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Ma Jian: His criticism of the Chinese state has seen him exiled 

Ma Jian's novel The Dark Road examines the personal and cultural devastation arising from China's one-child policy. It describes the human, cultural, educational and economic toll that the brutal enforcement of this policy has taken on the Chinese and finally descends into fantasy, which paradoxically illuminates the horrific realism and brutality that the author seeks to portray. 

Realism constrains much of the novel. The early narrative and descriptions of the family planning policy are sometimes extraneous and the characters initially lack emotional depth and intimacy. The move towards fantasy frees Jian to move away from the systematic portrayal of devastating external actions to the dislocating effects of evil at the level of personal and interpersonal psychology.   

Oppressed and broken by an endless burden of personal catastrophes, Kongzi and Meili, the married protagonists, descend into separate expressions of grief and loneliness that ultimately lead to personal and familial destruction. 

The couple experience the full brutality of the one-child policy. They are forced to flee from their home, which is later razed to the ground. Their second child, a desperately desired son, is brutally and forcibly aborted at eight-and-a-half-months. Kongzi has to bribe state officials to retain his body. A third child is born mentally handicapped, and Kongzi succumbs to the temptation of village traffickers to sell her. 

In grief and rage, Meili flees to the city, only to be trapped into a labour camp and sold into prostitution. Her strength, courage and wits are put to the test as she escapes and returns home, setting the stage for the final fragmentation of her world and her family.

The novel's characters sometimes seem to be walking in front of a commentary on the corruption and violence of family planning officers, and the repercussions of trying to have a second child. Their story is contrasted with a thematic exploration of Confucius's importance to China and the influence of the great Chinese poets. 

Kongzi is a schoolteacher and direct descendant of Confucius. His knowledge of ancient Chinese tradition and poetry gives him an exalted position among the peasants and refugees he and Meili encounter, primarily because these works and songs are still known and loved. Kongzi's ability to express his emotions and interior state best through the recitation of poetry and ancient wisdom provides a damning condemnation of the Communist regime, while calling to mind the great Chinese culture of the past, which is passed on through generations of otherwise uneducated peasants and lives on in their minds and hearts.

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