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The Dark Road: A Novel by Ma Jian
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The Dark Road: A Novel (2013)

by Ma Jian

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First Sentence:

"The infant spirit sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling with fear...."

Meili and her husband Kongzi live in the rural countryside of China with their young daughter Nanaan. Kongzi is a 76th generation descendant of Confucius, and China's one-child policy conflicts with what he sees as his duty to produce a male heir for the 77th generation. Meili is pregnant with an unauthorized second child, and family planning authorities are cracking down, dragging women who are pregnant without a permit in and violently performing abortions on them. Meili and Kongzi decide to flee their village to find a place their second child can be born into a more hospitable environment. Over the next several years, and several tragic pregnancies, Meili, Kongzi and Nanaan are on the run. They spend a few years on a decrepit houseboat on the Yangze River among other family planning fugitives. Ultimately, they end up in the town of Heaven where corrupt family planning officials are somewhat lenient about unauthorized pregnancies--for a price.

This is a dark portrait of the bleak lives of Chinese peasants. While the horrors and brutalities of the one-child policy are the primary theme of this novel, the havoc wreaked on the environment by China's unregulated industrial revolution is a strong secondary theme. The town of Heaven has become a center for the deconstruction of the world's electronic waste; toxic chemicals are everywhere--the water is so polluted Meili can no longer raise ducks. Babies are born, but many have significant birth defects (which allows corrupt officials to sell them to be used as beggars).

I had previously heard of the one-child policy, but was unaware of the brutality of the measures to enforce it. I found this to be a stunning book, although difficult to read. Amazon states that while Ma Jian was writing it, he traveled through the rural backwaters of southwestern China to see how the state enforced the one-child policy far from the world's prying eyes. He met local women who had been seized from their homes and forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations; on the Yangze River he lived among fugitive couples on the run from the policy.

4 stars ( )
  arubabookwoman | Mar 30, 2017 |
As I was writing this review, news came that China has changed its one child with exceptions policy to a two child policy.

Ma Jian's The Dark Road is a bitter and scathing diatribe about life in Deng Xiaoping's China. Meili and Kongzi are expecting a child. Unfortunately for them, they already have a daughter, Nannan. The couple thought they had taken care of things by buying a fake birth permit for this second child. However, this time the surprise family planning crackdown in their rural district is being conducted by officials from outside the county, beyond any influence they might have. Women of child bearing age are being rounded up for IUD insertions, forced terminations, or forced sterilizations, depending upon their childbearing history.

That night, the family of three left Kong Village to make their way down Dark Water River to the Yangtze, hoping to find a place where they could evade the family planners and have their child in peace. On board their boat, Meili met a woman who told her There's one place in China you can live in complete freedom, though: Heaven Township. It's in Guangdong Province. I worked there for a while. No one checks how many children you have. And it's almost impossible to get pregnant there... the town's air contains chemicals which kill men's sperm...
It's full of workshops that dismantle the electronic goods. It's a Special Economic Zone now like Shenzhen. But to reach it, you must travel through many large cities. If the police catch you, you'll be slammed in a custody centre and booted back home.


Meili seized upon the notion of this place, deciding it would be their destination. Heaven isn't easily attained though.

Unbeknownst to them, their journey will take nine years. Some will be horrible, others merely awful. It will see Kongzi, a descendent of Confucius and a respected teacher in his village, become a drunken lout whom even the prostitutes scorn. There will be more pregnancies for Meili, who will be forced to take whatever work she can find as Kongzi deteriorates.

Ma uses the family's travels to show the reader the degradation and destruction of not only the family, but of the country itself. Kongzi works for a while demolishing a village that will be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. There is work picking through recycling. Corpse fishers, counterfeiters, corrupt officials and child traffickers are only some of the denizens of the new China they come up against as they sink to the class of the Three Nos: "no documents, no home, no income."

The family finally reaches Heaven Township, where the economy has indeed taken off. A local family had discovered a market for scrap metal and plastic at the local toy factory. Now other families are doing the same thing, opening workshops on the ground floors of their homes and hiring migrant workers to help out. Today, the front doors of every house are not surrounded by bales of wheat, but bundles of electric cables, circuit boards and transformers. In just one decade, Heaven has transformed from a quiet backwater into a prosperous waste-choked town.

There is a lot of material here, almost too much. Either that, or Ma has written at a frantic pace, trying to convince his readers of every injustice and wrong, belabouring them when a lighter hand would have done a better job. Minor characters suddenly step forward as if on stage, and denounce the hellish environment or the one child policy. Part of the story is told by the spirit of Meili's second child. Each chapter starts with a list of keywords, warning the reader of the dangers to come.

