Chinatown

by Tze Ming Mok / 05 June, 2004
Acclaimed dissident writer Ma Jian fled Beijing with the police on his tail. Interviewed on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, he remains obsessed with the politics of oppression.

THE NOODLE MAKER, by Ma Jian (Chatto & Windus, $34.95).

In May 1989, dissident writer Ma Jian joined a million people at Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in the greatest political uprising of his generation. My family in Auckland were pulled daily to the six o'clock news to watch our homeland and history swing wide open in an unbearably suspended moment - and slam shut again.

Exactly 15 years later, Ma Jian is on the phone from London, speaking to me in a soft, pellucid flow of Mandarin. After lying low for a little while, following the massacre on June 4, he says, "I ventured back to Beijing, wanting to give voice to the history of this event. But when I arrived, I discovered that the people of Beijing had been incredibly numbed by what happened."

He lingered a while in Beijing to write a book of stories, then hightailed it to Hong Kong, where he lived until the 1997 handover. This book, The Noodle Maker, has finally been translated into English.

The first time Ma fled Beijing was when he escaped certain arrest in 1983 to roam on foot for years through his country's rural hinterland. The memoir of his travels, Red Dust, was hailed as China's answer to On the Road when it was eventually published in Hong Kong. But whereas Red Dust was an almost optimistic story of self-discovery and homecoming, The Noodle Maker is a bitter, post-Tiananmen novel for the lost urbanites of Beijing.

Its characters are deadened by post-traumatic stress disorder, shaken loose from either their bodies or souls. And yet there's a laugh track to every page. The absurdity is as black as the last rotting tooth in a Beijing gateman's mouth. It's a classic specimen of old Cold War "Red humour", in which the bitter joke is always on China, scrawled over its people's weary bones.

Almost in the tradition of a Chinese xiangsheng (a comic dialogue of a clown and straight-man), Ma brings an odd couple together: a professional blood donor who embodies China's brutal physical triumphs, and a professional propaganda-writer grasping at the country's impotent soul. They eat together as old friends, jousting and gobbling, denouncing and sighing, a Chinese Vladimir and Estragon gesticulating out the windows with their chopsticks, but knowing they're waiting for nobody.

The writer struggles with his latest government assignment: to produce a novel about a modern-day, self-sacrificing, revolutionary hero. Where will he find such a person in the scrambling capitalistic age of the economic open-door policy? Although despairing of his task, the writer brings to life stories he knows the Party will never accept.

They often recall such casually queasy moments in Red Dust as when Ma's state-abortionist friend trudges wearily out of his office with a bag of placenta for his dinner dumplings. These are characters taking fantastical leaps into dreamlike, sometimes joyous, dismemberment. But if you've known China from the inside, you'll recognise that beneath The Noodle Maker's surreality lies the solid bodily presence of a country where (as my mother always puts it with a weary, spitting diction), "life is cheap".

It might sit heavy on the soul, but the absurd dialogue and vignettes are so drily rendered that they almost rustle with sly charm. Perhaps this owes something to Ma's English "missus", Flora Drew, also his translator. With its gravedigger's humour, its theatre of cruelty, The Noodle Maker could be subtitled "How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Chinese Communist Party".

The book and the author are relentlessly, unfashionably political. Like all the serious dissidents I've ever encountered, Ma Jian can't stop talking politics. That's what gets dissidents into trouble in the first place. If you are a Chinese dissident, the Communist Party has dominated your life so much that every metaphor is a metaphor for the Party.

"The Noodle Maker is, of course, the Communist Party," he says, sounding just like my grandfather for a moment (they tried to kill him, too). "The people of China are an unknowing lump of dough being pulled in its hands." This is how Ma puts China to me from numerous painstaking angles for over half an hour, the way mainlanders always do for Western-born Chinese with hobbling Mandarin.

