If you are reading this, you are one of the many who travel to places through books. While this blog is mostly about bookshops, it is also about reading. It is about what we read, where we read, how we read and why we read.
The history of books that let your mind travel and books that offer into insights of life in far off places is very rich. We pick and choose what interests us or is useful to us from among them.
I picked up Ma Jian’s China Dream after I asked a question on twitter asking people to suggest books by Chinese language authors that I should read. In the past, I have read very few books from that part of the world – Ha Jin’s stories, Yiyun Li, Liu Cixin and Gao Zingjian. My understanding of China is limited to what they have written and what’s in the news. I read the ‘The Hindu’ newspaper and it used to have a slight Chinese fixation or slant which meant that they had more news from China and Indian reporters who lived in China and brought u stories from there. I also follow people like Sowmiya Ashok on twitter who is a China watcher. My favourite Chinese artist online is the dissident cartoonist Badiucao and I like the work of the artist Ai Weiwei. I don’t watch martial art movies.
China Dream by Ma Jian
This writer was suggested by Rowena Monde on twitter and when I searched for his books, this one stood out. I think, it was the smashing cover of the shattering tree by Ai WeiWei that made me choose it (I didn’t know then that it was his design). It was also one of his newer books and I picked it up without reading any reviews. It was a good choice.
But why did I ask for names of Chinese language writers to read?
It has to do with India’s China Dream. There was a time when Indian cities wanted to be like Shanghai (and probably still does), there were talks to build institutions where India and China were partners, meetings between the two top leaders at regular intervals and more. We could notice that India tried to make sense of the rapidly growing and rising China and benefit from it and now we see a total breakdown on relationship and a border clash where soldiers from the PLA showed a side of China that is difficult even for Indians who use Lathis or sticks to trouble each other couldn’t comprehend – the use of clubs and bare hands to kill soldiers. I remembered stories of Ha Jin who wrote amazing short stories about life in the PLA in the 70s and I felt like reading more about China and the Chinese people under the Communist Party of China.
Border and walls
While the Himalayas form a formidable border between India and China maybe books can be stepping stones for us to climb and look across the great divide. While China expands its influence, it has become an outward looking society (the way it looks outside now is aggressive, confusing and too petty capitalist for a communist party – they are past the old slogan – “Hide your capacity and bide your time”). While Indians have also reached out and expanded our worldview our domestic politics centred in Delhi has been inward looking. Let me use and example: invisible and invisible walls are erected to reduce all people to people contact between Indians and Pakistan for example. In reality, it is Pakistan that should be vary of India’s huge influence when in comes to pop art and culture. While China was never really on our minds, there is a danger that we will construct walls that stop our limited exchanges. I believe that books will help people build breach walls and help us understand China and the Chinese better. It is also a better option to the ways news is reported in India and in China. Books also allows to travel through time and this book by Ma Jian was a start.
China Dream Project
The book is the story of a slightly high-ranking Communist Party official and his memories of his role and life in the Cultural Revolution. His past interferes with his present life and his work as a person promoting a pet project of the President Xi Jinping called the China Dream Project. The narration is fast-paced and at the speed at which your twitter or weibo timeline records current affairs. It is hilarious, sometimes sad and unputdownable. I give it 5 stars.
The writer questions the past of the people who build a political party or movement and the ideology that drives them. It also points our attention towards the past deeds of political movements and the individuals invovled in it as foot soldiers. The China Dream Project brings the past and present together with our Cultural Revolution hero turned official at the centre. What happens is this breezy satire.
It makes one think about dictatorships of political parties and the campaigns that built them into the super-large entities that they are now. Communist Party in this case or even the BJP in India.
While the past does catch up with the present and future plans for political entities and its players, do people in China, India, USA or in colonial powers like UK really care? Yes, they flare up once in a while, here and there and they simmer below the surface, warmed by people who believe that they are the conscience keepers of their culture, country or system. They do it through books like these. But look around us, within ourselves and in our social media timelines, people are worried about the present and the future. The past that this book evokes is something we suppress as individuals and as societies. We move on dreaming the China Dream or Acche Din or a visa to country where your kids are safe.