From one of world literature’s most courageous voices, a novel about the human cost of China’s one-child policy through the lens of one rural family on the run from its reach
Far away from the Chinese economic miracle, from the bright lights of Beijing and Shanghai, is a vast rural hinterland, where life goes on much as it has for generations, with one extraordinary difference: “normal” parents are permitted by the state to have only a single child. The Dark Road is the story of one such “normal” family—Meili, a young peasant woman; her husband, Kongzi, a village schoolteacher; and their daughter, Nannan.
Kongzi is, according to family myth, a direct lineal descendant of Confucius, and he is haunted by the imperative to carry on the family name by having a son. And so Meili becomes pregnant again without state permission, and when local family planning officials launch a new wave of crackdowns, the family makes the radical decision to leave its village and set out on a small, rickety houseboat down the Yangtze River. Theirs is a dark road, and tragedy awaits them, and horror, but also the fierce beauty born of courageous resistance to injustice and inhumanity.
The Dark Road is a haunting and indelible portrait of the tragedies befalling women and families at the hands of China’s one-child policy and of the human spirit’s capacity to endure even the most brutal cruelty. While Ma Jian wrote The Dark Road, he traveled through the rural backwaters of southwestern China to see how the state enforced the one-child policy far from the outside world’s prying eyes. He met local women who had been seized from their homes and forced to undergo abortions or sterilization in the policy’s name; and on the Yangtze River, he lived among fugitive couples who had gone on the run so they could have more children, that most fundamental of human rights.
Like all of Ma Jian’s novels, The Dark Road is also a celebration of the life force, of the often comically stubborn resilience of man’s most basic instincts.
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.