More Than One Child: Memoirs of an Illegal Daughter
By Shen Yang
Translated by Nicky Harman
Centurion House, London
ISBN: 978-1-913891-09-1
280pp.

“You know, Wanjun? We are the lucky ones.”

“We? What do you mean?”

“I am like you; I am a family planning survivor too. I have an older sister and two younger sisters and I am the piggy in the middle that no one loves. The reason we are lucky is that at least we are determined to survive.”

At age six, standing in the school yard, Shen Yang shares a rare piece of wisdom with her friend.

Together as partners in a crime they did not commit, Wanjun — the girl with a head bigger than her body (the result of her mother’s stress pregnancy because Wanjun was being birthed illegally) — and Shen Yang, forced into a life of oblivion because of the same reason, were growing up beyond their years.

In the China of their childhood, they represented the vast majority of illegally birthed children, always on the run, ridiculed, humiliated, reviled and scorned. They were called the Heihaizi, or black children, because of their lack of a birth permit.

An English translation of a woman’s story brings forth with great poignancy and spirit what a whole generation of children went through having been born without official sanction during China’s one-child policy

They knew they had no future, no right to schooling, unless a kindly, conniving official and relative surreptitiously procured a Hukou, the official registration that would allow them a right to a somewhat normal life. Both girls were the yield of those years’ rebellious, erring parents (called the excess-birth guerrillas) when the state, fearing the result of a population explosion and consequent resource scarcity, had decreed that only one child could be born to a couple.

But Chinese orientalist social philosophy proved to be a thorn in the backside of state diktat. Even as women who got into second pregnancies were carted away for forced abortion or had their tubes ligated, or had the excess birth child spirited away to an unknown childless couple, a whole lot of people continued to defy the law.

Traditionally, Chinese society has had a ‘proclivity’ for multiple births. In true orthodox ethos, a boy child was essential to carry on the family lineage. And that boy needed another brother or two, and also a sister or two as well. So, a whole lot of women bore excess birth children in spite of knowing fully well the kind of life they were exposing the baby to.

They knew, too, that if the authorities discovered their digression, they would be deprived of belonging and made to pay hefty fines: both being major tragedies in the lives of an already strained populace groaning under poverty and want.

There was only one thing they could do: surreptitiously pass on the excess birthed baby to relatives in the hinterland, where it was much easier to evade the cadres — that dreaded arm of the law deputed to curb population.

But even as the law was thus evaded or hoodwinked, excess birth children had a miserable existence, not only because they learnt very early on how inconsequential their lives were, but also because, far-removed from their parents, they lived on the charity of relatives.

Bringing us the poignant memoir of her lost years in More Than One Child: Memories of An Illegal Daughter — which comes to us in the English-speaking world through Nicky Harman’s very simply worded, direct translation — author Shen Yang weaves the deep pain and heartache of her deprived childhood with the impish humour she managed to retain and live by.

It is this sense of humour, her own high-spiritedness in the face of deprivation, and a recounting of the short span of friendship with Sunshine, another excess birth child, that prevents the book from falling into the sob-story genre.

From being jettisoned to the distant village where she was forced to live incognito with perforce doting grandparents, simply because she had broken the law by just being born, to five years later being whisked away to live with a most foul-mouthed aunt, Shen Yang’s existence was shrouded in secrecy, doubt and uncertainty. Yet her memoirs are no simple ‘tell all’ to garner pity.

Even in these most despairing circumstances, she managed to hold on to the tiny vestiges of childhood pleasures through diehard resilience, often playing truant with the sanctions imposed on her existence and fighting furiously for the right to live as normally as possible.

It is because of that ability to ‘enjoy’ life that, although she was hard-pushed to fight for everything — from making friends, to getting food, to tuition and lunch money, to emotional support — she trained herself to make do with whatever childish wisdom she could scrounge.

From being peer-shamed and bullied in school, to bearing the strain of battling personal demons, Shen Yang moved on to get even with the world that had disowned her. Somehow, she weathered the scars of her perilous existence… the scars that never healed but which eventually made her the person that she is today.

Though many other Chinese people like this author are today speaking up about their lost lives, the coming into print of More Than One Child defies stereotypes. This is a memoir about courage, resilience and optimism for, through Shen Yang’s memory-write, we learn that despite the laceration of unhealed wounds, through disappointments and pain and being made to feel unwanted and forced always to be on the run, some of China’s excess birth children were able to develop extraordinary abilities.

It is this ‘victory’ of sorts that gives the book substance, sociologically and historically. The sufferings of these children ‘enriched’ them. The lessons of the read will enrich history.

Factually speaking, the book is, in fact, the payback of China’s lost generation — those millions of children born in the years of the one-child policy. Even today, they remain a forgotten species, toiling away somewhere in the nooks and crevices of a contemporary society full of confidence as it rises to be a world power. But thanks to Shen Yang’s memoir — a rollercoaster of sense and sensibility — this lost generation will not disappear without a trace.

Nothing can undo the gross injustice of being uprooted from birth parents but, as Shen Yang writes, she brings the realisation that she herself and all those other children were, in the ultimate analysis, “sun grass blooming brilliantly in the darkness.” Her final declaration is as heartbreaking as it is full of hope: “It is a wonderful thing to survive. I want the world to hear our voices. We have survived and we will survive.”

Shen Yang’s final remark shows that she, too, was not beaten down by the darkness of being unwanted. With the vitality of the weeds clinging tenaciously to life, she developed extraordinary qualities to become the formidable person she is. She chose to fight, to rise, then ultimately to be grateful, to make changes both within herself and her birth family and understand the constraints of those times.

Then one day, she chose to become the voice of the unheard survivors of emotional and social tyranny, on whom the world had turned its back. Kudos to her for choosing to categorise herself not simply as a victim but as one of the chosen many — as a member of a unique generation that has lived to tell the tale and not just become a folk memory.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/report writer who has taught in the LUMS Lifetime Learning programme. X: @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 29th, 2023

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