‘The Dark Road’: Ma Jian’s journey into the terrible heart of the Chinese economic miracle

‘The Dark Road’: Ma Jian’s journey into the terrible heart of the Chinese economic miracle

China one child

Ma Jian has long been a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities. His novels – including Beijing Coma, about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and Red Dust, an account of three years of hard travelling through China’s most remote provinces one step ahead of the police – have all been banned in his home country, from which he is now exiled.

Last week I finished reading his most recent novel, The Dark Road. If you seek a dark and disturbing read, this is it: a devastating expose of the social and psychological impact of China’s one child policy that tears away the veil obscuring the brutalisation and oppression of women under the policy.  The novel is also a vivid portrayal and powerful critique of the human and environmental costs of the extraction of toxic materials from electronic waste (such as discarded mobile phones and computers) exported from the West and worked on by impoverished migrant labourers and their children in China.

Writers, Ma Jian has said, should be the witnesses of their generation: ‘What totalitarian governments most want to destroy or erase, those are the facts that are the most important to write about.’  In pursuit of this duty, Ma Jian researched The Dark Road entering  China posing as an official reporter and living as a vagrant among the fugitives from China’s one-child policy.  He gathered  accounts of, and sometimes witnessed, the horrors that he describes vividly in the novel – forced sterilisations, and brutal abortions carried out in makeshift clinics, often at late stages in pregnancy.  In an interview for Foyles Bookshop he explained:

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.

Ma Jian

Ma Jian

Like the earlier Red Dust, this novel takes the form of a journey through China as we follow Meili, a young peasant woman pregnant with her second child, and her husband Kongzi, a village schoolteacher and distant descendent of Confucius, as they drift down the Yangtze River with their daughter Nannan in a bid to stay one step ahead of the authorities.  They are seeking their own utopia –  ‘the one place in China where you can live in complete freedom’ – Heaven Township, where no-one checks how many children you have and it’s almost impossible to get pregnant because the of the toxic chemicals that pollute the air and water of the town, killing men’s sperm. They join other ‘family-planning fugitives’ in rickety boats and makeshift waterside shelters as they journey  down the ‘dark road’ of the Yangtze river.

In the first of many distressing scenes, the authorities catch up with the fugitives, seizing Meili on board the boat from which the couple have made a flimsy home:

A man in black sunglasses steps aboard. ‘Any woman pregnant without authorisation is both violating the family planning laws and endangering the economic development of our nation,’ he says. ‘You think you can turn up here and breed as you wish? This is the Three Gorges Dam Project Special Economic Zone, don’t you know?’
‘If  you cooperate with us, you won’t have to pay the fine,’ another man says. ‘But if you resist, we’ll get your village Party Secretary to arrest every member of your family.’

The fat man drops his empty can into the river. ‘We’ve been ordered to terminate every illegal pregnancy we discover. if we let any woman off, our salaries will be docked.’

A female officer steps forward. ‘Humanity?’ she sneers. ‘If your baby turns out to be a girl, you’ll throw her into the river, so don’t talk to me about humanity! You migrant workers travel around the country, dumping baby girls ” you go. You’re the ones who have no shame! You think we wanted to come here and deal with you squalid boat people? No, the higher authorities sent us here because of all the filth that’s been washing up downstream.’

Meili remembers the dead baby she saw floating past the other day, and suspects that this is what the woman is referring to. She wishes she could sink into the water and swim away.

What follows is a horrendous scene, described through the conciousness of the ‘infant spirit’ of this and later pregnancies of Meili, a device which Jian uses to comment on her plight as she navigates a nightmare course through forced abortions, baby-trading, child trafficking, abduction and corruption. These passages are identified in the book by bold script that alerts the reader that this is the voice of an infant spirit observes events:

The infant spirit watches Mother being tied to the steel surgical table all those years ago, her hands bound in plastic and hemp ropes, her pale, exposed bulge resembling a pig on a butcher’s table. A man in a white coat rubs his nose, then plucks Mother’s knicker elastic and watches her flinch. ‘Give her another shot, to be safe,’ he says.

‘Don’t kill my baby, don’t kill my -‘ Mother splutters, white foam bubbling from her mouth. But the man slides his hands beneath Mother’s bottom and pulls off her knickers. ‘Hooligan! ‘ Mother weeps. If my baby dies, its spirit will haunt you for eternity.’ She tries to spit the foam covering her mouth onto his face, but it rises only slightly then falls back on her lips.
The man begins to prod Mother’s belly.

‘Don’t do it, I beg you . . .’ she moans. ‘Let me keep this child ‘I won’t have another, I promise . . . It’s a Chinese citizen. It has a right to live . . .’

The man is handed a second syringe with a much longer needle. He inserts the tip into Mother’s belly and pushes it all the way in.

