The Dark Road
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.
keywords: sterilised, dugout, breast milk, family planning squad, date tree, longevity locket, Nuwa Cave.
The infant spirit sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling with fear . . .
Meili rests her hands on her pregnant belly and feels the fetus’s heartbeat thud like a watch beneath a pillow. The heavy banging on the compound gate grows louder, the dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling sways. The family planning officers have come to get me, she says to herself. She raises her feet from the basin of warm water in which they’ve been soaking, hides under her quilt and waits for the gate to be forced open.
This afternoon, as warm sunlight was melting the last patches of snow on the maize bundles in the yard, their neighbour Fang was laying out sesame seeds to dry, her three-week-old baby suckling at her breast, when suddenly four family planning officers stormed in and dragged her off to be sterilised. Fang kicked and howled like a sow being towed to the slaughterhouse. The glutinous rice she’d left soaking in a basin on the ground in preparation for dumplings was overturned, and two mongrel ducks scuttled over to peck at the grains. Eventually they managed to tie her hands together and force her into the open back of their truck. Her white vest was ripped by then, and her shoulders smeared with blood that had fallen from the shaven-headed officer’s nose when she’d kicked him in the face. He was crouching at her feet now, binding her flailing legs with rope and firmly securing her to the metal bars. Trapped from the waist down, Fang leaned over the side and shouted: ‘I damn the eight generations of your ancestors! Have you forgotten that every one of you was nursed by your mother as a child? And now you dare tear a baby from its mother’s breast? May your families produce no sons for nine generations! . . .’ Meili climbed over the wall and scooped Fang’s baby into her arms, and pleaded with a uniformed officer to let Fang go. ‘If she’s sterilised, her milk will run dry. At least wait until her baby’s three months old.’
‘Keep out of this!’ he replied, rubbing his cold red hands together. ‘Haven’t you read the public notice? If a woman is found to be pregnant without authorisation, every household within one hundred metres of her home will be punished. You should have reported her to the authorities before the child was born. As her next-door neighbour, you’ll be fined at least a thousand yuan.’
Meili didn’t recognise the officers, and presumed they’d been drafted in from neighbouring counties. Had she not been afraid that they’d notice her pregnant bulge, she would have run to Fang with a blanket and wrapped it over her shoulders. Instead, she stood rooted to the spot and watched the truck trundle away, Fang jolting up and down at the back, breast milk dripping from her exposed red nipples.
The banging at the gate pauses then starts again. ‘It’s me – Kongzi!’ she hears her husband cry out. ‘Open up!’ Remembering at last that a couple of hours ago she wedged a spade firmly against the gate so that it couldn’t be opened from the outside, she runs out into the yard and lets him in.
Kongzi staggers into the house, his hair wild and his gaze distracted, and paces restlessly about the room. He’s just returned from a Party meeting. ‘The squad of family planning officers that arrived yesterday has been sent from Hexi Town. The village Party office isn’t large enough for their purposes, so they’ve commandeered a classroom in the school and are doing the abortions and sterilisations there. This crackdown will be merciless.’
‘What are we going to do?’ Meili says with fear in her eyes.
‘I don’t know. The officers were clear: any pregnant woman who doesn’t have a birth permit will be given an immediate abortion and a 10,000-yuan fine.’
‘Ten thousand yuan? We couldn’t raise that even if we sold our house. Thank goodness we bought that fake birth permit last month.’
‘It won’t fool them,’ Kongzi says, taking off his glasses and rubbing his face. ‘They’re examining the permits closely this time, checking for fakes.’
‘How many women did they round up today?’ Meili asks, feeling a wave of nausea.
‘Well, there were ten tied up outside the Party office. The school caretaker saw his wife among them, and tried to rescue her. But the family planning officers struck his head with a hammer, took him to the school and locked him up in the kitchen. The old seamstress who lives on Locust Tree Lane tried to hide her pregnant daughter from the squad, and got beaten to death.’
‘They killed her?’ Meili gasps. She strokes her swollen belly and watches Kongzi move around the room, the outer corners of her eyes slanting upwards like outstretched wings. He’s throwing his hands about and groaning. She’s never seen him in such a disturbed state. Abruptly, he slumps down beside her, knocking over the basin of water by her feet. A dark puddle spreads over the concrete floor. Small feathers gather on the surface, resembling flimsy boats on a lake. ‘Why didn’t you clear the basin away?’ Kongzi says, jumping to his feet. ‘Look, my shoes are all wet now.’
‘I was keeping the water for you. Come on. Sit down again.’ Meili fetches the thermos flask, pours more warm water into the basin, then kneels down, takes off Kongzi’s shoes and washes his dirty feet. After drying them in a towel, she mops up the mess on the floor.
‘Classes have been suspended,’ he says. ‘I doubt whether many pupils would have turned up anyway. Some have already been sent to stay with relatives in other counties until the crackdown is over.’
‘Will you still get your salary?’
‘Huh! I haven’t received proper payment for three months. The education bureau was only giving a measly hundred yuan a week, but now it can’t even pay me that. Last week all I got was a small can of diesel and a pad of writing paper. And the county authorities have the nerve to say that this crackdown against family planning violators has been launched to raise money for village schools! Well, you can be sure that our school won’t be receiving any cash.’
