June/July/Aug 2013

The Toxic Adventures

A peasant couple's odyssey through environmentally hazardous China

Hari Kunzru


“The gates of hell aren’t somewhere far beneath us. They’re right here on earth.” This is the uncompromising perspective of Ma Jian’s hallucinatory new novel, The Dark Road the bleak tone will come as no surprise to those familiar with his earlier work. The word rebel is bandied around fairly lightly in literary circles, but Ma qualifies. Unlike novelists such as Mo Yan or Su Tong, who keep on the right side of the domestic censor through inference, vagueness, and strategic silences, Ma has been in open confrontation with the Chinese establishment since well before the suppression of his first short-story collection, A Dog’s Life, in 1987. As a long-haired painter and poet, living a marginal “hooligan” existence in Beijing in the years after the Cultural Revolution, Ma was detained as part of the 1983 “campaign against spiritual pollution,” aimed at curbing the spread of liberal humanist ideas, pornography, and “feudal superstition.” On his release he took lay Buddhist vows and set off on a three-year journey through China, living hand to mouth and heading in the general direction of Tibet, where he hoped to find personal and spiritual liberation. His 2001 memoir of that journey, Red Dust, is a modern Chinese classic, and stands comparison with the best American Beat writing. It revealed its author as something of a trickster, not averse to making his way by scheming, lying, and occasionally using his fists.

After the publication of Red Dust, Ma spent close to a decade working on Beijing Coma (2008), a sprawling, uneven account of the Tiananmen protests (in which he participated) and their bitter aftermath. Now, in The Dark Road, he has turned to the effects of the so-called one-child policy on the lives of rural people in the Guangxi region, in China’s southwest. Applied from 1979 onward, the policy was intended to slow China’s rapid population growth, and has often been brutally enforced: By the mid-’80s, around thirty million surgical procedures—abortions, sterilizations, and IUD insertions—were being performed annually, many under duress. Chinese officials estimate that by 2011 it had prevented around four hundred million births.

Opening in the early ’80s, at the height of the campaign to enforce the one-child policy, The Dark Road tells the story of Meili and Kongzi, a peasant couple with a two-year-old daughter. Kongzi is a proud seventy-sixth-generation descendant of Confucius, and yearns for the restoration of his ancestor’s prestige, demolished in the Cultural Revolution, with its “criticize Confucius” campaign, aimed at overturning centuries of veneration for imperial authority. He also believes that “of the three desertions of filial duty, leaving no male heirs is the worst.” Meili is pregnant, and as the novel opens, a detachment of Family Planning officers is raiding her village. She has already watched her neighbor be taken away to be forcibly sterilized. Another neighbor is wandering about distraught, carrying the corpse of his aborted son in a plastic basin. Desperate to save their fetus, Meili and Kongzi embark on a horrific journey down the Yangtze River, through a blasted landscape whose very substance seems to be filth and corruption. After the unborn child meets a terrible fate, Meili is terrified of getting pregnant again. She persuades Kongzi that the destination of their odyssey should be Heaven Township, a boomtown that has gotten rich from salvaging electronic waste, at a terrible environmental cost. Meili has heard that it is impossible for the women in Heaven Township to get pregnant. This sounds too good to be true. All she wants is to live a “happy life,” a modest and vaguely imagined fantasy of security and consumption, but since “Kongzi’s only aim in life was to impregnate her again and again until she produced a son,” she fears her “road to happiness” will be blocked. “My womb is a fishbowl,” she says, “which these chemicals will smash to pieces.”

The Dark Road is a book very conscious of flows, of circulation. At its heart is the circulation of capital, which accelerates during the course of the narrative, as Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms take hold and collectivization gives way to private enterprise. The new elite of Ma’s China wallow in an unimaginable orgy of cruelty and corruption. At an obscene wedding banquet, “the steamed fish were still alive when they were served to the guests,” and “on the centre of each table were two roast chickens, the male mounted on the female, mimicking the position the married couple would adopt later that night.” But while money is encouraged to circulate freely, people aren’t. Without permits to leave their village, Meili and Kongzi are condemned to a marginal life on the water and their unregistered baby will be a “black child,” without juridical existence. Toxins flow through their bodies, saturating the environment through which they travel. The river contemplated by the Tang poets quoted by Kongzi is now a “flowing cemetery of bodies, pollution and waste,” “as red and rancid as moldy Oolong tea.” Everything is contaminated: Baby milk is adulterated with melamine, watermelons are injected with growth chemicals, and soy sauce is brewed from deliquescent human hair. Frying small birds for supper, Meili finds their stomachs full of plastic pellets and screws.

