About The Author
Exiled Chinese author Ma Jian has an astounding body of work that unflinchingly documents the compromises to human rights that have come to characterise certain pockets of his society post its "Cultural Revolution". Most notably, 2008's Beijing Coma, which examines a student's shooting at the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and the personal politics that beset it, is an incredibly astute novel that fearlessly details events still oppressed by the Communist government. In doing so, he deftly reveals the rotting underbelly of New-China, now concealed by the exaggerated perceptions of it's own prosperity.
Based upon his own experiences and extensive research, the books in his oeuvre should be listed among the most judicious and memorable of his time. In his own words, "writers should be the witnesses of their generation, they should deal with the most pressing issues of their day. What totalitarian governments most want to destroy or erase, those are the facts that are the most important to write about". Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novels of this political dissident have been banned in his homeland for 25 years and since 2011 he has been banned from entry into China for apparently unexplained reasons.
For his new novel, the extraordinarily disturbing and hope-bludgeoning, The Dark Road - a critique of the one child policy still fixed in place in China - the author took to the peasant waterways of the Yangtze River to research the plight of the women controlled by the state and the inescapably grim-fate of the floating diaspora to which they belong - a people ostensibly exiled within their own country and who contribute to over a third of its population.
We follow Meili, a woman pregnant for the second time and her husband Kongzi a direct descendant of Confucius, desperate for a son to carry on the family name. The couple must flee from their home village with daughter Nannan in-tow, due to an invasion of family planning officers, and who migrate to the festering river networks of China in a nine year journey during which Meili is hounded by an abominable series of state-backed horrors. This cruel odyssey concludes in Heaven Township, a riverside community thriving from the injection of Western technologies and its consequent waste but ultimately compromised by this fact.
The Dark Road not only exposes the ravaged undercore of the country and the ongoing abuse of the peasant population but also studies their growing connection to the Western influence and how this has compounded the violation of their lives.
Through his literary translator and partner, Flora Drew, Ma Jian spoke to us about the smothering of love in China, the ownership and invasion of female bodies in the republic and finally the small possibility of change and mercy towards its women.
Questions & Answers
There's obviously a touch of fantasy towards the end of the book when Meili is pregnant for five years but the more brutal and callous acts in the novel appear to be based in reality. To what extent were you using parable to get your damning message across?
I wanted to explore the dangerous relationship between society and the foetus. The foetus knows how dangerous it will be for it to come out into the world, so instinctively it stays inside the mother. But also for the mother, it's dangerous to hold the foetus inside her. This situation brings all the danger and precariousness of their situation to the extreme. But as I was writing, I never asked myself which parts of these were real and which were fantasy. I had already created my own universe that followed its own rules.
Tell me about your research. Some of the more shocking scenes, in particular, the invasion of the women's bodies and the treatment of foetuses are pretty shocking. Were these horrors that you saw first hand?
Before I write a book I need to travel, I need to go to the places that I write about, so for this book I went on a long journey, I visited the counties where riots against the one child policy broke out in 2007 and I also travelled down rivers and spent time with the families who had escaped the authorities in order to have as many children they wanted. So I spoke to these pregnant women and learnt stories that I could never have imagined myself. I visited unofficial back street clinics and although I didn't see any of these abortions take place, just looking at the primitive surroundings I could imagine what dreadful procedures these would be.
Kongzi obviously cares for Meili but often disregards her needs in his obsessive quest for a son. Is this a climate that has nurtured the death of romantic love?
I wanted to convey the feeling that this was a failure not only of love and the family unit but also the failure of society as a a whole.
You also say in the book 'love is the beginning of all pain'. Are you suggesting there is no place for love left in Chinese society?
This book is about birth and motherhood and the family unit and my feeling is this is a sacred unit. It's a private sphere and a place in which the government shouldn't intrude. So as soon as the government interferes in this and puts a lock on a woman's womb or tries to intrude to on personal relationships then that makes love impossible.
The family planning system has been in place now for thirty years and it has made the family an object of state planning and has removed all the sense of romance and wonder from relationships. The aim of the government is control and the object of the control is the woman's body, whether its to insert IUDs or cut off Fallopian tubes there is no woman's body who is being left intact in China.
