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World Music Features

Ma Jian

By Ernest Barteldes
Published August 18, 2008

Ma Jian worked as a photo journalist until the age of 30, when he quit his job to jump-start his writing career by embarking on a three-year trip across China. A stop in Tibet was the main inspiration for his short story collection Stick Out Your Tongue (published in the U.S. in 2006).

Ma’s stark writing style prompted the Chinese government to ban his work, eventually forcing him into a self-imposed exile. In 1987, he moved to Hong Kong, but two years later, when he heard about the crowds of students gathering at Tiananmen Square, he returned to Beijing and actively participated in the now-legendary student protests. He was spared from the massacre purely by chance when he left the area to tend to his brother, who had been in an accident.


Last May, Ma was in New York for the PEN World Voices Festival, where he participated in a press conference that announced the filing of a petition to China’s U.N. Mission. The document, signed by more than 3,000 PEN members and supporters, called for the release of 39 imprisoned dissident writers and journalists before the opening of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. According to a statement from PEN, “the writers were met with locked doors.”


Speaking through interpreter Flora Drew (a PEN member who has also translated his books into English), Ma believes that censorship in China has greatly damaged “the writer’s moral confidence,” and that the power and authority imposed by the country’s leaders remains unchecked. He adds, “So what is happening now, is that [Chinese writers] have blocked their will to write.”


As the press conference concludes, Ma took some time to look back over his career and to talk about how the Olympics are affecting China’s international profile. He also recounts his experience in the Tiananmen Square protests, which was the main inspiration for his latest novel, Beijing Coma.


Tell us about your activism, and how that led to your current exile to London?

In 1987 I wrote a book called Stick Out Your Tongue that was target of a campaign in China, and it was banned. After that, it became impossible for my work to be published there, which resulted in a feeling of insecurity.


Do you think the Olympic Games might bring positive change to the country?<