Ma Jian is a dissident Chinese novelist, currently living in London, whose work is banned by his own government. His partner, Flora Drew, is his translator. “The Dark Road” is about the effect China’s one-child policy has had in rural China. The effects haven’t been good.

In the late 1970s, China put into effect a policy limiting each family to having just one child. The policy hit farmers hard because children have traditionally helped their families in the fields, but the real catch came because the Chinese revere male children. Reports of female infanticide have caused alarm in and outside of the country. And looking ahead, sociologists worry that when all those preferred little boys grow up to be of marriageable age, they won’t have women to marry.

That’s the context of “The Dark Road.” We’re taken to a mildly prosperous but remote village where a young couple — Kongzi, the village schoolteacher, and his pretty young wife, Meili — are expecting a second child. Their first, Nannan, is a girl, and they’ve done everything they can to conceal the pregnancy.

Like almost everyone in the village, they have a secret underground cellar, and Meili has been staying home, hoping no one will find out. In fact, in most families where the woman is of childbearing age, the wife is pregnant because, life being what it is, most of their first (or second, or third) children are girls and the husbands keep hoping for boys to carry on their family line. The wives, having invested so much physically and emotionally, don’t want to give up their daughters, who serve as insurance of a sort, growing up to take care of their parents in their old age. So the village is filled with children, which enrages the family-planning authorities.

Kongzi is in a particular bind because he is a member of the Kong clan, a descendant of Confucius, and he has a religious obligation to provide another male descendant of the revered sage. After Nannan was born, Kongzi paid for spells to be cast, and he’s fond of saying, “This is where the seventy-seventh generation male descendant of Confucius will be born.” But he’s caught between two belief systems: communism, with its drastic population-control policies, and Confucianism, with its glorification of male authority.

To thicken the plot, the ­family-planning authorities aren’t all that far from the physical excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and they harbor nothing but scorn and contempt for every peasant they encounter. They come storming into the village and grab every woman of childbearing age they can find. They inject women’s bellies with disinfectant, killing the babies in utero; they slam women down on tables and forcibly insert IUDs; they levy exorbitant fines for every extra daughter they come across, and if the families can’t pay, they pull down their houses and take all their pots and pans. If a woman is in advanced pregnancy, they rip the fetus from her body and strangle it on the spot.

Kongzi and Meili decide to escape on a rickety boat going down the nearest river. She has already been informed that “men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs.”

On the river, they become family-planning fugitives and discover a subculture of farming families who have taken to waterways to see if they can have the sons they long for. But they’ve given up their homes, their property, their legal status. They live as migrant workers. Meili gets pregnant several times, but you can bet nothing good comes from these ventures.

The novel shifts into another gear after Meili’s fourth pregnancy. Their boat drifts into wide fields of electronic waste, where the pollution is unbearable. The baby in her belly decides it doesn’t want to take a chance on coming out and stays inside her for five years. This isn’t a world worth coming into, the infant spirit thinks. In an unexpectedly charming scene, Meili goes to a temple and prays to a goddess of fertility; what she gets is a rant from the deity, to the effect of: “You think you’ve got troubles? Think how I feel!”

As an argument against the one-child policy and the horrific conditions it has spawned, “The Dark Road” is very effective. But that polemical animus also works against its success as a novel.

Even the best-intentioned propaganda makes for weak art.

See reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.


By Ma Jian

Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

Penguin Press. 375 pp. $26.95