“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true.”—Dream of the Red Chamber
Before his life truly begins to unravel, Ma Daode’s secretary at the China Dream Bureau offers him a cup of Guanyin tea. There is an important meeting in just a few minutes’ time, but Daode has been dozing off. He needs to be at his best if he’s going to promote the China Dream, which aims to provide everyone with collective, state-approved dreams; Daode can’t be an effective spokesman if he’s distracted by his own private ones! But instead of Guanyin tea, Daode requests coffee, which several of his mistresses assure him is far trendier.
Daode really should have accepted the tea, which is named after the Bodhisattva of Mercy. Alas, there is no place for mercy in his life, not for others and not for himself. He wants forgetfulness, not mercy; ignorance and not peace. Daode’s nascent research into a high-tech neurological implant soon devolves into a quest for a mythic China Dream Soup, a broth that allows dead souls to forget their pasts in order to be reborn. Daode wants desperately to forget his troubled past, not just to ease his mind but because the government demands this selective forgetfulness.
Though dreaming is clearly the primary symbolic focus of Ma Jian’s China Dream, this is the first of many instances in which food also carries a subtle but important symbolic weight. It undergirds the satire of current Chinese politics, and allows for a more nuanced reading of an otherwise straightforward critique of the current regime. Appearances of food and drink in the narrative are entangled with the “personal dreams” and PTSD-like flashbacks Daode experiences, and reveal the spiritual and moral starvation at the heart of the regime.
A stereotypical heartless bureaucrat, Daode has always faithfully and even rabidly followed the dictates of the state. Before, this meant zealously defending communism from all reactionaries, real or imagined. Now socialism is the law of the land, and Daode will enact any resettlement orders and take any bribes to make sure it remains so. He functions within a system built on corruption, and makes sure to be only normally greedy. After all, Daode is not uniquely wicked. He’s a thoroughly unoriginal man: he even recycles romantic and erotic poetry from one mistress to another, barely able to keep track of all the women he is stringing along.
He is, in short, a man with petty dreams. Even the China Dream he is meant to promulgate is vague to him, little more than rhetoric he supports without understanding. But in working toward it nonetheless, he unwittingly unleashes all his memories of the Cultural Revolution, the lost and thwarted dreams of his youth. Those dreams are far more powerful than his mediocre modern dreams, and they soon begin to take over his mind.
At first, his dreams only prove minor distractions at work, embarrassing him in front of his political rival, Sung Bin. The other ministers are much more excited about The Qingfeng Dumpling Store, a ballet that promises to recount the tale of current Chinese President Xi humbly standing in line and eating dumplings with the hoi polloi of Beijing. Selling the fantasy of equality is far more appealing than delving into the messy world of dreams, after all.
Already, food is becoming tainted by the bitter memories of his long history with his rival, and their time together in Red Guard factional conflict. But escaping the office is no relief: when he goes home, his wife uses their meal together to remind him of the love he has lost for her. To distract himself, he sorts through his most recent bribes. Among them is a box of mooncakes, a treat he loves. He’s disappointed when he breaks one open and finds a gold bar. All he actually wanted was a normal mooncake.
Of course, we can read this and understand that Daode is so unimaginably wealthy that incidental wealth is unimportant, and the clever disguise merely irksome. His greed and privilege is beyond belief! And likewise we can imagine his heavyset body and potbelly, and see the obvious metaphor of a man grown literally and metaphorically fat from exploiting others.
I’ve no doubt that this was part of the intent of the satire, but before we take the text to task for fat-shaming, let’s look a little closer. Daode is delighted by his weight for its own sake. He encourages a prostitute to admire his body: “Feel this arse of mine. Isn’t it fat? Isn’t it round? I’m just so fucking perfect!”(p.102). He contrasts his girth not with the skinniness of those he exploits, but with his past body, which was beaten, starved, and stabbed during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. Tens of millions of people died of starvation—another fact he is not allowed to know—but Daode survived. He is proud to have survived, and calls for even more drinks and fruit to be brought to him, once his body has been appreciated from all angles.
But no matter how much he satiates himself with food, the memories of hunger torment him. Memories of his parents’ death are “like an overripe pear that longs to drop from its branch but is afraid of smashing into pieces” (p.92). His parents committed suicide by eating poison, causing them to vomit their last meal all over themselves before dying. He still recalls their last meal together, and the stink of the poison, like paraffin and garlic, hangs over it.
Other memories of death and food begin to assault him. The next day he is required to “relocate” a local village, coincidentally the site of his reeducation during the Cultural Revolution. He, too, was once relocated against his will, sent to the country to unlearn his “bourgeois” ways. In the present, while trying to negotiate with the villagers who want to stay, Daode recalls the sight of a popsicle wrapper caught in a corpse’s hair. He smells chives mixed with urine. The terrible past and the terrible present overlap, and Daode tries desperately to suppress both of them.
