Analysis of Abortion in Select Literature from The People’s Republic of China

Abstract:  This study reviews two literary works on abortion from the People’s Republic of China, the poem “Abortion” by Zhang Zhen and the short story “Explosions” by Mo Yan.

          A review of any literary work on abortion in the People’s Republic of China presents researchers with an immediate problem.  Should discussing the topic of abortion rely on sociological documentation of abortion as practiced on the mainland, or does another perspective apply?  Can one take strictly a political view towards the matter, or does one need to consider factors usually associated with other literary theories (such as the role of women from a feminist literary viewpoint or the interaction of ideologies from a Marxist perspective—the latter being the literary theory one would almost automatically think would apply when speaking about life in Communist China)?  For purposes of this study, the practices of reception theory combined with formalist explication seem to be the optimum means by which selected literary artifacts will be evaluated, primarily because the theory can afford American researchers and students of literature insights into the interaction or juxtaposition of the ideological confrontation between official, received statements on one of the most controversial matters in the Chinese world (national policies on birth control and reproductive rights when confronted with failed birth control leading to abortion) and the notions held by millions of Chinese whose attitudes and opinions towards compulsory birth control and forced abortion are now becoming evident in the West.

Abortion and Demographic Concerns in the PRC

          The number of annual abortions performed in the People’s Republic is staggering, estimated by Aird (1990) at eight million per year between 1971-1985 for a total of 111,960,987 abortions (Slaughter, p. 40).  Other sources indicate the figure is close to thirteen million annual abortions currently versus twenty million live births; thus, about one-third of all pregnancies per year are aborted (Canaves, 2009).  What is perhaps most curious about the number of abortions performed is that China has neither a history of abortion agitation, nor conflicting official pre-1949 medical commentary on the acceptance of abortion as an ordinary medical practice.  In fact, if the exploration of Nie (2005) into Buddhist and Confucian respect for pre-natal life is accepted, then Chinese history argues against such an openness towards abortion.  (See especially chapters three, four, and seven wherein Nie evaluates the positions of the major religions toward abortion and respect for pre-natal life in imperial and Republican eras.)  Countering claims that abortion in China was implicitly allowed because there was no clear prohibition against it, Nie further argues that

While it is true that the early medical literature rarely if ever explicitly proscribes performing abortion, this should probably not be interpreted as representing a permissive attitude on the part of ancient doctors.  Rather, the silence is likely to indicate that medical abortion was regarded as so obviously unethical that there was no need to include it in lists of professional precepts, just as medical ethics documents whether ancient or modern rarely explicitly state that physicians should not murder or kill.  (p. 78)

          As early as the late 1970s scholars had discussed demographic changes in the PRC and considered the consequences of several official policies designed to curtail population growth, including compulsory birth control and abortion of a second child.  While pointing out that official population figures were difficult to determine (since the PRC had not devoted sufficient resources to determine the extent of population growth after the founding of the nation and because of censorship), Aird (1982) had commented on the disastrous effects that complete implementation of the one-child policy would have on China:

There are some disadvantages to a too-rapid reduction in fertility.  Sudden changes in the size of age cohorts cause similar changes in the demand for age-related goods and services, in the facilities and personnel that provide them, and in the allocation of resources that they require—changes that can result in dislocations and inefficiencies that adversely affect national development.  Both Lin and Liu have indicated that the Chinese family planning authorities do not expect or want to achieve the sudden, universal adoption of the one-child family because they are aware of the problems of a distorted age-sex structure; but family planning propaganda and some of the provincial family planning regulations convey a different impression.  (“Population,” p. 289)

          Pronouncements from the PRC itself ratify the notion that China is experiencing a dire population situation.  The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America states that “Some lawmakers and family planning officials support [a law explicitly banning sex-selective abortions] because of the serious imbalance in the ratio of genders in the population.  China has 119 boys born for every 100 girls, much higher than the global ratio of 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls.”  The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences confirmed this gender imbalance in a January 2010 report, which “indicates the figure has climbed to 120 boys born for every 100 girls as of 2006 and says that, by the end of 2008, there were 38 million more men in China than women born after 1980” (Ertelt).

Silence Surrounding Abortion in the PRC

          What is perhaps the most striking feature of abortion in the PRC is the silence attending it at the popular level.  In virtually every other nation abortion as a political issue rouses intense passions; demonstrations on both sides of the issue and legislative efforts to address abortion matters are standard events in other nations.  Many scholars, including Mosher (1993) and Nie (2005), have tried to address the reasons why popular attitudes towards the abortion policy of the PRC seem to signify only support from citizens.

