Meili, a young peasant woman born in the remote heart of China, is married to Kongzi, a village school teacher, and a distant descendant of Confucius. They have a daughter, but desperate for a son to carry on his illustrious family line, Kongzi gets Meili pregnant again without waiting for official permission. When family planning officers storm the village to arrest violators of the population control policy, mother, father and daughter escape to the Yangtze River and begin a fugitive life.
For years they drift south through the poisoned waterways and ruined landscapes of China, picking up work as they go along, scavenging for necessities and flying from police detection. As Meili’s body continues to be invaded by her husband and assaulted by the state, she fights to regain control of her fate and that of her unborn child.
In his latest novel (after Beijing Coma), Jian exposes the brutality of China's one-child policy through one peasant family's hardships. Although Meili and her husband Kongzi already have a daughter, Kongzi is desperate for a male heir who, he believes, will be a 77th descendant of Confucius from whom the family allegedly descends. Since families are prohibited from having multiple children, they are threatened with forced abortion or sterilization from the national family planning committee. When Meili becomes pregnant, the family flees their village seeking shelter on a houseboat traveling along the Yangtze River alongside other "family planning fugitives". As Meili sees more of the world away from her small village, she becomes disillusioned with her husband's obsession with continuing his lineage and yearns for a life as a modern, independent woman. Jian astutely explores the limits to which ordinary people can be pushed under extreme conditions and the endurance of the human spirit in the face of such cruelty. While his dialogue feels expository at times and some of the artfulness of language may be lost in translation, Jian's storytelling power shines through and the reader is moved by Meili and Kongzi's plight.