Meili looks over to the right and sees her daughter, Nannan, crouched in the corner near a muddled pile of shoes, staring at the wet floor. ‘What are you doing there, Nannan?’ she says. ‘Go back to bed.’
Nannan raises her sleepy eyes to Kongzi. ‘Me want to pee, Daddy.’
‘Go and do it yourself. You’re two years old now. You shouldn’t be afraid of the dark any more.’
Nannan moves grumpily to the front door but can’t turn the handle. Meili pushes it down for her and swings the door open. A cold draught blows in and makes the skin of her belly tighten.
Kongzi shivers and lights a cigarette. On the wall behind him is a huge mosaic mural of green mountains and blue rivers which his friend, a renowned local artist called Old Cao, created for him after Kongzi built this house three years ago. Last year, Old Cao moved to a town fifty kilometres away to live with his son and daughter-in-law, a low-level cadre, in a luxurious apartment block for government employees. On Kongzi’s left, beside the entrance to the kitchen, hangs a scroll of the Confucian text for children, The Three Character Classic, and a framed photograph of Kongzi and Meili, standing in Tiananmen Square during their honeymoon in Beijing. On his right is the doorway that leads to Nannan’s room where, under the bags of fertiliser and pig feed beneath the bed, lies the secret dugout Kongzi made for Meili to hide in once her pregnancy can no longer be concealed.
‘Old Huan, the district family planning chief, was at the meeting,’ Kongzi continues, after taking a deep drag from his cigarette. ‘He said it’s a countywide crackdown. Every high official has been mobilised. The squad officers are under pressure to meet targets. Tomorrow, they want to insert IUDs into every woman in the village who’s had one child.’
‘I won’t let them put one of those metal coils inside me! Yan said hers causes her so much pain, she can’t bend over in the fields.’
‘Yes, and if they did insert one, it might lead to a miscarriage. So, stay indoors tomorrow. If the family planning officers turn up, convince them that you’re not pregnant, then flash the birth permit at them and say you don’t need an IUD because you’ve been authorised to try for a second child. My father’s still well regarded by the Party, so with any luck, they’ll let you off.’
‘But my bulge is definitely noticeable now. And when I was walking through the village yesterday, I had a bout of morning sickness and vomited in the lane. Kong Dufa’s wife passed me and gave me a suspicious glance.’ Meili shines a torch on Nannan, who is still outside, squatting beside the low wall that runs between their house and the home of Kongzi’s parents.
‘You idiot! What if she’s reported you to the police? They pay a hundred yuan for public tip-offs now.’ Seeing Nannan walk in and sidle up to him, he says, ‘Off to bed now, or you’ll catch cold.’
‘My bottom did big pee, Daddy,’ she says, treading over a bundle of cables. ‘Me thirsty.’
Kongzi looks away and flings his hands in the air. ‘Abortions, sterilisations, IUDs! What has this country come to? Confucius said that of the three desertions of filial duty, leaving no male heirs is the worst. Now, two thousand years later, I, his seventy-sixth generation male descendant, am forbidden to perform my sacred duty to bring his seventy-seventh generation male descendant into the world.’
‘I don’t want to be dragged to the school tomorrow,’ Meili says. ‘I’ll hide in the dugout.’
‘The rabbit breeder in Ma Village hid in her secret dugout for two months, but the family planning officers found her yesterday. They pulled her out, took her off to be sterilised and confiscated her three hundred rabbits.’
Meili feels a sickening, rotten taste fill her mouth and her nose, and wonders if it comes from the darkness outside or from the depths of her own body.
‘Look, Daddy, my tummy can go big too!’ Nannan says, lifting her jumper and sticking her belly out.
‘Bed! Now!’ Father shouts.
Nannan bursts into tears and rushes into Mother’s arms. ‘Me hate that daddy,’ she cries. ‘Me want different one!’
Mother carries Nannan to her bed, tucks the quilt around her and brushes out her thin plaits.
Travelling in reverse motion, the infant spirit has retraced Mother and Father’s journey, floating upstream along the watery landscapes down which they drifted for nine years. Now, it has finally reached its place of origin. This is the rightful home of Mother’s second child, whom the infant spirit was assigned to inhabit until it achieved a successful birth.
Only scenes that took place in the darkness are now clearly visible to the infant spirit. It sees shadows tremble, as though stirred by the wind, and hears echoes from the past drift through the now windowless and roofless house, and linger near a patch of mosaic still stuck to a crumbling wall. The yard is pitch black, and empty, apart from a date tree which lies bent over the ground, a few leafless branches rising from its trunk . . . Father said that when he found out that Mother was pregnant for the second time, he planted a date tree in the yard to ensure the child would be a son, and buried a longevity locket in the soil beneath to grant the child a safe birth. Mother said that before the date sapling was planted, she took it to Nuwa Cave and rubbed it across the sacred crevice so that, in years to come, all her children would be born under the tree and receive Goddess Nuwa’s blessing. Father also mentioned that in the secret dugout under Nannan’s bed there is a red lacquer chest containing an ancient edition of Confucius’s Analects and a bound volume of the Kong family register. The red chest is still there, buried now under the smashed bed and the thick rubble of a bulldozed wall. Piercing black eyes of mice glint through the weeds and broken roof tiles above.
In the lane behind, a willow tree rises from a mound of singed cobs like a graceful fairy frozen mid-dance. Further away, beyond a red compound wall, are two small osmanthus trees and the public road that leads out of the village.
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