“Fewer children makes a happier life!”
The policy was pushed with sign and slogan, with song and dance. Even children would perform musical numbers about how important it was to have fewer of them. And perhaps, in the years following Mao’s death in China, it was understandable. For decades, Mao Zedong had encouraged China’s families to have as many babies as possible to further economic growth. But by 1982, six years after the death of the so-called “Glorious Leader,” more than a billion people lived inside China’s borders. China’s communist government said that was enough. More than enough, in fact.
And so China launched its one-child policy—an extreme and some would say desperate attempt to shrink the country’s population. The government insisted that only draconian birth control would take China into a prosperous new tomorrow.
But that dream of a better tomorrow would be built on unimaginable pain and unfathomable death. During the three-plus decades of China’s one-child policy (which ended in 2015), countless women were forcibly sterilized. Countless babies were “aborted”—actually, birthed live in their eighth or ninth month of gestation and killed once outside the womb. Infants were left in the streets to die. Fetuses were dumped like common trash.
In China’s effort to cull its own population, the country spawned a host of consequences—some of which may land uncomfortably close to home.
Director Nanfu Wang was born in China in 1985. She lived under the country’s one-child policy. She saw the signs and heard the songs. Now, after six years in the United States, and with a baby of her own, she returns to her home province to hear the stories: How women were dragged away to be sterilized, screaming as they went. How those who refused sterilization would see their homes demolished and possessions taken. How families were separated forever. How members of her own family left daughters in markets to die or gave them to human traffickers, who’d sell them for $200.
“Better to shed a river of blood than give birth to more than one child,” another Chinese slogan of the day ran. In the documentary One Child Nation, that river of blood feels less like a metaphor and more like the simple, horrific truth.
One Child Nation rejects painting stereotypical heroes or villains, perhaps because the people we meet here reject such generalizations themselves. Nanfu’s own mother is one of the film’s strongest defenders of China’s one-child policy, telling her daughter that without it, the country would’ve fallen into cannibalism—even as she and her family successfully fought her own forced sterilization. (Five years later, Nanfu’s mother was allowed to give birth to Nanfu’s younger brother.)
Nanfu introduces us to the 84-year-old Huaru Yuan, a midwife who alleges that she was involved in (according to her own estimates) 50,000-60,000 forced sterilizations and abortions. She’s still haunted by what she sees as her past misdeeds: Her hands, she says, tremble at all that she did. But she’s tried to make at least partial amends by spending the last three decades helping couples with infertility issues.
We also meet a man named Duan, who (along with most of his family) was thrown in prison for engaging in human trafficking. And certainly Duan was trafficking humans. But the label obscures the fact that he was picking babies literally off the streets—babies who would otherwise surely die—and selling them to orphanages (some of which were state owned). Those orphanages would then allow (and charge) Western families to adopt these same babies. And while the documentary fairly concentrates on the tragedy of those unwanted, discarded infants—and often the parents still grieving over their loss—we know that many of those trafficked babies found good homes with loving families.
The midwife/abortionist Huaru Yuan is a Buddhist who says she’s trying to “atone for my sins.” She says she talked with a 108-year-old monk who told her that for every baby she helps bring into the world (with her infertility work), 100 babies that she killed are wiped from her karmic ledger.
The officially atheist communist government of China perhaps sees itself in salvific, almost religious terms. Through the propaganda we see in the film, we’re given plenty of evidence. The government advocates the one-child policy as if it was an almost-divine commandment (and, naturally, infallible), and the accompanying propaganda exhorts people to keep the faith always.
We hear how China has traditionally favored boys over girls. Nanfu’s own name means “Man Pillar,” expressing the family’s hope that she would be a boy and, thus, a pillar for the family. (They decided to give her the manly name anyway, hoping she’d have a man’s strength despite being female.) Her family only had money enough to send either her or her brother to school: Naturally, they opted to send the boy to be educated and forced Nanfu into the workforce when she was a young teen. Nanfu and her brother recount other stories illustrating how he was favored and she was slighted, and we see other instances of gender discrimination along the way, too.
More tragically, we learn that many of the babies deserted or discarded during China’s one-child policy were girls. In fact, Nanfu’s mom says that if Nanfu’s brother turned out to be a sister, they would’ve put her in a basket and left her in the street. One subject recounts, with a laugh, how they dragged a woman away to be sterilized. The woman eventually ran into the street naked, and they couldn’t catch her because there was nothing to grab on to.
We see several pictures of discarded fetuses in garbage dumps. Nanfu introduces us to a Chinese artist who keeps a couple of these discarded fetuses—almost full-term babies—in jars. We see them suspended in liquid, looking almost as if they were asleep. That same artist used the pages of Mao Zedong’s famous Little Red Book as canvasses—painting in red a depiction of a fetus on each page. The book contained 366 pages—one for every day of the year. The artist was trying to convey that aborting these babies was a daily occurrence.
That’s underplaying it by quite a bit. We’re told that the Chinese government estimates it “prevented” 338 million births during its one-child policy years. Those stats certainly include a staggering number of abortions, including those late-term live abortions (in which a baby was born alive and killed shortly after birth).
We hear some terrible stories involving older infants, too. One example: A father tells how he left his daughter out in the market, hoping someone would take her. No one did, and the baby sat in a basket for two days before she died. (Her face, we’re told, was ravaged by mosquitos before the end.)
We hear—or rather see in the subtitles—two uses of the f-word. A misuse of God’s name is also uttered.
A couple of documentary subjects smoke cigarettes or cigars.
One of the most fascinating and, for me, difficult aspects of One Child Nation was how China’s horrific policies correlated with a rise in overseas adoptions.
According to the documentary, when China opened its borders to adoption in the early 1990s, the government discovered it could make a buck or two from its “surplus” of children. Chinese authorities would remove children from their families and put them in government-run orphanages, where they’d wait to be adopted by mostly Western families. We meet one girl who has an identical twin living in the United States—one whom she recently contacted through social media. She wistfully imagines the life her twin must live in the more comfortable confines of America. But she also pines to be with her, wishing her American twin could come home and live with her birth family.
I’d imagine that, for adopted children and their families—especially those who’ve adopted from China—these scenes will stir up a nest of conflicting emotions and questions. While I don’t think that the documentary is doing anything but conveying the reality of what sometimes happened in adoption scenarios, families must be ready to deal with what they see and hear.
One Child Nation is a powerful, difficult and in some ways contradictory documentary.
Take, for instance, the film’s stance on abortion. Nanfu who (along with Jialing Zhang) directs and serves as the movie’s de facto narrator, draws a line between China’s one-child policies and the efforts to curb abortion in the United States. They’re two sides of the same coin, she insists: governments taking away a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body.
But that one statement seems to run counter to the documentary as a whole. Life is precious, the film stresses, and its loss is cause for unimaginable grief. In its opening credit sequence, the camera lingers, almost lovingly, on a near-term fetus, suspended in liquid: Its fingers, its toes, its mouth. Who could deny that this being wasn’t human? Who could say it was not worthy of life?
One Child Nation heads to theaters with an R rating, and we can see why. The images we see (and some of the language we read in subtitles) can be pretty disturbing. But the film never feels gratuitous in these depictions. The grisly images we see are necessary for the stories—and realities—that the film’s makers want to tell. And for families willing to grapple with the film’s difficult subject and content, the movie’s R-rated regions may be navigable.
Not everyone will want to hear these stories. And honestly, maybe not everyone should. But they’re still stories worth telling.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.