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on 28 April 2013
"Beijing Coma" has given me new insights into China's recent history, although not quite in the way I had expected. The premise of a student victim of Tienanmen waking up out of a coma after 10 years, finding a very different China sounded like it would explore the changes. Instead the story focuses on the events leading up to Tienanmen, and only gives cursory glimpses of how the survivors went on to lead their lives.

Dai Wei, the protagonist, takes the reader along on a trip through his memories of events. We see power struggles in the student movement and feel the tension between wanting greater freedom in society versus being able to live their own lives.

What I missed was a confrontation for Dai Wei with reality 10 years on. I would have liked to see what choices he made in the new reality, with the ideals from back then unevolved. Or maybe they had, with all the time he had to reflect.
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on 23 June 2009
Beijing Coma is both enthralling and tremendously moving. Beautifully and lucidly written, it manages to combine the panoramic sweep of the Beijing student movement with an intensely personal view of the minutiae of the events of 1989. Although the book bears the usual disclaimers - any resemblance with persons living or dead is purely coincidental, etc, I loved how so many of the main players are perfectly recognisable, so that fictional Ke Xi is so obviously student leader Wu'er Kaixi and Bai Ling is clearly Tiananmen student commander-in-Chief Chai Ling (although Chai Ling was not run over by a tank), and so on. Other students are amalgams of real life individuals, but many are still identifiable.

The events themselves are detailed and historically accurate. While capturing all the headiness of the student movement as it grew, the book reveals more than the newspaper reports at the time ever did about the squabbles and infighting among students, right up to the night of the army's final onslaught on the square and the horrors that ensued.

