In 1931, a time of economic and social turmoil in America, The Epic of America by the historian John Truslow Adams was published. In it, Adams coined the term “American Dream”, which embodied for him the differences between the old and new worlds of Europe and America. It was, he wrote,
a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
In 2013, on the temporary walls and fences which surrounded the numerous building sites in my Beijing neighbourhood, I began to notice newly spray-painted slogans, red on white: 中国梦—China Dream. Newly installed leader Xi Jinping had adopted it as his slogan, and he explained his notion of what this phrase articulated in a speech that year:
We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Adams had given a name to a phenomenon that was woven into the social fabric of early 20th-century America. The China Dream is a top-down imposition—an attempt to rally the populace to pursue the so-called “Road to Rejuvenation”, which will, it is claimed, lead China towards individual and national prosperity, and back to its rightful place in the world order.
Memory is an irrepressible force, and the past must be reckoned with sooner or later
Such sloganeering has a long history in Communist China and in his short novel, China Dream, the exiled novelist Ma Jian draws parallels between the current fervor of those cadres pursuing President Xi’s dream and the collective madness and violence inspired by Mao Zedong when, in an attempt to shore up his position as leader, he launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.
The analogy of the Cultural Revolution and Xi’s China Dream is not a perfect fit—history does not repeat itself in precisely the same way each time—but the novel’s preoccupation is with the manner in which control is exercised, rather than the specifics of the political moment. In his preface, Ma writes that he wrote China Dream
out of rage against the false utopias that have enslaved and infantilised China since 1949, and to reclaim the most brutal period of its recent history—the ‘violent struggle’ phase of the Cultural Revolution—from a regime that continues to repress it.
The action of the novel unfolds in the present day over seven short chapters, which become increasingly surreal as Ma Daode, director of the China Dream Bureau in Ziyang city, finds his suppressed memories of the past intruding on the present and his grip on reality becoming gradually weaker.
After the violent early years of the Cultural Revolution, Ma became a “sent-down youth”, packed off to the countryside to work in the fields (an experience he has in common with China’s current president). His memories from this period begin to surface unhelpfully as he goes about his contemporary life as a party cadre in Xi Jinping’s CCP: quelling local dissent at the proposed razing of a village; presenting triumphalist China Dream events; indulging in Maotai-fuelled orgies with prostitutes clad in scanty Red Guard uniform.
The constant interruptions of the past are part of his motivation for his greatest project: developing a neural implant—the “China Dream Device”—to control thought:
When the prototype is ready, I will insert it into my head, like this, and any dream from my past still lingering there will vanish into thin air…
As Ma discovers, however, memory is an irrepressible force, and the past must be reckoned with sooner or later.
The novel’s brevity is also one of its charms.
Ma’s writing echoes writers such as Borges and Kafka in its absurdism, but its imagery is also filmic, with sequences alluding to the surrealist visions of Luis Buñuel as well as the grittier realities of Jia Zhangke’s work, in particular his 2013 film A Touch of Sin. It is a style which suits the modern China it depicts, matching both its concrete reality and its nightmarish illogicality.
To say the novel’s brevity is also one of its charms sounds paradoxical, but in such allegorical fiction, where politics tends to be at least equal in importance to plot, it does not do to belabor the point (Lao She’s 1933 Cat Country, for example, in which a Chinese traveler crash lands in a Martian country—run by cats—which shares notable flaws with the Nationalist China of the time, is an example of a similarly allegorical state-of-the-nation novel which tries to do too much with its outlandish concept). The vignettes which form each chapter offer brief but rich visions of the protagonist’s descent into madness, and the novel has a power, literary and political, disproportionate to its length.
China Dream is, of course, banned on the mainland (as are Ma’s earlier, equally strident, books), and Ma Jian, already an exile from his home country, was recently subject to a reminder of the political sensitivity of his subject matter when the venue he was scheduled to appear at as part of the 2018 Hong Kong Literary Festival balked at hosting his talk out of concerns around the political nature of Ma’s work (under public pressure, the venue subsequently changed its mind and the talk went ahead as planned).
Not merely through its words, then, China Dream is a book which compellingly reveals the paranoia of the modern Chinese state; a place, as Ma commented in the talk he was finally permitted to give in Hong Kong, where the repression and control of fiction’s most notorious dystopias is a daily reality.