The Dark Road by Ma Jian

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The Dark Road by Ma Jian

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Caught up against China's one child policy Meili and her husband teacher Kong decide to go on the run rather than lose their second offspring. A damning indictment not only of China's human rights abuses, but also of the West's blind eye to how we're exploiting their willing labour and helping them poison their country. It's also a complicated tale of ordinary people with loves, ambitions, traditions, virtues and sins.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 360 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 9780701187538

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One of my many lovable traits, according to my beloved, is my ability to absolutely insist I haven't read a book before (when he catches me reading it again). This has the huge benefit of my getting to discover it all over again – and the massive downside that I will never get to the end of my reading list, which must exist in some kind of Möbius loop.

The reason I mention this, is because I chose The Dark Road by dint of experiencing the exact opposite. I would have sworn blind that I had read and enjoyed the previous offering Red Dust. It was only when I went to check what I'd said about that one prior to writing up this later offering, that I find no evidence in any of the usual quarters that I've done any such thing.

I can only guess that the reviews were good! And go make good on the lapse.

Meanwhile, to the book at hand.


China worries me. I desperately want to go and see it for myself and have a very long list of reasons not to do so. I condemn their human rights record, but am part of the system that facilitates everything they do. It's interesting that we intervene in nation states where there is objection to the current regime, but no real ground roots desire to replace it with actual democracy, yet in China there is that desire, people die for it, and we stand back.

So China worries me. The concept of it and its place in the world and its concept of itself and our attitude to it, at both state and personal level, all unsettle me. They do so, not least, because I have nowhere to start constructing answers. It is, as the ultimate cop-out says, complicated.

If you have no idea why I am saying any of this, then that is one of the best reasons to pick up The Dark Road. This is modern China. And it couldn't exist as it does but for us in the West existing as we do.

Meili is pregnant. This should be a good and blissful thing to be, even if life in the village is hard. But Meili already has a daughter, and Nannan is only two years old. It will be another three years before Meili (as a peasant) will be allowed to have a second child. Her neighbour Fang has just be dragged off by the family planning officers to be sterilised after an unauthorised birth. Every household within one hundred metres will be fined for not reporting the Fang's pregnancy.

The family planning officers will be back to forcibly install IUDs in every female in the vicinity. Meili is hardly going to be able to keep her pregnancy a secret in those circumstances.

For herself, Meili might even be happy with just one child, but her husband teacher Kong is a direct descent of the sage Confucius and has a filial duty to keep the line going. That's his story anyway. He clearly loves Nannan and would do anything to protect her, but his next child, and there must be a next child, must be a son.

There's nothing for it: they have to leave the village, escape, sail down the Yangze to Sanxia the town's being pulled down for the Three Gorges Dam project. The place is in chaos, so the family planning policies won't be strictly enforced.

So begins a life on the run. Largely on the River.

For the next nine years we follow a couple trying to make a life for themselves in a modern China that won't allow them the simple freedom of being who they are. While we in the west fought long and hard to have the right to choose NOT to have children, the opposite battle is still going on in China. For some women, at least.

The apparent complexity of the argument is neatly encapsulated in Meili. The debate about whether to have more children or not, about whose choice it is, about the pressures that force us to make the choices we make. What always gets lost in these debates is that the argument is about 'the right to choose'.

China's population growth causes concerns in the West (rightly or wrongly) and on the basis of world population growth, I'd be prepared to admit that reducing it would be no bad thing… but giving women options – education, equal business rights, property rights, choice over methods of contraception that work for them, the right to be protected from male pressure and tradition to have children they don't actually want, access to healthcare, economic independence all of the things I take for granted, might go some long way to slowing that growth without draconian policies.

Or are these policies genuinely aimed at reducing population growth. Much of what Meili experiences through her subsequent pregnancies and encounters with authority, and her life with her husband, who proves not to be all she had thought, while they spend a decade evading the law, much of it suggests that the policies or at least the implementation of them, is actually aimed at levying as much revenue as possible. It's never clear whether these funds go into the public purse, or into the pockets of the public officials. Which actually doesn't matter, it's heinous either way.

If this is sounding like something of an anti-China polemic, that's my fault, not Ma Jian's. The Dark Road is a simple tale of a peasant family's wanderings. You can't dissociate it from the politics, because the harsher happenings are a direct result of those and let's face it Ma Jian is a political person – look him up – he intends this to be a political work. But it isn't anti-China. It's more of plea to look at the bits that really aren't working.

At the same time it is also a book that makes you care about the characters. For me: I wanted Meili to succeed. I wanted Kong to have a change of heart, after his darkest deeds. I wanted Nannan to learn to be less selfish. I wanted a happy ending. I even wanted some of the passing characters to return to the stage and become part of that.

It is a book that showcases some of the best of what I (in my western ignorance) perceive as the Chinese character. Can there even be such a thing, given the size of the country? Who knows. But the adaptability of the family to their life on the river, and then again on the riverbank; their make-do-and-mend-or-make-new creativity with found objects; their ability to 'create' a family of the people they wash up against to replace those they've had to abandon; their eons old traditions rooted in wisdom (albeit not always acceptable in detail); their stoicism and their ambition: all of these shine through.

And it's a book that showcases the worst in action. Anything you have ever read about state control and abuse of power in any civilisation at any time, it is all here.

I rooted for these people throughout but suffusing all of it were two overwhelming reactions to what I was reading.

The first was subtle. It was mediaeval. All of this is ancient history. Or, ok, maybe not ancient, but Maoist, cultural revolution stuff. To the extent that whenever something rocked up that smacked me in the face with modernity (the internet, mobile phones, pink puffa jackets and sparkly sandals) I was shocked.

Which led to the second: an overwhelming questioning of How real is this? How true is this? Is this really happening?

Ma Jian was born in Qindao in 1953. His books have been permanently banned in China. He currently lives in London with Flora Drew (who deserves much credit for what feels like an empathetic translation) and their four children, but in researching this novel, he travelled through the backwaters of central and southern China. Posing as an official reporter, he visited family planning offices and hospitals where forced abortions and sterilisations are carried out. He later adopted the guise of an itinerant worker and lived among fugitives of the One Child Policy who scrape a living on the Yangtze River and the vast waste sites of Guangdong.

The credentials seem genuine. We know we're shipping our defunct or unfashionable electronics to China and India to be dismantled by hand by people risking their health and barely scraping a living doing it. It seems in a broad sense very 'true'.

But it wouldn't be authentically Chinese would it, if we didn't have a few spirits floating about, and a few unbelievable inexplicable unrealities. I'm no fan of magical realism (to put it mildly). I could live with the Infant Spirit that haunts Meili. I can see a place for that strand of the story that, my personal preferences aside, does add a subtle something to the narrative. But, whilst trying not to give anything away, I have to say that the last section of the book strayed too far into that territory for my personal taste. I wanted a more explicitly rational and mundane outplay of the events.

I've no doubt that for some that finale will work brilliantly. For me, it was the weakest part of the whole performance.

Even so, I urge you to read this book. And to think about what we're all doing to this planet and to each other and to ourselves.

It might be a story book. Or it might just be a call to – not arms, maybe – but certainly action.

So the final question I'm left with is: what do I do now?

For a gentler take on modern China try Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop or for the political backdrop you could start with The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer

Buy The Dark Road by Ma Jian at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Dark Road by Ma Jian at

Buy The Dark Road by Ma Jian at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Dark Road by Ma Jian at


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