When Meili manages to turn her life around she is sucked back into the mire because of Nannan's disappearance. Are you suggesting there no escape for these downtrodden people despite their aspirations?
China has undergone huge social changes. One of these is the rise of women, they are the ones who have been pushing this economic miracle, who are leaving home and working in the factories of Shenzhen. Meili is one of these women. She aspires to have a better life, she wants freedom from the state but also her husband. Kungzi represents patriarchal society that's trying to hold women back. Meili (achieves) some level of independence but when Nannan disappears its then that she realises just how dangerous it is to be a woman in China. The ten years of the book that follows Meili's life are like an elastic band that's she's pushing forward and forward and she stretches to its limit and at the end it snaps and she bounces back and she returns to this level of hopelessness.
You repeat at different times in the book that 'your womb belongs to the state'. Do you think there'll ever be a time where women can gain independence from family planning?
A far as I see it, the family planning system is integral to the totalitarian state. However much there is discussion for the need to get rid of it the government will be very unwilling to relinquish control. But there is also fear in the government. Family planning has now become a state secret. The records are not open to public access. So the government knows there is a dark side that needs to be hidden. They also know that in fact the whole premise of the this population policy is flawed. The experts now believe that (because of) the current economic developments the birthrate has decreased drastically and this would have happened without their doom laden projections of a population catastrophe. Now the problem is that the birthrate is actually too low.
Up until the time they reach Heaven Township, there was a timelessness about the novel. Are you trying to suggest that this peasant population, are suspended in a time separate from the development of New-China?
The first half of the book describes the journey that this family take along the rivers, there is sense of continual flow, of rootlessness. It's a journey through the channels of a women's body. When they arrive at Heaven its as though they've arrived in the womb and there it is much more fixed in time, there is a feeling that is about gestation, about growth. They are like water reeds flowing in the current of the rivers. When I was in Guangxi by the rivers and living among these boat communities, Shanghai and Beijing seemed a million miles away, you could have been anywhere. It didn't even feel particularly like China, it didn't feel like the 21st century, there was a feeling of timelessness there. The only traces of the modern world you can see in these places is the trash they're surrounded by.
With the introduction of western society through the internet and capitalism, the beauty of the Chinese villages are destroyed. Is this a sacrifice you're suggesting has to be made? Can China only prosper through destroying its past?
What strikes me about the modern world is that in the West people just tend to look at the face. When Apple launches a new product we see its beautiful face but we blind ourselves to waste that this creates and in fact in places like China people's relationship to the trash is getting closer and closer. They are in fact living among it. In inconceivable to most people the levels of apocalyptic filth that people live. When I went to these wastelands, life was no different than death. In these towns of electronic waste everything was toxic, even the water had to be shipped in from elsewhere. After I took a shower my whole body smelt of burnt plastic.
This is a book about being exiled. Confucius was exiled in his own country. Meili and Kongzi are exiled on the river. Were these elements that you focused more so upon in light of your personal exile?
Yes, the feeling if exile has always been very close to me. Up until two years ago I had been able to return to China, it's just that none of my books had been able to have been published there. In this last year and a half, since I've been banned from returning, my understanding of the predicament of outcasts in China and the fate of Confucius - and the fate of the many who are persecuted in China - is something I feel even more strongly (about).
Was it as a consequence of your research for this book that you've been exiled?
I wasn't given a reason and one can never know the real reason. They don't really care what I say in the West but if there's any chance that my books may be read in China that's when (they get scared). Now on the Chinese Internet they have wiped out all references to (my work).
The Chinese government deny the Tiananmen Massacre. Do you see it as you duty to make sure the truth doesn't get written out of history? Beijing Coma (2008) is almost like a document, a history lesson.
As far as they're concerned the Tiananmen Massacre never happened, they might say that it was unrest but they would never say it was a massacre. Until now they will deny there were any civilian deaths.
Do you think as China assert themselves as a superpower, the international community is turning a blind eye to this wide-scale slavery and genocide?
It is the nature of capitalist societies, their priority is to be making money. Right now the West are benefiting from China so they will try to uphold the system. But as soon as they don't benefit from it they will swap sides, they will join those who have been outcast and oppressed and that's when perhaps changes will happen.