Shen Yang speaks to Nicky Harman about the One Child policy, “excess-birth daughters”, and her memoir, More Than One Child.
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NICKY HARMAN: Women’s reproduction has always been a heavily politicised issue in China. In simple terms, women’s bodies (and permission to give birth or not) are under state control. Can you tell us how national policy has changed since the one-child-per-family policy?
SHEN YANG: In 1971, the Chinese government launched a family-planning campaign which by 1982 had become a fundamental national policy. Its goal was to address poverty and the exhaustion of natural resources by slowing population growth; couples were limited to a single child, and any further babies were considered ‘illegal’, ‘excess-birth’ children.
The policy continued well into the new millennium, before being slightly relaxed in 2011, and again in 2013. In 2015, all married couples in China were told they could have two children. The following year, the ‘People’s Republic of China Population and Family Planning Law’ Article 18, paragraph 1, was amended to read: ‘The state encourages any couple to have two children’. And most recently, on 31 May 2021, it was announced that every couple is henceforth allowed to have up to three children. After more than thirty years, the One Child policy has been scrapped. (Not that there is much sign of enthusiasm to have more than one child, let alone three, at least among urban couples. Decades of the One Child policy have changed people’s ideas about family, and some have decided not to have children at all.)
NH: What made you decide to write your life story, and the story of the lives of other excess children?
SY: When people talk about the One Child policy, the one-child generation is always the focus: the loneliness they suffered as they grew up, the burden they have had to bear as adults, and the challenges they face now. By contrast, those, like me, who grew up shrouded in silence and secrecy, have been largely ignored. We broke the law the moment we were born simply because we were not the legitimate first child. We escaped abortion, but we couldn’t escape being abandoned. Sadly, 90% of us were baby girls.
Although the One Child era is being consigned to history, the wounds it inflicted over three decades have not healed. People lost their jobs and families were fined, women were injured, and baby girls were aborted or abandoned. Time only heals surface scratches, and there are still women with hearts full of pain.
According to official statistics, there are thirteen million ‘illegals’. But this is hard to believe – with China’s population of 1.4 billion, there must be more than that. Someone must be made responsible, because history cannot simply be erased. China must not forget its recent past as it develops and goes forward.
Yet there is a paucity of literature about excess-birth children. At this rate, when we depart this life in the natural course of things, our entire generation will disappear without a trace, and excess-births will become no more than a folk memory. Some of us must stand up bravely and make our voices heard. If we excess-birth children don’t take the initiative and record our own history, then who else will? And that’s exactly why I wanted to come out of the fog and write about us – the hidden generation, the illegal daughters.
NH: Behind every news sensation, there is the story of a human being. In your memoir, you have written about other excess-birth children whom you knew as a child or met through the publication of this book. Would you like to tell us about some of them?
SY: My childhood friend Wanjun was born prematurely with hydrocephalus as a result of the trauma her mother suffered during pregnancy: she spent much of it on the run from family-planning officers, to the point that she was overwhelmed by stress and unable to eat or sleep properly. Today, Wanjun is disabled and living with her parents. If there had been no One Child policy – if her mother had been treated with respect during her pregnancy – things might have been different.
Since my book was published, I have received emails from other excess-birth children sharing their stories with me. One girl, who, like me, was the second illegal daughter and brought up by relatives, told me that when she was young she felt very much alone. She thought she was the only one who was living like a ghost, with the feeling of abandonment haunting her constantly. Though she survived being aborted as an excess-birth child, she didn’t feel lucky at all. She felt ashamed that she was a burden to her family, and she hated herself for being a girl. She is still struggling to cope with the consequences of her turbulent childhood, although she has found solace in writing down her emotions and sharing them with other excess-birth girls.
Another young woman (I first met her at my book launch on 13 November 2021) has become a good friend. As the third illegal daughter, she was given away immediately after she was born, to a family who had been unable to conceive. Ironically, a year after her arrival, her adoptive mother became pregnant and had a boy. The family could not give her back to her biological parents and felt it would be cruel to abandon her a second time, so kept her, but treated her with indifference, lavishing all their love on the boy. She was nothing but an extra mouth to feed. This young woman has been permanently scarred by growing up unwanted, and still struggles, at 33, to find a sense of identity, and the meaning of her existence.
All of us excess-birth girls feel a natural connection with each other. We can share without feeling judged. Growing up as illegal daughters has not been easy for any of us, but we have all managed, in one way or another. In fact, in writing and publishing this book, I have come across many other excess-birth girls who have shared their stories with the world, through art, documentaries, photo books or podcasts. We are never alone; there is an army of us out there. And I look forward to the day when more and more invisible girls will stand up bravely and make their voices heard.
NH: Forgiveness: one of the most moving parts of your memoir is when you talk about growing up and coming to terms with the abuse you suffered. In particular, you write about a letter from your uncle. Could you tell us about that, and about how you feel about forgiveness and what it has meant to you to forgive your family members?
SY: The aunt and uncle who fostered me were an unhappy couple. My aunt had gone to primary school but could scarcely read and write. My uncle graduated from high school and used to read poetry. These two people with absolutely nothing in common had been thrown together and were fettered to their marriage by politics and old customs. It was a union typical of those times. They quarrelled constantly over the slightest thing, and even came to blows, but neither would give way to the other. So by the time I arrived, things could not have been more dramatic: a man, victim of the Cultural Revolution, a woman, victim of an unhappy marriage, and a five-year-old girl, victim of the One Child policy, all living under the same roof.
