For three decades, China has been running what amounts to a huge social experiment: a one-child policy that limits each family to have only one offspring. The policy has led to a greater gender imbalance than the global average. In 2015, Beijing relaxed this policy to allow two children per family. But in Maggie Shen King’s debut novel, An Excess Male, China continues to face this real-world dystopian scenario.
In an alternate timeline set in the near future, the one-child policy has continued for several decades, radically changing the social structure. In this world, a woman can take up to three husbands, depending on how “patriotic” a family decides to be and how desperately in need of cash they are.
Mild spoilers ahead for An Excess Male.
In this political climate, May-ling has an unlikely family structure: she has five other sisters. Her parents used all kinds of shady methods to get away with violating the country’s one-child policy, including smuggling and bribery. But this initial problem pays off for her parents in this future: they can collect male dowries from each child when they’re given away to husbands. To maximize their profits, May-ling’s parents usually pick out grooms with some kind of social or physical flaw, so the husbands’ families have to pay more for the extra burden.
Their greedy attitude has created for May-ling what has gradually descended into a marital nightmare. She’s married to a gay man, Hann, and his brother, Xiong-xin, a man with a probable mental disability. This is a marriage born out of convenience and greed, but May-ling naively believes it can work out. In the first years of her marriage, May-ling is deeply in love with Hann, but he retreats from her bedroom over time and May-ling comes to realize that he’ll never become sexually attracted to her. When this dawns on her, she grows angry and threatens to add a third man to their arrangement.
This third man is Wei-guo, and he’s the audience surrogate. From chapter one, he narrates how beautiful May-ling is and how he longs for a wife. This is where King works her magic. Once we’re introduced to all four of these characters, King then flips the script on us once more. We learn that Xiong-xin, or XX as he calls himself, is a genius hacker with more social awareness than others give him credit for, and we learn that people think Wei-guo isn’t that bright. King continuously introduces nuances to these characters and builds them slowly into three-dimensional humans.
Wei-guo, like May-ling, Hann, and Xiong-xin, is an unreliable narrator who is limited by human fallacy from knowing that May-ling is partially manipulating him, and that Hann is gay. Misunderstandings abound between the characters and only the reader gets to experience everyone’s true self. And as characters sometimes close their hearts to one another, the government’s constant surveillance and extremely prescribed way of living takes a toll on them as well. Divorce, while not illegal, is nearly impossible to accomplish. If the government finds out about Xiong-xin’s disability and deems him a “Lost Boy,” he will be institutionalized.
An Excess Male is also a way for King to explore China’s treatment of LGBTQ people and women —- two groups in dire need of governmental support and literary attention. Like ex-communist and communist countries Russia and Cuba, China currently has its fair share of homophobic policies, including censoring all queer content online. In King’s future China, queer folks have been designated as “Willfully Sterile,” which sounds relatively progressive until it’s revealed that the designation means queer people are deemed unfit to be parents. So gay men like Hann who use their wives as beards and raise children are risking everything.
King has the opportunity here to indulge in the reversal of a patriarchal society’s status quo in her reimagined China. After all, with women so high in demand, it follows that their value in society has risen and it’s the men who face stigma if they can’t marry and remain “leftover” men. But as King tells it, the ill treatment and abuse of women remains common in future China. May-ling and her first husband, Hann, play this sick psychological game where May-ling tries to use heterosexual and conservative Chinese norms to control Hann and Hann uses his maleness to order May-ling around. Their screwed-up relationship becomes a reflection of some of what’s wrong with Chinese society.
King draws from a well of Chinese modern history to craft a rare English language story that has a weight that other works translated from Chinese might not hold. The phrasing and diction feel comfortably American, as King is, while the plot points are borrowed from modern China. The hook of the story, that many of these men could share wives, is actually something that King picks up from the Qing Dynasty when impoverished rural villages used to practice polyandry to save resources. Wielding this material in her hands, King grants a new kind of access to the Western audience that they’ve never had before.
Yet caught up in pointing out every twist of this family drama, King sometimes doesn’t go quite far enough with her depictions of future China. For a dystopian novel, it rings fairly optimistic. And for a novel that builds upon history, that optimism diverges from precedent. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who protested in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, died in July of liver cancer while he was being held in state custody and was reportedly kept from chemotherapy and proper treatment. China’s harshest internal critics have always been silenced by authoritarian powers but King gives us a China where some critics can merrily escape.
Just take the example of another author who addresses the one-child policy in fiction, Ma Jian, a Chinese writer who’s living in exile in the UK. His novel The Dark Road, unlike An Excess Male, is not a sci-fi dystopian, but journalism thinly disguised as fiction. He writes vividly of actual abortion hospitals that he visited under China’s one-child policy. Ma Jian’s gory and dark novel makes King’s writing look like a delicate romantic drama in comparison. King could go darker, more gruesome, and more bloody and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration of reality. It’s almost as if she hopes for a happy future for the China of today though, and one has to respect that.
An Excess Male dwells in happiness that feels unearned. None of the members of the family can successfully break out of their dystopian conditions and eke out their freedom, but at least they have each other. Even though Wei-guo, as a straight, able-bodied male, has a better political standing than the other three protagonists, he too gets into a whole mess of a political drama, where he ultimately becomes an enemy of the state. For each of her characters, Maggie Shen King presents such an insidious, totalitarian trap that each person is only able to wiggle out with a mixture of luck and bluffing. You end up wanting them to do more, but understand that these characters can’t challenge the status quo without winding up dead. It’s exactly the kind of life-threatening conundrum that people in modern China face today, and the exact reason why this real-life dystopia still continues on. If no one can rise up, then people can only settle for what they’ve got. I want King’s characters to stop settling, too, but if they can’t, someone else should pick up the baton and run with it.