Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
Promoted to the head of the China Dream Bureau, Ma Daode, a crooked Communist official, sees this opportunity to enrich himself while promoting President Xi JinPing’s nebulous, authoritarian plan of eliminating individual dreams with a national one. Doubling down on his selfishness, Ma Daode wants the plan to succeed because it will rid him of his own troublesome nightmares and unwanted recollections of his violent and shameful experiences during the Cultural Revolution. His plans are derailed, though, by his own behavior as his dreams and flashbacks intrude on his waking life, making him seem erratic, and his normal attempt at solace, his collection of mistresses, only push him closer to the edge of career and psychological breakdown. As his plans encounter resistance, Ma Daode becomes desperate, seeking a mythic Old Lady Dream’s Broth. This broth is the substance swallowed by souls before reincarnation so they forget their previous lives. Ma Daode hopes this substance will cause mass amnesia, preparing himself and the whole country to become blank slates, ready to accept the future that the government will lay out for them.
Disclosure: I received a no-strings-attached review copy of China Dream from Counterpoint Press.
Ring the Alarm
The novel is Ma Jian’s satire of 21st century China and the obsessive control its government desires over the people. The book is dedicated to George Orwell and draws on him for inspiration as a source of criticism of people in power. China Dream has touches of science-fiction, the supernatural, and grotesque elements all in the tradition of Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. In this way, the novel does align itself as a sharp piece of criticism leveled at the authoritarian government. Much like the works of those other writers, Ma Jian’s plot sounds absurd: nationally enforced mind control (3). The goal is the goal of all tyrants: eliminate independent thought. It should be seen as completely ridiculous when Ma Daode declares, “every individual, irrespective of rank, must submit their dreams and nightmares to me for examination and approval. If they fail to comply, every dream they have ever had, and every dream they ever will have, will be deemed an illegal dream” (32). The problem is nobody laughs; the illogical dictate is treated with the utmost seriousness. In light of current events, too, readers must contend with the insane covetousness of his level of control over the citizenry.
The climax of the novel comes at a standoff where Ma Daode tries to convince people to leave their homes so the village can be bulldozed for improvements made for the greater good. The resisting residents, hardly anarchist firebrands, appeal to their long history and success, questioning how they can be enriched when their livelihoods and history will be demolished (59). They reject the offered compensation because there is no advantage in breaking up their real growth and success for a hazy promise of a dream of success. They see that only corrupt bullies like Ma Daode will profit from this destruction. The situation calls to mind For the Good of The Cause and other Soviet Era critical novels.
The scene also plays into the novel’s theme of how violent eradication of the past only leads to hollow, unfulfilling futures. Ma Daode is an example of this with his person as he has the veneer of success but is a psychological wreck who engages in excessive debauchery to feel alive. He doesn’t want to understand that he is also a victim of the oppressive system he represents and enables. His traumatic memories clearly show how the Communist Revolution and Great Leap Forward destroyed the very people and culture they professed to save. As his memories and nightmares intrude more into his life, Ma Daode adopts the mantra of “you’re not me. Go away. You’re not me. Go away” (109). He is, perhaps unintentionally, trying to erase his past, but doing so would leave nothing but the shell of an unhappy man.
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What Dreams May Come
Ma Daode is also a weakness of the novel. It is hard to sympathize with him when he is so willingly a tool of authoritarianism. Unlike Guy Montag or Bob Arctor respectively from Fahrenheit 451 and A Scanner Darkly, he has no shift in his character that leads him to challenge the prevailing circumstances, even when it begins to crush him and throw him away as it does with all disposable parts of the machinery of oppression. Unlike Josef K. in Kafka's The Trial and Clarence in Camara Laye's The Radiance of the King, he is not only the victim of a vast, unknowable bureaucracy with contradictory laws that doom him from the outset. Ma Daode is a pathetic and grotesque figure but not a tragic one because he learns nothing and makes no attempt to change. His character is made more unlikeable with his selfish excess and hypocrisy. As one character points out to him, “You think nothing of deleting other people’s dreams and memories [...] But when it comes to erasing your own, you hesitate” (127). In many respects, Ma Jian does not give readers a character they can cheer for.
At a meta-level the book itself becomes an act of protest against the overbearing Communist government. In his afterword, Ma Jian states, “China’s tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people’s lives: they have always sought to enter people’s brains and remould them from the inside" (177). He also recounts that for thirty years, his books and his name are censored by the Chinese state, and he currently cannot return to his home (178). Rather than becoming a pessimist, though, he continues to write and work to be a part of the forces that will outlive the current despotism. The cover art is a piece by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has similarly had his work and his person censored and maltreated by Chinese authorities.
Wake Up Call
Not without significant shortcoming as a work of fiction, China Dream inhabits a literary space that is part satire, part protest, and part warning. Readers of dystopias and anyone looking for another work in the spirit of George Orwell will want to give this brief novel a try.
Ma, Jian. China Dream. Translated by Flora Drew. Counterpoint Press, 2018.
© 2019 Seth Tomko