          There are, however, emerging voices of dissent towards the national policies on reproductive matters, and their presence is significant given the new liberty of thought finding its expression in literary matters, which is a relatively recent phenomenon in the PRC.  Mo Yan (2001) asserts this renaissance of liberated thought about controversial issues in his discussion of how China moved from having writers produce politically-correct work to a literature in tune with their own sensibilities:

As the 1970s wound down, our Chairman Mao died, and the situation in China began to change, including its literary output.  But the changes were both feeble and slow.  Forbidden topics ran the gamut from love stories to tales of Party blunders; but the yearning for freedom was not to be denied.  Writers wracked their brains to find ways, however roundabout, to break the taboos.  This period saw the rise of so-called scar literature, personal accounts of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.  My own career didn’t really start until the early 1980s, when Chinese literature had already undergone significant changes.  Few forbidden topics remained, and many Western writers were introduced into the country, creating a frenzy of Chinese imitations. (Shifu, p. xv)

Wondering why the Chinese are silent about abortion specifically, Nie (2005) asserts:

Creative writers enjoy greater freedom of speech in China today than scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and literary works often constitute the best window into the concerns and opinions of ordinary people on many social issues.  While a medical humanities scholar may fail to find an outlet for an article that argues that abortion is ethically wrong, a fiction writer may sometimes be able to express a similar opinion without falling afoul of the authorities.  (pp. 29-30)

In fact, the apparent Chinese silence on abortion seems to negotiate two principles which Nie isolates: first that “guarding one’s tongue is a basic survival strategy in an authoritarian regime” (p. 35) and, second, that “the bitter pain of abortion for many Chinese [is] a pain that goes beyond what words can describe” (p. 36).  The latter is an eminently challenging task for writers.

          Critics, however, may have an easier time.  The dissent against abortion could be challenging for literary critics to evaluate, embedded as it is in works which still struggle to stay within the cultural and mostly political norms attendant on literary production within the PRC.  As deconstructionists have demonstrated, the meaning of what appears to be absent itself is commentary and can be excavated; it thus remains the task of the critic to determine what is being said about abortion in the literary works available.  Of all the literary theories that could help to make certain Chinese works more meaningful to Western readers, especially on the controversial topic of abortion, reception theory will seem the most obvious as the works themselves are reviewed below.  Formalist and feminist concerns in the literature can be developed, historical themes abound (certainly, reaction against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution is still considered a viable topic for Chinese writers), and one can revel as a deconstructionist would in the word-play of certain Chinese poets.  However, one aspect of literary concern that needs to be developed is the interaction and juxtaposition of official pronouncements on abortion in the PRC and writers’ responses to those pronouncements.  Two works exemplify these contentions.

The Poem “Abortion” (1986) by Zhen Zhang

          Poetry in the PRC may be on the forefront of a revolutionary trend that Western scholars are commenting on with greater frequency.  Crespi (2009) comments on developments of modern poetry in the PRC post-Cultural Revolution:

[O]fficially sanctioned Mao-era poetry recitation, while unique in terms of the pressures placed on performers to measure up to extreme ideological standards of the times, represents just one episode in a continuing history of poetry recitation as a cultural practice.  Even as the theorists and practitioners of recitation invoked a quite modern idea of pure revolutionary passion, the concept of expression informing that invocation derived from China’s earliest poetic theory.  Moreover, examining official poetry recitation also gives the lie to the myth of a uniquely monolithic revolutionary culture, especially when one considers reciters’ own reception of these poems.  Instead of the transparency and assured purity of intent that one generally experiences when reading the era’s officially sanctioned poems in written form, reciters’ accounts of giving concrete voice to the poetry intimate a sense of self-doubt spurred by formidable ideological dilemmas—dilemmas that eventually even appear in print on the pages of poetry recitation primers. (pp. 166-167)

It is especially interesting that any deviation from the accepted script of government-acknowledged poetic production occurred in the vocal production of such poetry—vocal delivery perhaps being a freer mode than print, which could more readily affect an artist’s career.