But Gripping as it is, this is not just a novel about the student movement and the 1989 massacre, it is also about the massive changes in Beijing, including the lives of many of the students after Tiananmen. Most touching of all, it is the story of the protagonist's mother, whose predicament is so vividly threaded through the narrative. She is buffeted by so many political pendulum swings, yet deep down continues to believe in Communism. Only after Tiananmen are her beliefs shattered. She is the Chinese Everywoman of the 1990s and 2000s, like so many of her generation, unable to benefit from the Chinese economic miracle around her. Instead, her life is dedicated to tending her comatose student son till finally she loses her mind while her old apartment is being cleared to make way for new (and corrupt) property developments in advance of the Beijing Olympics.
This is not just the ultimate Tiananmen novel, well worth the 20 year wait, it is THE Beijing novel of the post-Wild Swans era. An unforgettable book.
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VINE VOICEon 30 July 2015
This is a searing novelisation of the events in China leading up to the student protests of 1989 that ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre. It's banned in China and is a must read for that reason, though it is a long read at 666 pages in length, and you do need to steel yourself to read the harrowing details of the way the regime reacted to the people in those days. I am not sure I would say I enjoyed reading it, but I am really glad I stuck with it to the end. The middle of the book was a push to get through, as it goes into the in-fighting between the students in minute detail, and because I didn't know enough about the real-life figures these characters are clearly based on, I found it difficult to follow. However, the last 80 pages are worth waiting for as the tension rises inexorably. Poor Dai Wei's mother, suffers almost as much as him, in her efforts to care for him (he is shot in the head and sinks into a coma) and shows real fortitude, even though she succumbs to the pressure and says things like, "I wish you'd hurry up and die".
Dai Wei, then, is imprisoned in his body, unable to get medical attention since the doctors cannot treat anyone injured in the Square (and indeed ambulances are forbidden from helping those shot or run over by tanks), lies in a room, tended only by his mother. He re-tells the story of the build up to the events through a series of flashbacks which are intercut with his current musings on his sad situation, as his mind remains active despite the physical strictures he endures (painful pressure sores, tube feeding, incontinence).
Dai Wei's mother resorts to selling his urine (Chinese emperors used to drink the urine of infants to maintain their health), and even sells one of his kidneys, which is removed from his body with no anaesthetic, since the doctors tell his mum, "He is deeply unconscious, so won't feel anything."
Dai Wei remembers his love affairs and his relationships with friends, some of whom continue to visit him over the years.
For me, the coma is a metaphor for the constrained lives of the Chinese students, and their lack of freedom. It allows the writer to examine very coolly the horrendous events of 1989.
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on 8 June 2009
This book provided me with a wealth of knowledge about the experiences of students in Tianamen Square in 1989. I feel enlightened for reading it. I felt for the characters and was moved by Ma Jian's writing. It is very long and not always gripping, however, particularly at the beginning. I am glad that I ploughed through and would encourage everyone to do the same.
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on 12 December 2010
Approximately 1996 I saw a fantasticTV-program about China. The main issue was the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square 1989. I wish to buy this documentary, but I have never found it anywhere. The book Beijing Coma, however, recreates this understanding of what was going on and is very true to the program. It gives background to the events and paints a picture of how innocent the students really were. The characters are interesting and real. The situation seems to be described to the very core.
There was no way out of this situation. During the demonstration the authorities tried to negotiate with the students, but as they had no real program, no articulate and concentrated leaders and a rather vague understandig of what they wanted to come out of all this, no negotiations were possible. The most surprising thing was that they did not understand that this situation was drawing close to a disaster. The most unbelievable for us was that the communist dictatorship let the situation go so far before they reacted. I think it might be due to a Chinese wish for a more open relationship to the international society and that they wanted to display a more lenient course. Whatever you think of the regime, they had no way out as things developed.
On the other hand, the atrocities from earlier years should prepare the students for violent reactions from the regime. But the students were so idealistic and firm in their belief that the support from large groups of people should make a difference. It is sad to say that even democracies never could have allowed a situation like that to go too far. Look at the students demostrations in Paris in 1968, in USA and even later events. The level of violence is not comparable, but it seems no state, independent of form of government, will ever allow such anarchy of even the most benign nature. The student demonstrations at Tiananmen is an enigma and a most fascinating event. The book is highly recommended for everybody who wants to understand this wonder.
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on 29 November 2013
I was very suprised to see so many negative reviews of this book because it is an absolute masterpiece. It is very detailed but I feel that this adds to the story and I feel every little detail is important and necessary and in fact I found it very easy to read. I don't need to give a synopsis of the story except to say that it the story told through the thoughts of a comatose victim of the brutal crackdown on the 4th June 1989 of the student pro democracy movement in Tiananmen Sqaure (I'm sure we all remember of the man trying to stop the tanks by standing in front of them). We also learn a lot about China. I can only say to everyone that you must all try to perservere with this book as it is more than worth it. Absolutely unforgetable!
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on 21 June 2014
I considered this book to a be a very detailed account of events that transpired before and during the Tienanmen square. More importantly, it also showcases the character's childhood and their way of life after the political crackdown of the cultural revolution. I think that this book is actually very important for anyone not familiar with the culture to get a real inside look into Chinese culture. It certainly fits in with the account that my grandparents have told me when they escaped China.

Its only let down is that I felt the narrative ended too abruptly after building up so much tensions throughout the book. Overall though, a great book that will resonates with you for a long time
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on 1 October 2010
I thought Beijing Coma was very well written. It weaves together two stories. Firstly, that of the protagonist's early life and his perspective of the events leading up to and during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and secondly, the events in his and his mother's life in the following 10 years leading up to the millenium and China's bid for the 2008 Olympics. The story is both moving at a personal level as well as being historic when considering the effects of the events described on China's recent history. If you enjoyed Wild Swans or if you are at all interested in China, I can highly recommend this book to you.
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on 6 June 2012
Heartfelt and riveting. In spite of its size, quite unputdownable. Leaves you with a sense of tragedy and anger against governments.
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on 15 July 2009
Absolutely stunning - spanning recent Chinese political history yet maintaining a personal edge that takes you with the tale. I was already a great fan of Ma Jian (as well as a confirmed sinophile) and this is his best book yet in my view.
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