Ma is one of China's finest writers in exile; reading through his novel's violent satire, you can still picture Ma taking off 20 years ago into the Chinese wilderness. As the Public Security Bureau was on his tail, he paused only to grab a change of clothes and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. References to the Beat Generation's favourite roaming forefathers, particularly Walt Whitman, pop up constantly in Red Dust. When Ma read through the first proof of the first Chinese translation of Allen Ginsberg's Howl in the 1980s, with its lengthy Whitmanesque breaths, he sighed then, as he does now: "Howling out loud in anguish? Now that would be heaven.

"When me and the schoolmates I grew up with have the opportunity to get together, we don't even know how to speak of China; we don't have a song we can sing. The songs we sing are the Revolution's songs ... We don't have any ability to remember anything but the Revolution's memories."

His writing is dedicated to capturing his former jailers, and to dissecting and digesting the all-consuming system. And so the oppressor becomes the sole subject and the artist the object once more. The political writer, so committed to remaining the nagging pebble in the Party's boot, is forever tied into it. Though now released, Ma Jian can't let go.

China has moved on since it squeezed him out, but he's still on its tail. The rhetoric of socialism has been abandoned, and the new privileged urban classes are ardently, shamelessly nationalistic.

"They think of the situation in China as unspeakably good - because their own homes have now become free of suffering, and China's people are already used to disregarding the suffering of others. China lacks a central ethic of concern for others. Indeed, if the Chinese people believe in anything now, it's the school of 'zi sao men quan' - keep your own doorway clean.

"Chinese novels are catering more and more to fashion. They don't pose any real questions. And Westerners like to read relatively populist Chinese novels." He offers a cynical precis: "A Chinese woman suffers terribly, then goes to the West, marries a Westerner and lives happily ever after. Then writes a book. Westerners love it.

"The flourishing of this genre is a pretty good thing, in that it's beginning to be actually relevant to Chinese culture. But I think a lot of these stories are a little artificial - the expression of their suffering seems a kind of affectation, or self-centred."

The novel he's working on has already been 10 years in progress, and its central metaphor is another mournful portrait of China and the Party.

"I was in Beijing during the Tiananmen democracy movement. But during the massacre, I had just gone home to Qingdao, because my older brother had been in an accident, and was in a coma." His voice becomes quiet as he explains how strongly he was affected by the merging of these two events. Is he speaking of the massacre or the accident, of his brother or of China? Who could this be lying in a vegetative state, unchanged for years, folded into one big sleep? In his ongoing story, the coma patient wakes up, years after being knocked out on June 4, only to find the entire country sleepwalking, insensate, dead on its feet.

Although Ma now lives in London, his focus is ever upon China - on its politics, culture and literature. He doesn't seem to have engaged fully with his place of refuge, or to have arrived at a sense of home. After six years in the West, he still has no confidence to converse in English. He sings the praises of the freedom and relief he experiences: "Here you can write about everything you've never written about!" At the same time, "exile makes you so tired".

Of his current home, he says, "This island is like a boat sailing along, but where it's sailing bears no relation to me. I have no right to interfere, and I still don't know its direction. I am just sitting on the boat, passing my life. Although this boat provides for everything - you can eat, sleep - you're still living on a boat! I feel I've become disoriented, I don't know where I'm going."

And how can China know where it's going without its dissident writers and their watchful eyes?

"There are plenty of us exiled writers still writing. As well as me, there's [Nobel Laureate] Gao Xingjian, and a lot of other friends. You could say this work is form-ing a kind of dissident culture, that is, an exiled literary tradition.

"But why must China's writers flee into exile in order to write?" he demands in exasperation, although he has answered that question a dozen times over.

We chat some more about other Chinese writers he'll be meeting up with later in the week. Among them will be the poet Yang Lian, who had this to say about Auckland, in his poem "Ghostspeak", when first he fled here: "The beautiful sea and clouds in this place have you trapped in a round glass bottle." Ma's voice down the phone echoes a little, a solitary presence in the ether, adrift on a ghost-ship.

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