In October 2015 the Chinese government announced major changes to their population policy, commonly known as the One Child policy. Instead of curbs that limited one-third of Chinese households to strictly one child, Chinese families across the nation could have two children starting from 1 Jan 2016. With incredible timing, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Mei Fong‘s book One Child was at the publishers! I was invited to review it for the Los Angeles Review of Books and found Mei Fong’s book very readable – there was a perfect balance of detailed research and stories of individual people in real circumstances. I particularly appreciated Mei Fong’s skilful vignettes – for example, the couple in Wenchuan, who, within days of losing their teenage daughter in the devastating earthquake, decide to try for another child. The odds are stacked against them (age, vasectomy, cost, friends and family avoiding them for fear of being asked for money or support) and you wonder if they are grasping desperately at straws. Yet Mei Fong slips their shoes on to your feet so softly that you find yourself wondering how you would respond in their situation.
HW: Mei Fong, it’s been a phenomenally busy year for you – thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I have to ask, did you know that changes to the One Child policy were going to be announced just as you were finishing the book?
MF: I had an inkling. Policy planners originally said the policy would last about thirty years from 1980, so when I started planning my book in 2013 thereabouts, people were already grumbling the policy was way past its sell-by date. There was a great deal of discussion among official and academic circles that suggested major changes would be made given all the problems it had caused with a worker shortage and gender imbalance. But it’s incredibly hard to predict the decisions of the Chinese Communist Party, so in the end, I was just very lucky.
HW: How did you come to research and write One Child?
MF: Some of the ideas and inspiration came from my time working and living in China full-time as a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal, but I only started working full-time on the book after I’d left the paper, and left China. So I did a lot of lengthy research trips there over the period of three years, seeking to find ways of storifying some big questions raised by the One Child policy. Like, are the children of the one-child generation really entitled and pampered, true Little Emperors? Or are they over burdened by heavy expectations? What does a country that will have more retirees than all Europe look like? What happens when there are hardly any women to marry? So I spent time in a hospice in Kunming, visited bachelor villages, took part in mass dating events, even visited a factory that made “replacement women” in the form of life-sized sex dolls.
China’s full of amazing statistics—the world’s biggest this or that—what I wanted was to bring to life the stories behind the numbers.
HW: From the book and the bibliography, it’s clear that you read a lot of English and Chinese sources, and, of course, most of your interviews will have originally have taken place in Chinese. Could you tell us about the process of doing your research in one language and then writing it up in another language?
MF: It was difficult because while I was raised in Malaysia in a Cantonese-speaking household, I learnt to read and write in English and Malay. I learnt a little Mandarin in graduate school, but only got more fluent when I was posted to work in Beijing full-time. At that time, I was quite ashamed of my half-baked Chinese skills, and intimidated because I knew as an ethnic Chinese, the expectations for me would be much higher than for some of my white counterparts. Nobody was going to praise me simply for being to say, “Ni hao!” But I remember a fellow journalist told me, “No matter what you do, there’ll be at least one billion people who will speak better Chinese than you will. So what are you going to do about it?” I took that as a challenge to do the best I could, with whatever tools I had at my disposal. Being able to speak Cantonese helped me pick up spoken Mandarin quickly, but I always had researchers to help—something I make very clear in the book.
HW: One Child has now been translated into Chinese. Could you tell us about that process as well? Did you translate it yourself? Is the Chinese translation identical to the English edition? How has it been received in China?
MF: Normally, the book would’ve been translated by a translator hired by the publishing company who’d bought the Chinese rights. But tightening censorship in China made it impossible to get the book published in mainland China. A mainland publisher there backed out of a deal to publish my book. Taiwan and Hong Kong, which used to be more open about putting out “sensitive” books, also tightened up, especially after several booksellers in Hong Kong were abducted by Chinese authorities in 2015. So I was in the weird situation where I’d written a book about China that most Chinese people couldn’t read! I didn’t want to accept this situation, so I commissioned a translation, paid for it myself and issued it as a free digital download. I’m hoping to make back my costs by crowdfunding on GoFundMe and Patreon. It’s an unusual situation, but I simply couldn’t see any other way around it.
What heartens me is the positive feedback I’ve gotten from Chinese readers, and, as well, other writers who are now encouraged to explore other ways of getting beyond the Great Firewall.
HW: Global Literature in Libraries is about bridging the gaps between translators, publishers and librarians. May we invite you to recommend a book translated from Chinese into English that you would love to see in libraries across the world?
MF: One of my favorite books that I read to my children is A New Year’s Reunion which talks about a little girl, MaoMao. She only sees her father, a migrant worker, once a year during the Lunar New Year. MaoMao is initially frightened by the strange man she barely remembers, but soon warms up and they have splendid times celebrating with fireworks and making sticky buns. Too soon though, it’s time for her father to leave. It is beautifully illustrated, very touching and sad and is one of my kids’ favorite books.
Underlying this very simple story is the mass migration of workers from rural China who seek work in the big cities, but who find it extremely difficult to bring families with them due to China’s strict household registration rules. It’s simply horrible for family life. A construction worker I got friendly with in Beijing told me they call the folks at home the “3861 army.” I didn’t understand what he meant until he spelt it out—March 8 is International Women’s Day, June 1, Children’s Day.
[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]