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China’s Repressed Memory

Over the past 40 years, China has managed to achieve levels of growth and development that would have been unimaginable during earlier decades of communist rule. But as the exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian reminds us, that progress has been built on a foundation of repression and the corpses of his fellow citizens.

  • Ma Jian, Beijing Coma, Translated by Flora Drew, MacMillan, 2009.
    Ma Jian, The Dark Road, Translated by Flora Drew, Penguin Random House, 2014.
    Ma Jian, China Dream, Translated by Flora Drew, Penguin UK, 2018.

LONDON – Search for the name Ma Jian on the Internet and you will most likely land on Wikipedia, where there are listings for two men with the same name and one thing in common: neither would turn up if the same Internet search were conducted in mainland China.

The first Ma Jian is a Chinese-born writer whose novels are sure to make him a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature someday, assuming that he is not already under consideration. Now an artist in exile, his work is banned in his home country, where he would be denied entry if he ever tried to visit.

The second Ma Jian represents many of the things that Ma the novelist denounces in his brilliant imaginative works. Formerly Vice Minister of State Security and Vice President of the China Law Society, this Ma was investigated for corruption and expelled from the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2016. With mistresses and illegitimate children, as well as a side gig (allegedly) selling forged travel documents, he personifies the abuse of official power in China. If he still held his previous position, he would be among the first to denounce his namesake’s literary efforts to revive China’s collective memory and restore its sense of public morality and civic responsibility.

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