The question of circulation is, of course, political. China’s prosperity is built on its vast reserve of cheap labor, and the hukou system of registration, which prevents peasants from legally moving to the wealthy coastal cities to find work, functions less to prevent internal migration than to ensure that the migrants are efficiently exploited. Desperate, undocumented people will not agitate for better pay and conditions. You can treat them how you like. As the instrumentalization of people intensifies, their status as a resource, a dehumanized pool of labor, inevitably opens the way for atrocities. In the China of The Dark Road, people treat one another as commodities. Villagers mutilate their newborns, then rent them to gangs to beg on the streets of Shenzhen and Shanghai. Women are trafficked for sex. Arrested peasants are sold on to contractors as slaves. The end point of this is the circulation and consumption of human flesh. Prostitutes working in hair salons carry on a nightmarish trade, selling their aborted fetuses to restaurants, where they are served as soup. As one abortionist tells Meili, “we live in the Age of Money. If someone has cash to buy something, someone else will sell it to them.” Babies, instead of being the pride and honor of families with strong vertical ties to their ancestors, are waste.

Ma’s critics have long complained that his unremittingly negative view of China lacks nuance, and The Dark Road will do little to change their minds. At times the prose becomes strained as it traces the political causes of the social and environmental disasters it depicts. At others one hears the lonely voice of the political exile, who needs to shout to be heard over the enforced silence.

The “dark road” of the title is the river and the metaphysical pilgrimage undertaken by Meili and Kongzi, but for the Chinese it is also the birth canal. The traveler on this dark road is the “infant spirit,” from whose perspective parts of the book are narrated. The spirit waits to be incarnated, but what kind of a world will it be born into? The frank mysticism of this device is reinforced by the association of Meili, the emblematic mother, with the ancient goddess Nuwa, who created mankind. Meili and Kongzi’s village is situated at the foot of Nuwa Mountain, where there is a “sacred crevice” that women rub to get pregnant. Ma Jian’s fascination with survivals of prerevolutionary tradition is typical of many writers who emerged in the years after the Cultural Revolution. There’s more than a touch of 1960s Greenwich Village to Ma’s interest in folklore, a countercultural recuperation of spiritual pollutants, a (perhaps hopeless) wish to reconnect with lost authenticity. It’s not a Confucian fealty to the past: Kongzi’s Confucianism is hidebound and patriarchal, and Ma shows his embittered decline into a petty dictator, the tin-pot emperor of the household. It’s more an attempt to use the past to reorientate a China ever more fanatically committed to building the future. Kongzi knows classical poetry, and his quotations, mostly descriptions of the lost beauty of the landscape, form a sort of augmented-reality overlay on present-day environmental disaster.

Ultimately, neither melancholic nostalgia nor ruthless pragmatism will suffice for Ma Jian, only the Buddhist recognition that the world is just “red dust,” an obstacle to insight, an illusion from which one seeks release. Meili and Kongzi float from one grim situation to another. As the various flows of The Dark Road accelerate, reality seems to dissolve entirely. A town about to be flooded to build the Three Gorges Dam has an antic, Pynchonesque quality, an open zone where social rules are breaking down as the buildings are dismantled for scrap. By the time the pilgrims reach the dioxin-saturated hell of Heaven Township, this deterritorialization has reached such a pitch of intensity that it’s hard to identify any stable point. The land itself is electronic waste, and Kongzi walks across “corroded circuit boards that poke up from the ground like excavated tiles, across graphics cards stripped of their memory chips.” Throughout the book, chapters are tersely introduced by a series of “keywords,” as if there is a need for metadata, as if the text of the novel is somehow intended to be searchable. Is the world no more than digital red dust? Is it a database? Is it evidence?

The Dark Road is immoderate, excessive, strident. It is also deeply compelling, and in passages of extraordinary descriptive prose (“a swept-up heap of snow scattered with dog faeces and the red shells of firecrackers,” a barge “floats beside the bank like the corpse of an old woman”), it achieves a kind of sickening beauty. As China rolls on into its triumphant future as a great power, this angry novel will haunt it, a narrative ghost at its cruel feast.

Hari Kunzru's most recent novel is Gods Without Men (Knopf, 2012).

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