The Cultural Revolution was about tearing down history in order to remake it. During that time, Daode’s own Red Guard faction believed they alone were defending the ideals of Chairman Mao, and all other forces were reactionaries. In the present, the bureaucrats and the villagers all believe they are on the side of President Xi. History repeats itself, the recursive layers of denial and suppression slowly becoming an ouroboros that begins to devour Daode (and, by extension, the whole of China).
At first, Daode is not truly worried about this historical doubling. He even takes great delight in visiting a brothel that, in one of the book’s most biting criticisms, is decked out like Chairman Mao’s private apartments, with prostitutes in sexy “Red Guard” uniforms. Despite her outfit, the girl he hires is completely ignorant of the Cultural Revolution; she only wants expensive liquor. While sleeping with this unnamed prostitute, he receives a text from his daughter. His daughter crows about having seen President Xi while away at college, and brags that she fended off protesters waving signs about Tibet and Tiananmen Square. Both girls are content to ignore the past: their China, the present-day China, is a land of plenty. The youth of China, Ma Jian suggests, gives no one a reason to hope.
Daode falls asleep among the liquor and fancy snacks at the brothel, and wakes even worse off than before. His past consumes his present and his dreams devour his waking life until he begins to mistake colleagues for old comrades and strangers for friends. He even harangues a former neighbor about eating goose droppings and cannibalizing their sister in order to survive. No amount of current excess can curb the hungry past.
Driven to a final extreme as his memories cost him his job, Daode consults a Qigong healer and resolves to discover the recipe for Old Lady Dream’s soup of forgetfulness. The healer, as a fitting coda for the book, offers him a last chance, in the form of another cup of Guanyin tea. Daode again refuses. He instead pays this healer an exorbitant sum for a dubious recipe that calls for ingredients “1 slice ginger, sucked by a corpse,” and “1 sprig green coral” (p.138). The concoction of life and death comes together in a Coca-Cola bottle, the mythic past contained by the materialist present, and he brandishes it as he wanders through the city, trying to convince others to drink.
On his way, he watches the city laborers eat breakfast and unload dry goods. They taunt him with food stuck between their teeth, and he moves on to find that a store called Rich Family Supermarket is built where he used to live with his family. On the ground floor, a branch of the Qingfeng Dumpling Store has opened, operated by his rival Sung Bin. (No, subtlety is not this book’s forte.) Daode’s memories oppress him, and he is unable to enter the building or get a single bite to eat. Instead he can only berate some of the vendors. “Chairman Mao commanded us to struggle with words, not weapons. Quick, unload all those dangerous bulbs of garlic from your cart and hand them over to the masses,” Daode admonishes the man, who ignores him and calls him crazy (p. 160).
But it’s not entirely crazy. Dreams and sleep, food and drink: these are necessities for basic human survival. But for Daode, food and drink have become inextricably linked with violence and despair. He cannot sustain himself any longer, since the food cannot nourish him: the mooncakes are inedible, the dumplings are associated with his greatest rival, and even the garlic appears to him as a weapon. The imaginary food of dreams is now all he wants to consume, in the hope that it can reconcile the two parts of him, the part that wants to live and the part that wants to remember. Memories, to Daode and to China, are inimical to the current mode of life.
Daode loses the last strands of reality as he tries to get others to drink his forgetful brew, and begins to see his dead neighbors and vanished comrades. The East is Red and the Million Bold Warriors have a huge food fight, hurling dumplings at one another. Even in the new era of plenty, there is no reconciliation or understanding. In the midst of this chaos, Daode finally takes a sip of the China Dream Soup and rises above the past and the present. He doesn’t reconcile them—they continue to fight each other and him—but instead gains the power to focus on the future.
And kills himself.
We might see a slender hope in the fact that an attempt to control dreams only drives the would-be despot mad. Dreams are too powerful to control! The past will eventually break free! And perhaps we might even be encouraged that Daode feels regret for his past mistakes. Doesn’t he merit some crumb of compassion, since he was so young and his environment so chaotic?
But Daode died as he lived, weak-willed and ineffective, chasing the easy path of forgetfulness instead of doing the hard work of confronting his crimes. No one learns from Daode’s past experiences or is moved by his regrets. Any rebels are not just put down, but put down with such ease that they don’t even merit a central plotline. They’re peripheral, ineffective. Rebellion fails, memory destroys rather than sustains, love disintegrates, and everything is terrible forever. This is not a story of hope, only of folly.
Ma Jian contends that Daode is, of course, China itself, trapped between the materialistic and grasping present and the horrific past, unable to reconcile the two and finally destroyed by the attempt to even live with them. The titular “China Dream” is just to drink down the broth mixed with death and forget, forget, forget.
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