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.
At every step of his journey, Kongzi combines his own speech and emotions with quotations from Chinese poetry. As he meditates on the injustice of his murdered son, he utters a cry of misery: “My son, my son! Make your way back to us. ‘Summer wildfires cannot destroy the grass, For in the spring, soft winds will restore it to life . . .’ I cannot believe that in this immense country there is no space for my male descendant.” Kongzi’s poetry displays an interior resistance to the regime, against which he is otherwise powerless.
The novel reads like a criminal indictment of the Chinese regime and the one-child policy. The author illustrates his familiarity with the social and economic toll that the policy has wrought, and the terror and displacement that Chinese families have undergone to protect and raise their children.
The links between the policy and its sister ills — the increase in human trafficking and the selling of children (primarily girls and the handicapped), a culture of rape and the objectivisation of women, and the loss of ancient culture, values and beliefs — is emphatically demonstrated. The dehumanisation that arises in a country that must be complicit in such activities, while its people are forcibly denied knowledge of and access to their cultural heritage, is painfully revealed. Kongzi becomes increasingly crass and aggressive, both towards his wife and the rest of the world. As his values are shattered, the brutality with which he pursues his objectives increases. Meili, too, pursues an increasingly materialist world, aiming to make money and achieve social status, for its own sake.
Meili and Kongzi represent the experiences of millions of Chinese. Since the beginning of the one-child policy, there have been more than 336 million abortions and 220 million sterilisations, many of them forced. Infanticide and the abandonment of children are on the rise: 100 million girls have gone missing from China. The government trafficks women from neighbouring countries to serve as prostitutes or forced brides. The unimaginable scale of this human catastrophe is forcefully portrayed.
By humanising this horrendous national experience through the eyes of one family, Ma Jian has produced a novel that enters into the personal and family violence which has shattered homes and hearts across China for two generations. His is an important voice that has already paid the price for dissent and commitment to truth, by exile from his homeland and a ban on his books within China. Jian is in the company of the many noble men and women who have gone before him, risking everything to expose a lie, and transmitting the reality of human suffering at the hands of an ideology that continues to oppress the Chinese people.