The instant that Ma Daode, director of the newly created China Dream Bureau, wakes from his snooze, he discovers that the adolescent self he has just dreamed about has not disappeared but is standing right in front of him. It is an afternoon in late spring, and he has been dozing in his swivel chair, his shoulders hunched over and his pot belly compressed into large rolls of fat. This is the clearest indication yet that dreamlike episodes from his past, buried deep in his memory, are rising to the surface again.
‘What a negative dream–it didn’t generate any positive energy at all,’ he mumbles grumpily. ‘My fault for falling asleep in my chair.’ He drank too much at lunch and dozed off at his desk before having a chance to lie down, so his mind is still muddled. The door behind him leads to a private bedroom with an adjoining bathroom–a four-star privilege awarded only to leaders of municipal rank. His office is on the fifth floor.
The scroll hanging beside the door bears a line of poetry: I DREAM OF FLOWERS BLOOMING FROM THE TIP OF MY BRUSH, which was written, or rather composed, by Mayor Chen last month at the China Dream Bureau’s official opening. Mayor Chen usually charges huge fees for writing his own poems on scrolls at official gatherings, but on this occasion he agreed to simply recite the line and let Ma Daode transcribe it at a later date. Ma Daode has not achieved the same level of literary fame. Last year, he self-published a thousand copies of his essay collection, Cautionary Sayings for the Modern World, five hundred of which are still stacked, unsold, inside the cupboard behind him.
Now that the bottled-up memories of his youth have begun to escape, this Ma Daode who grew up in the Cultural Revolution, this high official charged with promoting the great China Dream that will replace all private dreams, is afraid that his job will become imperilled. His past self and present existence are as antagonistic to one another as fire and water.
At this morning’s meeting, he got carried away. ‘Our new president, Xi Jinping, has set forth his vision of the future,’ he told the assembled twenty-seven members of staff. ‘He has conjured up a China Dream of national rejuvenation. It is not the selfish, individualist dream chased by Western countries. It is a dream of the people, a dream of the whole nation, united as one and gathered together into an invincible force. We have been urged to press ahead with indomitable will. Our job, in this Bureau, is to ensure that the China Dream enters the brain of every resident of Ziyang City. It seems clear to me that if the communal China Dream is to fully impregnate the mind, all private remembrances and dreams must first be washed away. And I, Ma Daode, volunteer to wash my brain first. I suggest we start work straight away on developing a neural implant, a tiny microchip, which we could call the China Dream Device. When the prototype is ready, I will insert it into my head, like this, and any dream from my past still lingering there will vanish into thin air…” At this, he stood up and mimed pushing the microchip into his ear. It is only now, having seen his past self appear before him, that he can sense what trouble his unearthed memories might cause.
HEY MR DIRTY DREAM, HERE’S A RIDDLE POEM FOR YOU, he reads, glancing down at a text from his mistress, Yuyu. ‘A SAPLING OPENS ITS EYES. A BOY SLEEPS BENEATH A HOUSE. A HOLE EMERGES IN YOUR CONSCIENCE THE SUN SETS BEHIND A WOUNDED RABBIT.’ CAN YOU WORK OUT WHICH FAMOUS LINE OF POETRY IS HIDDEN INSIDE IT? Resembling a toad peeping out from a pond, Director Ma looks up, his bulging eyes sparkling with excitement. He may not have achieved Mayor Chen’s literary renown, but still, he is vice chair of Ziyang’s Writers’ Association, and has gained a small following from aphorisms which he posts online, so this riddle should not be beyond him. Sure enough, in a matter of seconds he finds the word hidden in the character strokes of each sentence and texts back the answer: HOW THEY REGRET NOT MEETING BEFORE.
His secretary, Hu, a quiet, middle-aged man who is slightly balder than him, walks into the office. ‘I’ve invited the Disabled Association to this afternoon’s Party meeting, Director Ma,’ he says without expression. ‘Anything else you’d like me to do?’ Director Ma always chooses to have male secretaries to avoid romantic entanglements with close colleagues, mindful of the maxim that ‘rabbits should never nibble the grass close to their burrows’. In his last job as vice chair of the Civility Office, however, Yuyu came for an interview fresh out of Beijing University, and he was so dazzled by her beauty he couldn’t resist hiring her as his personal assistant. He is relieved they no longer work in the same office. After his promotion to the China Dream Bureau, his old post was filled by his former classmate, Song Bin. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he and Song Bin climbed telegraph poles together to scatter political pamphlets onto their school playground, locked their headmaster in his office and seized control of the school’s public address system. But a year later, after the initial revolutionary unity dissolved into the factional chaos of the violent struggle, they found them-selves on opposing sides and their friendship crumbled. Fortunately, the monkey-faced Song Bin has more mistresses than he can handle, so is unlikely to steal Yuyu from him.
