The Dark Road by Ma Jian

Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs. You can try to lock up your body, but the government still owns the key. That’s just woman’s fate.” p. 29

Meili and Kongzi are a couple whose home has been destroyed by the family planning officers who enforce China’s One Child Policy. Now they must live by their wits, feeling lucky to be able to afford a houseboat on which they live ensconced by the filthy Yangtze River. It is filled with trash, and corpses, and pollution, but this is still the water they boil to drink. The water they use to wash. The water which will hopefully carry them to a better life.

Their journey is fraught with despair, filled with fear and filth. While Meili longs to wear high heeled sandals and work in an air-conditioned office, her husband longs for a son who will be the seventy-seventh descendant of his line from Confucius. Once he was a teacher, now he, his wife and his four year old daughter are fugitives hoping for a brighter day as they travel the dark road.

As a member of the shadow jury for the IFFP, I rate this book 5 out 10 for writing, 6 out of 10 for story and 6 out of 10 for longevity. It is a heartbreaking story which, as I commented to Stu, left me simultaneously grateful and guilty for the life I have in America.

21 thoughts on “The Dark Road by Ma Jian”

  1. It's an early one which quite encapsulates the book. Sadly, there's quite a theme of female body parts, not to mention rape and abortion. Quite heavy themes to absorb.


  2. That quote alone intrigued me! Sounds like quite a heartbreaking read. Makes me think you should read Susan Minot's Thirty Girls – about the kidnapping of children in Uganda. Just finished reading it and I am spent. Great post, Bellezza! As always, you make me write down another title to add to my already long TBR list 🙂


  3. It is a read I won't soon forget. The trials that Meili endured are beyond imagining. I normally don't read books of such woe, and yet I think by not doing so I'm hiding away in a corner somewhere unaware of the affliction suffered by so many. Uganda I don't know if I could handle, either!


  4. Sorry, Suko, I should have written out Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. You'll see if you go a few posts down. It's the best reading I've done in quite some time


  5. Ma Jian is high on my to be read list. I'm aware of this novel and have been wanting to read it since it came out. It's good to see that the one child policy is starting to be loosened. The flip side of this story is the numerous scandals of rich Chinese being able to exploit the law, while poorer Chinese, like the characters in this novel, must suffer.


  6. I think this could do well – it's a very IFFP book, with the issues it deals with. My review will be out next week, and I suspect the judges will be quite taken with this one…


  7. I was taken by surprise to learn of such horrors going on in China. I did not know about the family planning officers coming in, grabbing women which had been discovered or reported, and forcing them to have abortions. Some, many, abortions occurred as late as 8 months. Also, there were families which deliberately harmed their children, deforming them so that the children could become beggars and “make the family rich”. There are even more horrors I won't go into here, needless to say, this was an extraordinary novel in terms of opening my eyes to another culture. Another point of view. I won't ever forget it.


  8. I am seeing such a theme with the IFFP long list, namely that the books lean quite heavily toward a dark side. Of course, life is not all cheerful and bright, nor do I think literature should reflect only that. But, there is a bleakness to the books I've been reading which makes me so aware of the plight under which many suffer. Looking forward to your review, Tony, especially as you suspect we'll be quite taken with it.


  9. It truly is astounding how vastly different and easy life here is compared to so many places elsewhere. And you're right, I feel the same, how we can be so grateful for what we have and also guilty. It's a double-edged sword. I left a poor and corrupt country to protect my children so they wouldn't have to live difficult lives, but then all I ever wanted afterwards was to make them experience it so they can see how blessed they are and now I want to go back just to be able to help others, but then I have little children still to look after who are my first priority. In the end, it amounts to how helpless we all are. And to think that things we read about in books do happen in real life somewhere, and in many cases real life events are even worse than fiction.


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