          The poem “Abortion” by Zhen Zhang is a representative example of Chinese authors who begin to broach the topic as a way of responding to official PRC positions.  The poem has marked similarities with other post-abortion syndrome poems with which Western readers are familiar, such as Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother” or Lucille Clifton’s “The Lost baby poem.”  One item in the critical commentary about the poet is repeated consistently: mysteriousness.  According to Tao (2006) the “self” that Zhang writes “is spontaneous, capricious, sometimes mysterious [; she] remains very much herself as a woman in her creation of mysterious urban worlds [and is credited with] a type of metropolitan women’s writing in which the self remains mysteriously private” (p. 23).

          This mysteriousness could obscure the resistance implied in the poem by one key term: “I looked long into my uterus at your unwarranted being” (p. 132).  That the child should have been called “unwarranted” and not “unwanted” or “undesired” suggests a deeper conflict at work in an otherwise straightforward poem manifesting the trauma of post-abortion syndrome.  Moreover, what is absent from the poem is especially telling.  Nowhere can an allusion be found to the abortion as having been essential to the survival of the nation, an idea found  in other texts which suggest abortion as a “remedial measure” (the standard euphemism used to refer to abortion) meant to guard against excessive population growth.  Instead, the narrator speaks of how the unborn child’s “brothers and sisters will all be informed / that you are the oldest son” (p. 132), a futuristic claim that the one-child policy does not apply in her case.

The Short Story “Explosions” (1985) by Mo Yan

          “Explosions” by Mo Yan is perhaps the clearest literary work on abortion to be considered which responds to official PRC positions.  The narrative concerns a man in the Chinese armed forces whose wife is illicitly pregnant with a second child.  Against the wishes of his father, the husband forces his wife to abort the child.  This simple reduction of a fifty-page short story ignores several elements that illustrate the conflict between official pronouncements on the forced abortion policy and implementation of that policy and its effects on ordinary Chinese.

          The story is notable for containing three “official” references to abortion as a population control measure.  The first and second references are announced early in the story and then halfway through the narrative.  The first reference occurs when, questioned by his father regarding why his wife must abort, the narrator refers to official orthodoxy:

Think I wouldn’t like to have a son?  But I already have a daughter; I’ve already been issued a one-child certificate.  As a government cadre, I have to take the lead in responding to the nation’s call.  How can I avoid it?  (p. 3).

The rhetorical question is unanswered.  The second reference is even smaller in terms of words.  Trying to reason with his wife, the narrator says, “Just think, there are a billion people in China.  If everyone has two children, what’s going to happen to China?” (p. 24).  This rhetorical question, too, is unanswered.

          The third reference, however, invites more commentary.  In the abortion clinic’s waiting room, the narrator reaches in a drawer for a book that a nurse had consulted and recounts:

In my tense gropings, my hand bumps into Obstetrics; Obstetrics bumps into my hand.  I can’t wait to open it.  It smells of iodine and hand cream.  Nurse An has made red and blue marks to highlight the black lines of text and has scribbled notes in the white margins.  The obstetrics expert writes: Knowledgeable people world-wide have expressed grave concern over the rapid growth of population.  The accelerated pace of population growth has already seriously destabilized the planet.  Humanity is heading for a devastating outcome: a population explosion ….  Nurse An notes: How I envy you, Liu Xiaoqing!  The obstetrics expert writes: Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.  We must rid the masses of women of their horror of it.  At the same time we must recognize that abortion is not minor surgery.  Neither the one performing it nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.  Nurse An notes: Zorro is a great guy.  Anna is a fine girl.  I’ve got to …  (pp. 51-52; ellipses in original)

          This passage contains several elements worthy of attention vis-à-vis literary responses to the PRC policies regarding forced abortion.  The first item which is immediately noticeable is the use of the palindrome in the first sentence, a literary figure of speech that had not been used heretofore in the story and which is thus obvious on first reading.  The suddenness alerts the reader that the passage is significant.

          The Western reader may not realize the importance of the use of the title of the obstetrics book; in the United States publication by the United States Government Printing Office is restricted to official federal documents, whereas all publication in the PRC is controlled by the state.  Instead of identifying the source for the “information” which follows as the government of the PRC, the author chose to represent the government by the title of a volume officially sanctioned by the government.  Thus, the use of synecdoche becomes especially important as a safe, politically-correct instrument of reaction to the PRC policies.

          Moreover, the “obstetrics expert” is significantly anonymous, in contrast to the interpolation, twice, of a clearly identified human being, Nurse An, whose commentary after each of the expert opinions has nothing to do whatsoever with the official statements.  Nurse An’s comments certainly interject comic relief into an otherwise serious situation.  The anonymous obstetrics author proclaims in a  stand-alone sentence that “Neither the one performing it [abortion] nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.”  One wonders whether the admonition to maintain sobriety in the performance of abortion extends to the literary performance as well, which, in this case, has obviously been abrogated by not one, but two instances of humor.

