One Child Nation finds empathy in the face of oppression
For as long as I can remember, China’s “one-child policy” has held some form of real estate in my brain. Mostly, it’s in the form of strange mental ephemera left over from a youthful obsession with comedy. Back before underwritten jokes about cultural differences were correctly considered hack material, one didn’t have to look far to find a loaded comment about how easy it is to adopt Chinese girls or how dangerous it is be born female in China. Here in America, we saw China, at least in regards to procreation, as a backwoods country from which stateside progressives could adopt one of countless unwanted children. Beyond that, however, not much was really known.
Filmmaker Nanfu Wang aims to change that with One Child Nation. Herself a product of the one-child era, and now a citizen of the United States, Wang has the ability to give us both an insider and outsider’s look at a time that she could really only reckon with after becoming a mother herself.
“Having a child was like giving birth to my memories,” she opines from behind the camera. She further elucidates the notion that China’s one-child policy was so deeply ingratiated into society that it never felt anything but normal. But now, as both a mother and an expat, she can suddenly see how oppressive and cruel the policy was. Oddly enough, not everybody agrees with her, least of all some senior members of her own family. For many older citizens, the prevailing view is that the one-child policy effectively saved their country from ruin.
To understand why the policy was put into place, one must learn a bit of history. Wang outlines the crisis that China was facing in the late 1970s. Basically, there were too many people to feed, and if the population continued to expand at its current rate, mass starvation would occur. As a result, China implemented a rule limiting procreation to one child per family. Rural couples could be permitted two children, but only if there is a five year gap between births. On paper it sounds somewhat reasonable given the situation, but in implementing the law, limitless opportunities for cruelty arose. Add to that the deeply ingrained cultural sexism (boys were highly valued as surname carriers and workers, while girls were just mistakes on the way to producing more boys), and the cruelty increases tenfold.
Wang was born in one of the rural villages which permits multiple children, and she’s lucky for it. If her parents were not given the chance to have a second child, she might not be here today. What I mean is that it wasn’t uncommon for families who produced a female child to do any of a number of terrible things in order to reset their reproductive counter. Partial birth abortions became commonplace, as did the practice of straight up leaving a baby in the trash (there’s some imagery to this effect that is more harrowing than anything I’ve seen on screen all year). Resistant families were brutalized into compliance by local government, the players of which were deferring to even higher, stricter forces. Yet few were actively resistant at the time. From propaganda that espoused the higher standard of living that one-child families could expect, to the hard-coded concept that the policy is a powerful weapon in the “war on population,” Wang encounters a lot of people who saw it all as a necessary evil. And when she digs deep into the history of her own family, some startling secrets are uncovered. Wang might be the most empathetic person on the planet.
Massive credit is due to Wang for amassing a diverse array of reactions to the policy, while using her personal experience as an anchor to which a story of gargantuan social forces is affixed. One Child Nation begins as one woman’s inquiry into her own history, but becomes an eye-opening story of sexism, freedom, governmental overreach, and the lurking question of what atrocities, if any, can be tolerated in the face of monumental disaster. At a time when we’re all fighting in the foothills of similar mountains (talkin’ bout climate change y’all), One Child Nation is a difficult, yet essential watch.
One Child Nation opens in Philly theaters today.