For many people, the words "Tiananmen Square" bring to mind that extraordinary photo of a lone student standing defiantly before a caravan of armored vehicles during China's pro-democracy crackdown in 1989. In his novel "Beijing Coma," Ma Jian takes us back to that important 20th-century moment, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens came together to protest government injustice -- and were crushed for doing so.

Jian, 55, knows his material. He spent six weeks with the movement's student leaders in 1989, leaving just before their occupation of Tiananmen Square came to its bloody end.

Jian tells his story -- a work of fiction imbued with the grit of real-life experience -- through the eyes of Dai Wei, a student who was shot during the protest and has been lying in a coma for 10 years. While his body rests in a vegetative state, his mind plunges him into the past, where he must relive the turbulent years leading up to the Tiananmen protest. At the same time, from this "fleshy tomb," he is able to observe his current reality: In a decrepit flat, his poor mother struggles to care for his comatose body while the government continues to harass them.

The horrors of political persecution are around every corner in Jian's novel. He holds back little when describing the vast cruelty endured by the Chinese people under Mao and his successors. As a child, Dai Wei watched the Red Guard pull an elderly neighbor out of her home for some untold infraction: "They tied her up and poured ten thermoses of boiling water over her head. She gripped the branches of the grapevine in front of her and howled in pain."

While dark memories like this fill the novel, Jian's main focus is the Tiananmen protests. He brings us into the inner circle of the Beijing college students who will lead the way. At 592 pages, the book gives Jian a lot of room to delve into the day-to-day matters of the student leaders. Maybe a little too much room. His detailed accounts of their meetings, love affairs and power struggles can get tedious.

But such quibbles are minor. "Beijing Coma" builds to a heart-stopping climax as waves of armed soldiers attack the students.

Yet the fate of the comatose Dai Wei must also come to a head. He and his mother face new problems: The same Communist state that killed his grandfather for owning a few cows during the land reform years now wants to build a shopping mall on top of their flat. Why? The Olympics are coming.

Dai Wei's coma is Jian's metaphor for China in these changing times. As the country steps onto the world stage, it wants past transgressions forgotten -- hushed like a comatose patient. Jian wants people to remember, like Dai Wei did.

Jian echoed this in a recent New York Times editorial: "There is an expression in Chinese that says, 'One can only stand up from the place where one fell.' If China is to truly stand up and deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must return to the place where it fell."

Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909