China’s Dark Road

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 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. The family escapes, but this is just the start of the state’s pursuit of domination over Meili’s body.

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 the pressure of his obligation to continue the illustrious family line. 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. Unsurprisingly, Meili feels the pressure to produce an heir even more keenly 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 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’ 天道. 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 and Kongzi flee Kong village for a life in exile. They seek 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 knockdown 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 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 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 carries on 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 an extreme gender imbalance, or a prevalence of female suicide, or why women are useless and “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.

Mobile phones, migrants and becoming modern

Cara Wallis’ ethnographic study of young migrant women working in Beijing’s restaurants, beauty parlours and markets is an exploration of the cultural, social, aesthetic and economic dimensions of mobile phone use. This gripping study demonstrates how mobile phones have become a key component in the constitution of selfhood, friendship and group solidarity, to the point that they represent “an anchoring and inclusion in networks of sociality and modes of self-transformation that are crucial to their well being in the city” (p. 184). The book speaks to the broader processes of globalization, migration, marketization and informatization that have been key components of the reform era, and illuminate the role of technology in China’s neoliberal project where individual merit, material wealth and consumption have become hallmarks of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

The ‘quality’ (suzhi) and ‘civilization’ (wenming) of the Chinese people has been seen as central to development since the beginning of China’s encounter with western modernity. The main target is the lagging countryside from where the dagongmei of Wallis’ study hail. The term dagongmei invokes rural, low class, callow and temporary, a classification that concretizes their liminality in the city. In the civilizing narrative (in which Wallis rightly identifies a form of neoliberal governmentality), low paid employment in the city is framed as an opportunity for migrants to receive a social education, become more cultured, and learn the desired ways of urban modernity. Learning to use technology is closely implicated in the accompanying discourse about self-improvement through the acquisition of technological, linguistic and ‘civilizing’ skills. Wallis shows how migrant women internalize, enact and reproduce this duty via the mobile phone (p. 12), in accordance with the idea of self-improvement as a patriotic act and the “stringent regulatory practices” that prevail on their appearance, gestures and speech (cf Sandra Bartky’s ‘disciplinary practices of femininity’). For these migrant women a mobile phone is an important symbol of the urban modernity they desire and are expected to strive for.

Rural-to-urban migrants tend to work long hours, have limited time off and usually lead highly circumscribed social lives. Removed from a familiar social world many face alienation in the city. Mobile phones help overcome this dislocation by allowing migrants to establish and navigate social networks, engage in forms of entertainment and participate in consumer culture. A cell phone represents agency to control personal resources and enhance feelings of self-worth amid what is for many a humdrum existence punctuated by discrimination and loneliness. The phone is a lifeline to loved ones ‘left behind’ in the countryside and Wallis finds that many women developed and maintained friendships entirely through their mobile phones via cheap text messaging, QQ instant messaging and digital gift giving. Camera phones are a “tool of empowerment and form of hope because they allow migrant women in some manner to rework the constraints of their lives” (p. 142). But it is not all rosy. Social networking replicates class and cultural conditions and having a mobile phone does not confer social mobility. Although there is the potential for resistance on an individual (e.g. defying bosses’ bans on bringing a phone to work) and collective basis (e.g. the organization of factory based protests), mobiles can also be used by bosses as a tool for surveillance, control and discipline. The visceral recollections of migrants who’s prized possession has been impounded testify to the psychological importance (and thus vulnerability) of ownership.

Given the psychological and practical importance of a mobile phone, it is not surprising that migrant workers dedicate a substantial proportion of their financial resources to buying one. For migrants, buying a mobile phone is nothing to do with fashion or mindless materialism. In Wallis’ study, every interviewee described the mobile phone as “the first big urban purchase” (p. 73) entailing serious decision-making and sacrifices, to the extent that every informant could recall the exact date, time and place of the purchase, how long it took to save up the money and even who accompanied them to buy it. As Jack Qiu has described in his ground-breaking work on the “working class network society”, the motivations and behaviours of this sector attest to the importance to technology, contrary to the dominant association of technology with young, well-off urban consumers. Migrants attach “deep emotions and longings for modernity” (p. 78) to the mobile phone, in a discursive context in which modernity, technology and consumerism are determinants of ‘quality’. The quest for ‘quality’ is an individual duty for the good of the entire nation and, for migrants, a mobile phone is a manifestation of their ‘quality’ produced by economic capital from labour. Ulitmately, Wallis concludes that “the ways that the mobile phone is articulated to young migrant women’s desire for self-development and self-improvement reveal how the party state’s modernization goals have become deeply internalized in the mind and bodies of China’s citizens” (p. 180).

Cara Wallis, Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones, New York: New York University Press, 2013. 264 pp. ISBN: 9780814795262

This post first appeared on the EU-funded academic website, where I am Editor of the Contemporary China section.