Ma Jian’s new novel, The Dark Road, also serves as an indictment of the Chinese government and the crimes it has committed in the name of modernisation. Its principal target is the one-child policy, imposed in 1978 and still officially in effect, which has led to mass campaigns of forced sterilisation and abortion, as well as infanticide and child trafficking. But Ma also widens his case to confront the enormous amounts of electronic waste pollution; the destruction wreaked by the Three Gorges Dam project; the urban sex trade in which thousands of women from the peasantry have become indentured; and even, in passing, the government’s attempted cover-up of the Sars epidemic. Each of these topics on its own would be enough to alert China’s censors. But Ma has the liberty to write about them because his books have been banned in China since the publication of his first novel, Stick Out Your Tongue, in 1987.
In the early 1980s, Ma was one of the ‘questionable youths’ in Beijing’s bohemian underground of independent artists’ collectives and literary journals. His house, he writes in the travel memoir Red Dust (2001), was a meeting place for ‘writers, painters, poets, dissidents and hangers-on’. When he turned thirty, fed up with his job as a photographer for China’s trade unions and suspected by his employers of ‘spiritual pollution’, he travelled to the Tibetan plateau, and when he came back published Stick Out Your Tongue, a sequence of bleakly naturalistic sketches. In his Tiananmen Square novel Beijing Coma (2008) he speaks of the reprisals against his book as a turning point:
A few days later, the People’s Literature magazine published Stick Out Your Tongue, an avant-garde novella by a writer called Ma Jian. The Central Propaganda Department denounced it as nihilistic and decadent, and ordered all copies to be destroyed, then proceeded to launch a national campaign against bourgeois liberalism. The hardliners in the party were fighting back. They wanted a more open economy, but not the demands for political and cultural freedoms that it inspired. The brief period of tolerance had come to an end. It felt as though China had been put back ten years.
Stick Out Your Tongue is still very much Ma’s best book. Though his travels began as a naive, Kerouac-like quest for enlightenment, he found that most Tibetans treated him with contempt or indifference. Tibet in the novel is barren and impoverished; its inhabitants sullenly resist Chinese occupation by clinging to ancient practices. The narrator is both aloof and complicit. He alternates between being guiltily appalled by the tales he recounts and luridly voyeuristic whenever women and sex are involved. In a chapter called ‘The Woman and the Blue Sky’, he witnesses the ritual flaying of the corpse of a woman who died during childbirth. With an unnerving mixture of fascination and disgust, he takes part in the ceremony:
The morning sun flooded the burial site with light. The younger brother shooed away the approaching vultures with pieces of Myima’s body. I picked up the axe, grabbed a severed hand, ran the blade down the palm and threw a thumb to the vultures. The younger brother smiled, took the hand from me and placed it on a rock, then pounded the remaining four fingers flat and threw them to the birds.
The book was denounced as a work of ‘pornography’ that failed to represent the progress Tibetans had made under Chinese rule. But though its political subtext is unmistakable, its eerie power derives from the narrator’s unmasking. He discovers that the misogyny and violence he observes in Tibet mirror his own darkest urges.
Ma moved to Hong Kong and then, after the handover, to Germany and now lives in London. If one principle informs his fiction, it’s the desire to get around the party propaganda machine and show the country, as he puts it in Red Dust, ‘as it really is’. But beyond that, a certain stylistic nomadism has marked the writing of his exile, a quality that reflects Ma’s uncertain knowledge of who he’s writing for.
The Noodle Maker, from 1991, is a satire of contemporary Chinese mores that makes a motto of one character’s assertion that ‘the absurd is more real than life itself.’ Broadly in the vein of works by Eastern Bloc dissidents like Josef Skvorecky and Vladimir Voinovich, it tells of a man who’s found success as a professional blood donor and a three-legged dog that sententiously lectures humans on their bestial behaviour, among other absurd figures. Because its arguments tend to be veiled behind caricature, it’s the sort of book that China often allows to be published. (Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars, just as smutty and caustic a satire, was a runaway hit on the mainland in the 1990s.)
Ma in fact submitted The Noodle Maker for publication in China, using a pseudonym. The censors edited it and it was accepted for publication but then the authorities discovered that Ma was the author and had it pulped. China’s censors have refined their measures in recent decades, keeping the rules usefully ambiguous and preferring to wield the soft power of editorial negotiation rather than resort to headline-grabbing arrests or expulsions. Had Ma’s work not first appeared during a particularly reactionary period it’s likely he would have been allowed to publish for a Chinese readership, and his fiction might look much more like that of Zhu Wen and Mo Yan – writers he has criticised for failing to show solidarity with exiled or imprisoned intellectuals.
