SARAH VEST – STAFF WRITER
George Orwell wrote in his book 1984 “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” This was at the forefront of Ma Jian’s mind as he wrote Week One’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection China Dream, and he styled his novel as an homage to Orwell’s 1984.
Ma is the author of seven novels, a travel memoir, three story collections and two essay collections. His work has been translated into 26 languages. Since the publication of his first book in 1987, all his work has been banned in China. He was born in Qingdao, China, but now lives in exile in London. He will be giving Week One’s CLSC presentation, with the book’s translator Flora Drew, on China Dream at 3:30 p.m. EDT July 1 on the CHQ Assembly Online Platform.
“I hope that readers of China Dream will be able to see through this book that Orwell’s 1984 is not just a work of fiction, but is actually a real-life description of the reality of China today,” Ma said in an interview translated by Drew. “My book is in a way … a realization that his work, that 1984, was a prophecy.”
Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell director of the Literary Arts, read about the cultural revolution in China, but he had never seen America through that lens until he read China Dream.
“The whole idea of the ‘China Dream’ is to suppress memory, to suppress history, and the moment that we are living right now — with our uncertainty on how to teach history, and what is the place of history in our lives — (ties in) just perfect,” Ton-Aime said.
Ma’s book, China Dream, is a satire of totalitarianism that offers a counter narrative to the sweeping “China Dream” of President Xi Jinping’s administration through the eyes of character Ma Daode, a corrupt party official who has been appointed director of the China Dream Bureau. This book is part fact, part science fiction and, at times, autobiographical.
“I am from (Ma Daode’s) same generation, just as Xi Jinping himself,” Ma said. “We are all victims of those times.”
Like the protagonist, the cultural revolution broke out in Ma’s early teens and, like Ma Daode, Ma yearned to be a Red Guard but was unable to join due to his family background. He was even unable to attend university. However, telling his own story is not what Ma was really interested in focusing on in China Dream.
“I was more interested in the psychology that this instills in people,” Ma said. “The psychology of those that blindly follow the revolution and those that, through no fault of their own, are denied this so-called privilege, and how that feeling of dejection, of resentment, can boil into something even more negative, or, in fact, can lead to a certain enlightenment and clarity of vision of the dangers of this revolution.”
In the same way that the story is told through both fact and fiction, the messages that bleed out through the lines are varied, and work to deliver not only a psychological analysis but to pull back the veil that has been placed over the public image of China.
“China Dream is really about what happens to a society when truth is banned, where lies fill the air, where the threat of violence hangs over every individual,” Ma said. “We see the reality of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian ‘China Dream,’ of so-called ‘glory and national prosperity.’ The truth of it means the suppression of people in Tibet, the genocide occurring in Xinjiang, the crushing of all freedoms in Hong Kong.”
The last, and perhaps most important, idea that Ma hopes people take away from both his book and the lecture is a serious warning about the dangerous nature of the “China Dream” and how China is not the only country this “dream” impacts.
“The Chinese Communist Party I viewed, even before the outbreak of this coronavirus, as a virus of the mind,” he said. “An ideological virus that has mutated over decades and has become now much more sophisticated, more complex and on the surface beautifully packaged the dream of prosperity. But the lack of freedom at its heart infects all that it touches. It has entered every democratic country in the world — this beautifully packaged dream, with the promises of trade deals, but insidiously, it has infected the mind.”
As Ma is giving his presentation, halfway across the world the Chinese Communist Party will be celebrating their 100th year anniversary. While they celebrate the founding of the party that has been in control since 1949, it is important to keep in mind the hidden agenda behind the fanfare.
“My book China Dream reveals that at the heart of this mission to erase thought, to erase memory, is the desire of these tyrants to obliterate all dissent to erase all memories of the sins they have committed against their own people,” Ma said.