‘Stop, stop! Don’t hurt my baby…’

The infant spirit observes its first incarnation writhe and squirm as the long needle enters its head.  When the cold, astringent liquid is released into the brain, the spirit sees the cells shiver and contract, and the foetus flail about in the amniotic fluid, pounding Mother’s warm, uterine walls, then gradually grow weaker and weaker until all that moves is its quivering spine.

At the conclusion of this horrific scene, a weak and bleeding Meili, foetus dying in front of her, is informed that she has been given a half-price discount on the fees that the compulsory abortion would cost. Satire doesn’t come any bleaker.

Kongzi, Meili’s husband, a proud direct descendant of Confucius, rages:

If a panda gets pregnant, the entire nation celebrates, but if a woman gets pregnant she’s treated like a criminal. What kind of country is this?

For Ma Jian, it is Meili the peasant woman who is the heroine of his novel – resilient, determined to grab opportunities in a rapidly-modernising China, while her patriarchal spouse looks backward to a past in which everyone knew their allotted place in society. Meili represents the situation in which a woman’s body has become a battle zone over which husbands and the state fight for control. The most successful scenes in the novel are those in which Jian portrays her dignity as she attempts to evade the forces of the state whilst also resisting the intimate domestic oppression of Kongzi. As the novel continues, Meili becomes a symbol of the strength of the individual faced with harsh and oppressive circumstances.

.A worker rummages through electronic waste for the purpose of salvaging metals and other materials

A worker salvages precious metals from electronic waste in Guiyu (the model for Heaven Township)

A young girl disassembles computer CD drives. Early exposure to heavy metals produces a disproportionate rate of infant mortality and unusually low IQs among Guiyu’s children.

In a home workshop a child disassembles computer CD drives. Early exposure to heavy metals produces a disproportionate rate of infant mortality and unusually low IQs among Guiyu’s children.

For me, the scenes that worked particularly well in The Dark Road were those that described the nirvana of Heaven Township, where the air, water and land is heavily polluted by toxic poisons released by the recycling in Dickensian home workshops of cast-off computers and mobile phones from the UK and other western countries. In a series of passages, Ma Jian conjures up a nightmarish vision:

A worker shuffles into the room, takes the empty circuit boards into the yard and dunks them into basins of sulphuric acid to retrieve any remaining scraps of gold. Immediately, acrid vapours drift into the workshop causing everyone’s eyes and throat to burn. As dusk approaches, all the machines and bamboo baskets of sorted components are dragged back into the workshop and stacked up into tall piles. Meili sorts the red, white, blue, black, green and grey plastic casings at her feet into separate hemp sacks, then goes to help Old Shao label some white boxes.

At this time every evening, in the final minutes before they clock off, the women at the metal table stop chatting and concentrate on their work, their hands darting back and forth, tweezing out tiny square, circular, two-pronged, three-pronged components as though they were plucking feathers from a duck. Through the haze of blue fumes, the hot circuit boards in their hands look like miniature demolition sites.

In the interview for Foyles, Jian spoke about the significance for the novel of his portrayal of Heaven Township:

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.

Ma Jian researched everything he records in The Dark Road first-hand, and this gives the book a documentary feel.  The nearest western equivalents to Jian’s determination to reveal the reality of (in his words) ‘a country that has lost its conscience’ might be Dickens or Orwell.  Jian reveals the one-child policy to be  nothing more than a money-making scam, just like digital-scrap business. The state earns huge revenues from fines, employing hordes of bureaucrats to enforce the policy.  Central to Ma Jian’s novel is his belief that the policy also represents a means by which the Chinese state asserts its power and retains  its control over individuals. After Meili’s fourth pregnancy and the couple’s arrival in the fields of electronic waste and deadly pollution that constitute Heaven Township, the infant spirit resists being born into such a hostile terrain.   Meili remains pregnant for five years.

Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953. He worked as a watch-mender’s apprentice, a painter of propaganda boards, and a photojournalist. At the age of thirty, he left his job and travelled for three years across China. In 1987 he published his first novel, Stick Out Your Tongue, which prompted the Chinese government to ban his work. Ma Jian left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987 as a dissident, but continued to travel incognito in China, He supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the handover of Hong Kong he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives with his partner and translator Flora Drew.

In the Foyles interviw, Ma Jian was asked whether the bleak portrayal of down-trodden Chinese suggested there was no escape for them.  He replied:

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.


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.

The Dark Road is a tough read, but one that opens your eyes to the sordid reality behind that underpins China’s rapid economic development.  It is, I think, a less impressive novel than either Red Dust or Beijing Coma – but an important work, nevertheless, that takes the western reader on a journey into the terrible heart of the Chinese economic miracle.  What happens to my computer or mobile phone when I discard it for the latest model?  Now I know.

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