Beijing Coma, unlike The Noodle Maker, seems to have been written for an exclusively Western audience. Although it contains a touch of fantasy – it’s told from the point of view of a man who fell into a coma after being shot in the head during the Tiananmen Square protests – the novel is a rather plodding work of documentary realism. The characters speak in history lessons and the story walks step by step from the coalescence of dissident groups in the 1980s to the Tiananmen massacres and finally to the devastating government backlash that followed the uprising (Ma even works in the persecution of the Falun Gong). There was never any chance that the book would make it into print in China outside the black market – even if Ma were not banned, depictions of Tiananmen Square remain strictly off limits – and this is very much the point. Ma organised demonstrations when the book was published outside China and wrote editorials designed to cause maximum embarrassment while the country was on a charm offensive before the 2008 Olympics. He had embraced the role of the protest novelist, in which writing and public dissent serve the same end.
The Dark Road is written in the same spirit, constructed from testimony Ma collected from the peasantry as he travelled inside China posing as an itinerant labourer. (He was allowed to travel in mainland China until 2011, when he was prevented from crossing the border in Hong Kong.) He tells the story of the fugitive couple Meili and Kongzi, who left their village to escape the family-planning authorities. Kongzi, a schoolteacher, is ‘a 76th generation descendant of Confucius in the direct patrilineal line’. ‘Filial piety’ demands that he continue the male line, but as he and Meili already have a daughter they go into hiding to keep Meili’s pregnancy a secret. The permits required for additional children are prohibitively expensive, and Ma stresses repeatedly that the rural poor, who have few spokespeople in or outside of China, have borne the brunt of the one-child policy.
Meili and Kongzi join the outcast community of ‘egg families’ who live on boats that resemble half eggshells and try to elude the authorities by floating along the Yangtze River. But the police arrest Meili only weeks before she’s due to give birth, and in one of the book’s many stomach-turning scenes, she is tied to a table and watches as doctors incompetently abort her baby, Happiness:
‘It’s still alive, the stubborn little thing,’ Dr Gang says, holding Happiness by the neck. ‘What shall we do with it?’ Happiness kicks its little legs about just as it did in the womb. Meili looks at the space between its legs. It’s a boy. She tries with her eyes to reach out to him, but soon all she can see is the colour red.
‘Strangle it,’ the woman says. ‘We’ll register it as a stillbirth. Don’t wipe its face. Illegal babies aren’t entitled to have their mucus removed. Squeeze the neck here. That’s right. Keep squeezing. That’s it.’
Some of Ma’s lifelong preoccupations are evident in this book. His sense, for example, of the totalitarian nature of the male sex drive. Kongzi’s demands on Meili’s body are just as relentless and invasive as the government’s. A sympathetic acquaintance warns her early on: ‘If you’re unlucky enough to have been born with a cunt, you’ll be monitored wherever you go. Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs.’ The clinical descriptions of her body as she’s probed and inspected and penetrated by both doctors and her husband are unsettling.
Far less effective is the literary conceit Ma uses to shift his novel from a denunciation of the one-child policy to an exposé of China’s pollution problem. Meili and Kongzi drift downriver into the Guangdong Province on the South China Sea, a once prosperous region now choked with electronic waste and dumped household products. Meili’s ‘utopia’ is the village of Heaven Township, where the air is so toxic it’s said to kill sperm. Earth is man’s element, Meili is told, and water is woman’s: ‘Grains of soil are seeds of the masculine spirit; rivers are dark roads to the eternal female.’ China’s rivers are like its women’s birth canals, both manipulated and fouled by government engineering.
The analogy is clever but so obviously in the service of Ma’s political argument that it seems faintly disingenuous, like a courtroom trick. The characters speak as though reciting testimony. A chorus of passersby laments the spread of ersatz food: ‘We can’t trust anything we eat these days! Tofu fermented in sewage, soy sauce made from human hair, mushrooms bleached with chlorine, and now fake baby formula! Whatever next?’ In one chapter a man reads out extracts from an online article: ‘As much as 70 per cent of the world’s toxic e-waste is shipped to this area of Southern China, where it is processed in makeshift workshops by migrant labourers who are paid just $1.50 a day.’
The Dark Road is evidence that the censored writer, even if he finds a new audience and a free press, never entirely emerges from the shadow of his censorship. ‘I write about sensitive topics,’ he has said, ‘precisely because I have the freedom to, and therefore the obligation.’ Subtlety and subtext would be forms of collusion. China’s propaganda juggernaut must be met with equally extreme propaganda.
Ma is certainly right, as he has one character say in The Dark Road, that Western nations have been happy to overlook the savagery of the one-child policy, since they see the prospect of a catastrophically overpopulated China as more terrifying than the measures taken to prevent it. In response, he’s written a bleak but accessible record of the campaign’s most criminal measures, and of the spoliation that has accompanied China’s rapid evolution into a soulless technocracy. In that sense, the book is a success. But as a novel, this is obligation literature, in which writer and reader are bound together in an unpleasant but seemingly necessary task.