can be, it still brings to light one of the most admirable qualities that humans have - the ability to move forward. Dai Wei goes through a lot in his life. He was shunned by society at a young age due to his father’s reputation as a ‘rightist’ (a label that was given to those who seemed to favor capitalism over Chinese communism) and had to live with the haunting knowledge of how his father was mistreated in a rehabilitation camp. He had been a victim of police brutality when he was only a teenager, and being one of the student leaders in the Tiananmen Square demanded a lot from him considering the emotional and physical burden he had to carry. Then, after all this, he gets shot and falls into a comatose state for over ten years in which he was confined in his own body with no way of reaching out to the people around him. I was almost convinced that he wouldn’t make it by the end of the story as there were several moments where he thought of dying just so that he can end not only his own suffering but also his mother’s for she had been taking care of him all by herself.
By the end of the novel though, he wakes up almost miraculously but now has to face the reality that he has nothing. Too much time passed; the world waiting for him isn’t the same one he used to know. He lost everything. However, despite the weight of what had happened and what’s to come, he knows that he has to move on. This is his new beginning, and he has to make the most of it. The closing to his character represents the laudable habit of humans to keep going no matter how much pain the world pushes onto them. Yes, we may get beaten down emotionally and we falter in our faith and will, but the idea that we’re able to live another day in spite of such feelings is already an impressive feat for me. The world may go on and on, and you might think that because of this, we’re forced to pick ourselves up and catch up. However, it’s important to remember that people have the choice to continue living. Choosing to go on another day, to wake up and eat, and to simply be alive even when everything is unfair is just inspiringly hopeful.
Humans are full of contrasts. We like to be moral when it benefits us while other times we feel compelled to do the “wrong things for the right reasons”. No matter the end result of such actions, it all goes to show that humanity has its wickedness and its goodness. Both are in all of us, and we’re just complicated like that. What we choose to shine a light on is what matters, and I know how cliché that sounds, but most of the time, I find that it is helpful to remind ourselves of the most meaningful lessons. Beijing Coma is one of those reminders that made me think and reflect about our world as it emphasizes that when there is hope, there is despair. When there is despair, there is hope. It’s never one thing or the other. Whether that’s for better or for worse, we can never get rid of the skeletons in our closets. We can only move forward and keep going. After all, that’s what it means to be a part of humanity and its beautiful mess.