Meili herself is pregnant for five years with her last child. She has promised this child she will give birth to it as soon as the One Child Policy is repealed, as soon as "...every child born in China will be given full legal citizenship."

Whichever thread connects most with the individual reader, the overriding theme is that no matter what the message of progress China projects to the world, hundreds of millions outside the urban areas are not part of it. Changing from a one child policy to a two child will do little for them.
2 vote SassyLassy | Oct 30, 2015 |
I’ve had to read this book one chapter at a time – the subject material and the setting is just too upsetting, and I’ve learnt my lesson from reading other books about the maltreatment of humans, especially women, in other times and other places.

To focus on less disturbing matters, the structure of this novel is interesting. Each chapter is headed with a number of keywords. I wonder if these were translation notes which it was decided later could be left in, or if they are meant to serve as a guide to what’s coming. Like quotations at the beginning of a work, they aren’t much use to me at the beginning – they’d probably only be any good when going back after reading the chapter and mulling over why those particular words are important.

Part of the story is typeset in bold and it took me a little while to work out that the bulk of the story is written in close third person point of view, and the emboldened parts are an omniscient voice, channelled through Meili’s unborn baby’s spirit – the one which was terminated at eight months against the parents’ will.

This is a truly disturbing tale which will amplify any misanthropic thoughts readers may harbour, and I’d be careful who I recommend it to. The woman who gave it to me said with a distasteful look, “I don’t want it back.” She was careful to prep me on its content.

I felt the same way about Gone Girl, but really, Gone Girl is a walk in the park compared to miscarriages, abortions, dead babies floating down polluted rivers and foetuses sold to restaurants as delicacies. Does this stuff really happen? Perhaps a non-fictional treatment would have more of an impact.

Is it well-told? I felt about this book as I have felt about a few other Chinese books that I’ve read of late – that there is just so much misery and shocking material that after a while I can hardly believe that I’m now reading of an incident even more horrific than the last. The overall effect is that I distance myself slightly from the characters, and in doing so sacrifice some character empathy.

I also struggled to place this story in time. The place was expertly drawn, if a seething, chemically dangerous rubbish-tip of a place was the aim. At first I figured the story started in the late seventies, but I had to keep revising upwards, especially as the pile of discarded computers grew taller and the melamine in the baby formula story emerged, and now I realise this story ends in modern times, that this isn’t an historical narrative at all. ( )
  LynleyS | Feb 12, 2014 |
haunting. this story gives you goose bumps. scrary, how people treat eachother for money, for political reason, for idealism, for traditions, for superstitions. the western world has not many reports on how china monitors their one-child law and it just horrifing how it is done. a woman with only two year of schooling is a normal occurance. u cannot imagine that in the first world. from living is waste, dealing with side effects, random imprisonment, force prostitution, child kidnapping and abortions. and even fetus soup. this book was an eye opener for me. strange ending. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Oct 6, 2013 |
I received an Advance Reader's copy as a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. I attribute some of the odd formatting and the couple of typos I saw to the ARC, not the finished book.

This book is a fictional account of a peasant couple in China and their struggles to make a family under the One Child Policy. "The Dark Road" is an accurate title, and I admit I'm still struck by the ending. I didn't expect it.

I did like this book, but I'm truly at a loss for a review. The story was very well-written and translated, and the characters are very real. It's not the book to pick up if you need a pick-me-up, but it's a great novel, and I recommend it. ( )
  sarahlizfits | Jul 17, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0701187530, Hardcover)

"If a panda gets pregnant, the entire nation celebrates. But if a woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal. What kind of country is this?"
 
Meili, a young peasant woman is married to Kongzi, a village school teacher, and a distant descendant of the great sage Confucius. They have a daughter, but desperate to carry on his illustrious line, Kongzi gets Meili pregnant without waiting for official permission. When family planning officers storm into the village to arrest violators of the population control policy, mother, father and daughter are forced to make a fugitive life on the river.
 
Meili dreams of reaching a place called Heaven, a vast stinking wilderness of toxic waste, where the men eventually turn infertile and the family planning officers don't dare to go. But as their troubled quest to give birth to a son continues, it becomes clear that Kongzi and Meili are not just raging against the state -- they are at war with one  another.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:04 -0400)

Explores the human cost of China's one-child policy in the story of rural family on the run from the state, describing their decision to conceive a second child before becoming subject to cruel government practices of forced abortion and sterilization.… (more)

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