The Dark Road, by the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, is a dystopian road movie following family planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan down the Yangtse. The plot begins with Meili pregnant for a second time just as the family planning militia descends on rural Kong village. These shock troops are here to collect fines for violations of the state’s population policy, and to force abortions and sterilizations on women whose husbands can’t pay up. They manage to escape, but the state’s pursuit of domination over Meili’s body won’t stop there.
Kongzi is a 76th generation heir of Confucius, and his raison d’être is to produce a 77th. Kongzi (a nickname that literally means Confucius) feels very keenly the pressure of his obligation to continue the illustrious family line, and he pursues his mission to sire a son relentlessly throughout the families’ travels and travails. A village girl with traditional values, Meili accepts her part in this quest and despite the grubbiness and general peril of their surroundings there are moments of genuine shared intimacy. Not surprisingly, Meili feels the pressure more than Kongzi; agonizing about the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child falls solely to her. Little wonder Meili feels her body isn’t her own, musing that a woman’s genitals belong to men and her womb to the state.
The Chinese title 陰之道gives a sense of the book’s complexities. The character yin 陰is the yin in “yin and yang” 陰陽, the contrasting but complementary sides of nature so fundamental to Chinese conceptions of the world. Yin is the side representing darkness, hence the English title. Darkness can be sinister, but it also represents the feminine side of nature (to yang’s male), so the book could equally be titled ‘a woman’s road’. 之is a particle with no substantive meaning here, but Dao 道is another word with complex potentialities. It can mean a literal or figurative road or path. It can also indicate a doctrine. Dao is the character that forms the word Daoism or Taoism 道教, a philosophical system where the focus is on the ‘way of nature’ 道之天. Dao is also the central component of Confucianism, where it is usually translated as ‘the Way’, and focuses on the ‘way of man’人道. Much of the Analects is about extolling the virtues and prescribing how to attain the Way. Thus Ma’s Chinese title is full of potential meanings; invoking the perniciousness of Confucianism; the sinister one child doctrine; a literally dark pathway in the form of the polluted Yangtse; a figurative dark path to the margins of society symbolising the families’ exile; the trauma of a woman’s path in China confined and compelled by the twin demands of Confucianism and Communist (family) planning; the path of China’s development that has mutilated the land and people’s values. Removing the 之particle produces the noun vagina陰道the part of Meili’s body that is contested throughout.
Determined to give birth in hope it’ll be the anticipated male heir, Meili, Kongzi and Nannan flee Kong village for a life on the road. They seek temporary refuge on the Yangtse, living on boats with other family planning fugitives. It is a squalid and precarious existence, but left alone the family manages a homely tenderness. Kongzi is a teacher turned demolition worker (Jia Zhangke’s Still Life provides a perfect visualization for this part of the story). He affirms his intellectual status and noble lineage by quoting pompously from the classics, and providing a pious rationale for his libido. The family make do raising ducks, growing vegetables and repurposing bits and pieces. Their daily lives are a mix of shivering cold, duck shit and river stench, but they get by. But one day, with her baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus they named Happiness, is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with shocking transactional nonchalance (the physician calmly offers a knock down price for the operation). Meili and Kongzi take Happiness away in a plastic bag and give him a water burial in the Yangtse.
The family continues on its way again downriver, slowly making towards a town called Heaven, where rumour has it you can have as many kids as you like. Despite the horrors inflicted on his wife, Kongzi doesn’t take long to resume his mission, and soon enough Meili is pregnant again. It is a period where Meili finds some minor economic success selling vegetables in a small market, and she starts to dream of a materially better future and vows that this will be her last child. But when the baby is born, it’s a girl. The tenderness that Meili lavishes on her second daughter, who is appears to suffer from a mental disability, is to no avail, and one day she returns to the family’s boat to find that Kongzi has gone off to sell her to a mutilated child begging racket. So much for Kongzi’s moral piety. Setting off in anger into the nearby town, Meili is detained and sent to an ad hoc labour camp for not having the proper documents. At the labour camp she shares a dormitory with an urban sex worker, who provides another view of the woman’s body, as an economic instrument. Meili rejects such a possibility, only to be let out of the camp into forced labour in a brothel. A nasty rape scene with the brothel owner ensues, but Meili escapes by burning the place down (an improbable twist, but at this point the reader is so desperate for a respite that it doesn’t matter), and is soon reunited with Kongzi.
The family finally reaches Heaven, which turns out to be a Guangdong cancer village recycling electronic waste. The melancholy cycle repeats again: the indefatigable Kongzi continues his mission and sure enough Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she is determined to protect her baby inside her womb. Meili refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period. Finally she gives birth to a green alien-like thing mutated by the poisonous e-waste—Heaven’s kicker is that you can have as many kids as you like but none will be healthy. Finally released from her duty Meili lets herself sink into the river to reunite with the spirits of her babies. Her passage down the ‘dark road’ is over.
Set amid the uncomfortable realism that characterises Ma’s narrative, this surreal last twist is disconcerting, until you realise that the entire reality that Ma has constructed is an inversion or perversion of the ‘natural order’, that it is all “unreal”; Happiness is a murdered baby; Heaven is a cancer village; pregnant women are criminals; aborted foetuses are sold to restaurants; babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade. This is a very grim book, an unrelentingly negative portrait of contemporary China. If you only read this book you would imagine that the fate of Chinese women is unimaginably horrific. This is an exaggeration—there are positives about China’s development and there is a more balanced tale to tell about the opportunities and challenges for Chinese women. But if it makes people think more carefully about why China has such a gender imbalance, or the prevalence of female suicide, or can label them “leftover” if they don’t marry in their 20s, then it is worth the discomfort. It is therefore all the more regrettable that Ma’s books are banned in China.