          Finally, the absence of quotation marks throughout the story (which does not impede determining who is speaking) does have an ancillary effect in this passage.  The ostensibly objective claim by the obstetrics expert about a “population explosion” (bolstered by an ambiguous source called “knowledgeable people world-wide”) is as unsubstantiated as the claim that “Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.”  The lack of an identifiable source of these bold claims reduces them to mere slogans, a linguistic artifact with which many Communist Chinese are familiar.  Nurse An’s claims, in contrast, are much more personal and subjective.  The reader would tend to believe the nurse’s claims for several reasons: they are “revolutionary,” having been written in the margins of a politically-correct medical textbook; they are personalized, containing the high human emotions of envy and love; lastly, they are inviting in the sense that a reader could identify either with Liu Xiaoqing, a popular film star, or with Zorro, a swashbuckling hero.  One could not easily identify with the impersonal claims of an official textbook when one is offered identifiable humans instead.

          Perhaps the reticence to target official PRC material and sources indicates that the liberty of thought which Chinese authors strive for is still emergent.  Even Mo, who asserted so forcefully in a 2001 anthology of his short stories that contemporary Chinese writers aim “to break the taboos” (Shifu, p. xv) of the Mao era, finds it difficult to challenge state orthodoxy directly.  In “Abandoned Child,” a short story written in the mid-1980s which concerns infanticide more than abortion, the narrator, who saves a newborn girl abandoned in a field, relates a near apology for government ineptitude:

The period after Liberation, owing to improvements in living standards and hygiene, saw a significant drop in the occurrences of abandoned children.  But the numbers began to rise again in the 1980s when the situation grew very complicated.  First, there were no boys at all.  On the surface, it appeared that some parents were forced into acts of inhumanity by rigid family planning restrictions.  But upon closer examination, I realized that the traditional preference for boys over girls was the real culprit.  I knew I couldn’t be overly critical of parents in this new era, and I also knew that if I were a peasant, I might well be one of those fathers who abandoned his child.  (Shifu, p. 172)

          Three matters in this passage are worthy of attention.  First, “infanticide,” the deliberate abandonment of a newborn child with the intent to have the child die, is euphemistically called an “act of inhumanity.”  Second, the revolutionary fervor of the Mao era seems to have held everything in place, for it was “after Liberation” that “living standards and hygiene” improved; however, it is significant that “the situation grew very complicated” a decade safely removed from the Mao era (“in the 1980s”).  Finally, responsibility for the intended infanticide rests neither with the government nor provincial family planning cadres notorious for overzealousness in forcing abortion on peasants; the “real culprits” are not even the parents, but the “traditional preference for boys over girls.”

Future Research and Questions

          What is striking is that, unlike American literature, no full-length novel or film devoted to the issue of abortion is available for study—“available” in that either it has not been written, has been written but is censored and will need to wait for a more open political environment, or will not be written because mainland Chinese do not yet see abortion as a literary topic worth their consideration.  Similarly, no full-length drama has been discovered that can merit study as an example of abortion discussed in that genre.  The dearth of abortion narratives may change, however, when Chinese women find their “voice” to express their feelings and thoughts about their abortions.  Western readers are familiar with the empowerment that women experienced during the twentieth century feminist movement when women could speak freely about their marriages, their employment, and—most importantly—their sexual dissatisfaction and past abortions.  Voicing such concerns led to important developments for American women.  Thus, Mosher’s A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy (1993) could qualify as a narrative on the forced abortion policy within the feminist tradition.  The Chinese women who either aborted or performed abortions who responded to Nie’s sociological surveys may become freer to express their feelings and thoughts on abortion in longer literary works—such thoughts and feelings still trapped behind the phrase “so bitter that no words can describe it” (p. 135).

          While many questions remain and must be relegated to future research, two can be offered here in closing.  First, where is the samizdat, the underground literature, from Chinese women on the issue of abortion?  Exploring such literature may help Westerners to appreciate these women’s experiences and to share in their suffering.  Second, how will the West respond to narratives depicting the Chinese forced-abortion situation?  One hopes that, besides responding to the extremely poignant situations of women living in the harshest of totalitarian regimes, Western critics and readers will act to alleviate their suffering.


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