There was a time when I hated my aunt and uncle for taking me in and making me suffer – hated them for ruining my happy early years with my grandparents. I used to long to go home and leave that loveless family.
However, as I grew up, I began to understand how they had suffered, and I came to terms with the past. One policy can really change one’s life. It was only many years later that I learned that my uncle had lost his mother at the age of three, and had had a loveless childhood too. A top student in high school, he dreamed of going to university, but was forced to drop out of school and work in the fields because of his family’s ‘bad’ political background. He was a depressed and frustrated man when he married my aunt, a near-illiterate woman with a vile temper. But eventually, after many years, he finally recognised her contribution to their family and acknowledged the sacrifices she had made.
He wrote in his letter:
Yangyang, please forgive the mistakes we made. Our generation finds it hard to talk about everything we suffered. The misfortunes of our family, the lack of affection, the hardships, and our resentment of the injustices of those times deprived us of love and we never learnt how to express it. This was true for our children, and the same is true for you. When you get to my age, you see things clearly. As you said, one’s personality determines one’s fate, and my timidity and weakness made me passive, so that I ended up in this small village. And your aunt, the woman I rejected in my innermost being from the word go, has stayed with me all these years, brought up my children and helped me keep the family going. If it were not for her, I would have stayed a bachelor, I am sure of that.
Personally, I came to realise that, no matter how much I hated those who hurt me, the hurt could not be erased. The only result of hate would be to trap me in pain that would only get worse. There was no point in resenting my aunt, or even society in general. What did help me was to cut myself off from that harm, and not to let those feelings control my life.
I don’t want to encourage people to forgive their abusers too easily; everyone has their own way of dealing with trauma. If you can forgive, that’s great, but if you can’t, just focus on doing things that make you feel positive about your life.
NH: My final question is about a scandal that has filled social media in China recently: the trafficking and forced marriage of women. While I understand that this is not a problem you touch on in your memoir, would you like to say something about this?
SY: It has to do with an age-old preference for male offspring. City-dwellers may decide to stop at one child, whatever its gender, or have none at all, but in rural areas, traditional social attitudes prevail. It is deeply rooted in people’s minds that boys are ‘better’ than girls. Sons are the pillars of the family and the bearers of the family name, while daughters are ‘the water that will be poured out of the house’. Under the One Child policy, in order to have a son at all costs, people aborted millions of baby girls. This led to a marked gender inequality: there are now 30 million more men than women in China.
Many villages are now denuded of women. They get jobs in nearby towns, where the work is better-paid and less arduous; the more courageous ones have made the move to study or work in big cities or even abroad. The result has been a dramatic increase in the trafficking of young women – especially from remote areas of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, or from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam or Cambodia – who are then forced into marriages with village men (like the ‘chained woman’ in Fengxian, Jiangsu Province, the case you’re referring to).
China has been working for years (without much success) to put a stop to human trafficking – not that this is widely known. If it weren’t for the latest TikTok videos of the battered, dishevelled chained woman in Fengxian, who was trafficked, given a false identity, and forced to live with a man for whom she bore one son after another, people would never have realised how serious the situation is for all women in China. Yes, all Chinese women. It could happen to any one of us. There are many cases of young girls who have been seized from city streets, even in broad daylight. They are smuggled to isolated villages, forced to marry bachelors who treat them as their property, and become slaves and tools for reproduction. They have no means of escape and are never respected as human beings, even if they manage to give birth to a son.
As an excess-birth child, an illegal daughter who used to hide in the shadows, I got a chance to make my voice heard in the end, as have many other excess-birth children. By contrast, most trafficked women are trapped in the villages and silenced. Those who have managed to speak out about their plight have been accused of being mentally ill, or are otherwise stigmatised and threatened by the local government, with social media posts about them immediately deleted. It is said that the TikTok video of the chained-up woman was originally uploaded by a young villager to raise money for the large family (she has given birth to eight sons). Instead, it provoked public fury and put her buyer in jail. The chain on the neck of the woman is clearly visible, but what about the invisible chains around the necks of other trafficked women in China? The Fengxian victim is now being cared for in hospital, but who is going to rescue all the others who are still living through this hell?
What is even more depressing is the legal void around this crime. If you buy illegal plants in China you have to serve seven years in prison; if you buy endangered animals you can incur life imprisonment or even the death penalty. But if you buy a trafficked woman, the maximum is three years in jail! It is ridiculous that national law fails to protect women’s rights, and yet is now putting pressure on them to make more babies for their country. It is time that Chinese women took control of their own bodies.
Born in Shandong, Shen Yang came to the world as an excess child and does not legally exist. As one of the millions of China’s ‘invisible children’, she was forced to live in the shadows of the Chinese society. Amidst a troubled childhood, Shen Yang found solace in literature and graduated in Applied English. She has since completed a scriptwriting course in Beijing Film Academy and now lives in Shanghai, where she crafts her latest works.
Nicky Harman is a UK-based prize-winning literary translator, working from Chinese to English and focusing on contemporary fiction, literary nonfiction, and occasionally poetry, by a wide variety of authors. When not translating, she spends time promoting contemporary Chinese fiction to English-language readers. She volunteers for Paper Republic, a nonprofit registered in the UK, where she is also a trustee. She writes blogs (for instance, the Asian Books Blog), gives talks and lectures, and takes part in literary events and festivals, especially with the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. She also mentors new translators, teaches summer schools (Norwich, London, Warwick, and Bristol), and judges translation competitions. She tweets, with Helen Wang, as the China Fiction Bookclub @cfbcuk. She taught on the MSc in Translation at Imperial College until 2011 and was co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors) 2014–2017.7.