Another exiled dissident who has built a life outside China still feels its pull.
UNTIL two years ago, London-based Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian could still visit China, albeit with the police tailing his every move.
Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he recalls being “invited to tea” by public security officers at the capital’s five-star Sheraton Great Wall Hotel and “reminded not to meet up with ‘sensitive’ individuals such as Liu Xiaobo”.
Liu is a writer and activist who was imprisoned in 2009 and awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Between 2008 and 2009, Ma, now 60, journeyed secretly through the rural backwaters of central and south-western China, researching the abortions and sterilisation forced on village women under the country’s draconian one-child policy.
That research forms the nub of his latest novel The Dark Road (2013). The writer was in Singapore last month to speak at the Singapore Writers Festival and promote his book (reviewed in these pages in May).
But when Ma last tried to visit China in 2011 to see his terminally ill mother before she died, he was barred from entering via the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border.
A few weeks later, he was given special dispensation to return to his hometown in the eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao to bury her ashes.
Since then, Ma – who has lived in exile for 26 years, first in Hong Kong and then London – has no longer been allowed to enter the country of his birth. This pains him deeply.
“I miss all the Chinese-speaking cities and villages, because my whole life has been spent describing the hopes and tragedies of the land,” he writes in Chinese in an e-mail interview.
Should political restrictions one day be lifted and he can enter and leave the country freely, “I will buy the first ticket back to Beijing”, he adds candidly.
His wish after his death is for his ashes to be scattered “by the sea” in his native Qingdao.
A photojournalist back in China in the early 1980s, Ma has drawn a rising chorus of acclaim in the West for his fiction.
His books have been translated into English by his British wife and translator Flora Drew. They are banned in China.
His best-known titles in the English-speaking world are the travel memoir Red Dust (2002), based on his three years spent travelling around China in the mid-1980s, and satirical novel Beijing Coma (2008), in which he channels the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests through a reimagined cast of flawed student heroes.
Though Ma was living in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, he had managed to enter Beijing during the time of the protests, which triggered a violent crackdown by the Communist Party and remains a taboo subject in China.
Red Dust sold more than 50,000 copies and won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 2002.
As for Beijing Coma (reviewed in these pages in July 2008), published on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the protests, The New York Times hailed it as “an extraordinarily effective novel but also an important political statement”.
British newspaper The Guardian wrote in its review: “This vivid, pungent, often blackly funny book is a mighty gesture of remembrance against the encroaching forces of silence.”
Ma also wrote The Noodle Maker (2004) about the absurdities of the post-Tiananmen Chinese society, and Stick Out Your Tongue (2007), a collection of unvarnished short stories on Tibet that run counter to its often romanticised global image.
All these books have been translated by Drew and published by major British publisher The Random House Group under various literary imprints.
They have also been rendered by other translators into languages such as French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Hebrew and Korean.
Ma and his wife, now in her mid-40s, met in Hong Kong in 1997. She was then working for an American news agency, covering the territory’s handover to the mainland. He had already left China and was working in the territory as a publisher and editor of literary and arts periodicals.
He later relocated to London to be with her. The city has been their home for over a decade and they have four children, aged between two and 10.