‘Invite the head of the Internet Monitoring Unit as well,’ Ma Daode tells Hu, returning the phone to his pocket. ‘The Bureau will be merging with them soon, so he’ll need to be in the loop.’ He exhales slowly and senses the alcohol on his breath seep into his hair.
‘But he’s not a Party member.’ Hu joined the municipal government six years ago after a long career as a secondary-school teacher. He is responsible for writing the progress reports that are sent to the Municipal Party Committee twice a day.
‘He’s submitted his application, though.’ As Ma Daode speaks, the adolescent self from his dream resurfaces and sees… Red slogans everywhere. Zealous youths marching in procession, faces tinted red by a sea of red flags. Mother on the corner of her bed, knitting a red jumper, a red armband pinned to her sleeve, looking just like the women who gather in parks in red Tang suits to sing ‘red songs’ from the Cultural Revolution. Ma Daode raises his hand, trying to banish these images. ‘Make sure you tape the whole meeting, Hu,’ he adds. ‘I’ll be making some important announcements.’ He is annoyed that just as he is about to present the new China Dream projects, dreamlike fragments from his past are disturbing his thoughts.
‘Yes, I’ll record it on my phone,’ Hu says impassively. His poker face and quiet reserve would make him an ideal secret agent. Ma Daode always feels uneasy in his presence. He says so little, Ma Daode is always left with the impression that he is hiding something, or that a piece is missing from his character.
The phone in Ma Daode’s drawer vibrates. WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, IT’S ME WISHING I WAS WITH YOU; WHEN THE THUNDER ROARS, IT’S ME CRYING OUT YOUR NAME. He reads the text, switches the phone off and shifts his gaze to the framed family portrait on his desk, which shows him on the left in a white T-shirt, his wife Juan on the right in a red cotton dress, and between them his twelve-year-old daughter Ming who is now twenty and studying at university in England. The text he just received was from Changyan, a young kindergarten teacher who likes to write online fiction.
He rubs his chin and gazes out at the huge new forecourt which is being paved in limestone slabs. Never before has his mind been in such disarray. He wonders whether the ‘red song’ contest he organised recently is responsible for stirring up his buried memories. He thinks of the photograph of himself as a toddler in a sailor suit standing between his parents. Because his mother was dressed in a traditional cheongsam, his sister was afraid their family would be denounced as bourgeois, so she kept the photograph hidden for years. It was only at Spring Festival this year that she finally dared take it out and email a scanned copy to him.
Last week, he posted two photographs on WeChat. The first one shows him with eleven other teenagers in front of the Buddha Light Temple in Yaobang Village, where they were sent after the violent struggle as part of Chairman Mao’s programme to re-educate urban youth through hard labour. He spent his time there as a ‘sent-down youth’ toiling in the fields and teaching in the village school. The second is a photograph of him wearing an army cap and green fatigues, dancing the male lead in the revolutionary ballet, The White-Haired Girl, after he was summoned back to Ziyang four years later to join the county propaganda troupe. Both photographs received many likes, and his mistress Yuyu gave them three grinning emojis.
His eyes drift back to his wife in the family portrait…Do you remember how, after we joined the troupe, you and I would stroll down Drum Tower Street every evening? What a sight we were! You, skipping gracefully by my side, your long braid dangling to the small of your back. And me: slim-hipped, broad-shouldered, wearing the two-tone Italian brogues my father brought back from the Korean War. There were no other shoes like them in the whole of China. As the young people today would say: we looked cool. I admit, I had a flat arse and walked like a woman – but those were minor faults. Who would have guessed that Young Skinny Ma would become the Old Flabby Ma slumped here today?
Over the years, Ma Daode’s eyes have narrowed and his nose and mouth have broadened, but when he opens his eyes wide, his pupils sparkle like glass beads, making him look youthful and full of life. His first and oldest mistress, a woman called Li Wei, likes to push his lids further apart with her fingers and tell him to look her straight in the eye.
Excerpted with permission from the novel China Dream by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew. Published in the US by Counterpoint Press in May 2019.