Book Review: More Than One Child, Memoirs of an Illegal Daughter

For the Lunar New Year month, I am reading books by Asian authors. First up is More Than One Child: Memoirs of an Illegal Daughter by Shen Yang. It tells of the author’s life growing up in 1990s China as an “excess child” during its One-Child-Policy years.

Between 1980-2015, the government implemented the One-Child-Policy out of fears of overpopulation. The Chinese Communist Party credits the program with contributing to the country’s economic ascendancy, saying that it prevented 400 million births. The period also saw women who would otherwise have been child-rearing participating more in the workforce.

From Wikipedia: One-Child Policy

However, pundits in the West widely criticized the policy for perceived human rights abuses such as forcing women to use contraception, receive abortions, and undergo sterilization. Also, a cultural preference for sons led to the abandonment of unwanted infant girls, some of whom died while others were adopted abroad.

And what of the children who survived in the shadows? Little has been written about their lives. This is the harrowing story of one such girl.

The author says only-children during this period enjoyed the care and concern of their families and the state. By contrast, the excess-birth children, the illegals, who escaped abortion and infanticide, were socially excluded, raised in silence and secrecy, and made to pay for the mistakes of their parents.

More Than One Child published by Balestier Press

When the author was born a second child, her parents sent her to live in a relatively undeveloped village with her grandparents. They hoped to avoid the excess birth fine they could not afford and having her mother sterilized; her parents still hoped for a son to carry on the family line.

The author describes a mostly sunny early childhood living in the country with clean air and open spaces under the care of her doting grandparents. Still, there were frightening raids by the local family planning officers. She described one such event when officers pounded on the door at night while she hid in the roof space in the arms of her Granddad. When her Nana opened the door, officers rushed in and began turning the house upside down in their search.

“I was so frightened I buried my head in Granddad’s jacket and blocked my ears. I couldn’t look or listen. I was afraid that if they discovered me, I would vanish into the dark night and never see my grandparents again.

From More Than One Child by Shen Yang

At five, when her grandmother could no longer manage an energetic child, the author went to live with an aunt and uncle hardened from the violence and chaos of the decade of Cultural Revolution, which occurred during their upbringing. Her life took a decidedly downward turn under their abusive care, and the text is filled with her longing for the warmth of a mother’s affection and a sense of belonging.

Still, her aunt and uncle did her one significant good turn. They purchased for her an official identity, a hukou document so she could get an education and enjoy other benefits of legal citizenship. Hukou is the system of household registration used in China. Without such a document, she would always be considered illegal.

Inside pages of a hukou document. Source: Wikipedia

One of the most heartbreaking stories is of a school friend who is also an excess birth child. His relatives fail to purchase a hukou document for him. Though he is a kind soul and near the top of his sixth-grade class, he is forced to quit his education and work because of his illegal status.

Through her years of hardship, I kept hoping for a happy ending. When it comes, it is not the one I hoped for or expected, but it is satisfying; it is genuine and not the stuff of fairytales. I admire the steps she takes to heal her trauma, grow as a human being, and reconcile with her aunt and uncle without compromising herself. I recommend More Than One Child as an eye-opening, moving, and essential memoir for anyone interested in the experiences of those excluded from society.

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