Jonathan Mirsky

The Dark Road, by Ma Jian - review

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The Dark Road

Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

Chatto, pp. 260, £

If you are considering adopting — that is, buying — a Chinese baby girl, recycling a television or computer, or buying a Vuiton bag, think again. Ma Jian, author of the startling Beijing Coma, prepared for this evocative and sometimes horrifying novel by travelling through Chinese regions few tourists see. There he encountered some of the millions of women who had just given birth to babies declared illegal by the one-child family laws, which were taken away and sold by corrupt officials to rich foreigners eager to adopt. He saw, too, the effects on the poor migrants who disassemble our unwanted televisions and computers and poison themselves by handling the toxic parts. And he saw the shops manufacturing fake Western luxury goods and pasting ‘Made in France’ labels on them.

But this is a novel, set about the year 2000 and eloquently translated by Flora Drew, and there is much to learn about China from the story of Meili and her husband Kongzi, the 76th descendant of Confucius, on the run with their daughter to save their next child from the state’s baby-snatchers. On land and by boat they head for a town called Heaven where, they mistakenly believe, the authorities don’t care about women giving birth to an illegal second child.

Meili is a poor peasant with movie-star looks. She dreams of being rich, with chic western clothes, jewellery and hairstyle, and a glamorous job as a hotel receptionist or part of a girls’ singing group. She tries to be a good wife to Kongzi who above all wants a male heir, the 77th heir to Confucius and a credit to the family. But along the dark road Meili becomes a thinker. ‘Men control our vaginas; the State controls our wombs. You can try to lock up your body, but the government still holds the key.’ Even her chauvinist husband admits, ‘Not even the most evil emperor in China’s history would have contemplated developing the economy by massacring unborn children. But today’s tyrants murder millions of babies a year without batting an eyelid.’ (A Sinological note: the one-child family policy is now on the verge of being revoked, having damaged the economy for years by reducing the number of potential young workers.)

But Kongzi also kidnaps their newborn second daughter and gives her away, either for adoption abroad, or to have her limbs broken so she can be sold, handicapped, to a begging racket. Once innocent and trusting, Meili learns to stop at nothing. The boss of a detention centre, where she is briefly confined, rapes her. After he falls asleep she sets him on fire and escapes. She tries anything to make money: she runs a shop that sells fashionable fakes; she raises ducklings; with her excellent voice she hires herself out to sing dirges at funerals, a skill she learned from her grandmother. And finally, with a foetus that lurks in her womb for five years and is unwilling to be born — this novel has a convincing surreal side — she takes apart for resale the electronic goods we recycle to China.

This is what happens in the town of Heaven where Meili and Kongzi have wound up. Once a sleepy place in south China, its economy took off when an entrepreneurial family began selling

waste plastic and metal to a local toy factory, and hired migrant labour to help out. Today, the front doors of every house are surrounded not by bales of wheat, but bundles of electric cables, circuit boards and transformers. Heaven has been transformed from a quiet backwater into a prosperous, waste-choked town.

And here is what Meili picks up from the internet that she has struggled to learn to read:

Eighty-eight per cent of Heaven residents suffer from skin, respiratory, neurological or digestive diseases. Levels of lead poisoning and leukaemia among children are six times higher than the national average. Heaven Township had become a digital-waste hell, a toxic graveyard of the world’s electronic waste.

(Second Sino-note: I have been to such towns and seen elderly women sitting in piles of electronic waste, pulling it apart, and coughing their lungs out.)

Into this waste-hell, Meili’s five-year-old foetus is reluctantly born. Dark green, it is the boy Kongzi has longed for. He carries the 77th descendant of Confucius ‘across corroded circuit boards...graphic cards stripped of their memory chips, and over the copper and silver shells of mobile phones’.Truly, the Valley of Death.