Maggie Shen King’s debut, An Excess Male, tells the story of how China’s one child policy and its cultural preference for male heirs have created a society overrun by 40 million unmarriageable men, and how one such leftover man’s quest for love and family runs against a state seeking to glorify its past mistakes and impose order through authoritarian measures and social engineering.
We sat down with Maggie for a quick Q&A about An Excess Male:
Why was China’s One Child Policy an intriguing and fruitful government policy from which to base a dystopian novel?
After the Great Leap Forward, China faced food shortages and mass starvation. Population control was essential, and an economist determined that 700 million people was the ideal number for the available resources. The One Child Policy became China’s answer to this very serious crisis.
This policy is an interesting subject matter for a dystopian novel because it was also one the largest scaled and longest lasting social engineering experiments of all time. The law ran counter to the culture’s deeply engrained preference for boy children who would one day financially support aging parents and carry on the family name. It was enforced by Chinese officials and at times, by its citizenry in ways that often violated widely accepted rules of ethics and human decency. Despite the bias for male heirs and repeated warnings from census data—by the year 2030, a quarter of the men in their late thirties or 30 million men will never have married—the law remained in effect for nearly forty years.
The policy created serious unintended consequences. It is a cautionary tale and a tale of hubris, of a government’s belief that the fundamental laws of nature must be altered for a greater good.
An Excess Male highlights how such a policy places severe limitations—and in some ways, can violate the humanity of—its male characters. Both Hann and XX suffer, in their ways, from how the policy must make them live their lives. How do you think this changes how we see masculinity in An Excess Male?
To maintain control over its problematic population, conformity was vital to the one-party Communist State in my book. The strong, heterosexual male engaged in a “heterosexual” occupation was the only truly acceptable and recognized version of masculinity for this proud nation. But a man in this country is also required to put the good of the State before himself and if he happens to have the good fortune to marry into an Advanced Family, give up the most fundamental rights of a husband—that of having a wife all to himself. Many conflicting impulses, for sure.
Both Hann and XX defied the narrow definitions of the State. Hann, a gay man, remained closeted so that he could work successfully in a respected “heterosexual” profession and marry in order to have children and the comforts of a family. With his family’s help, XX dodged psychiatric diagnoses and labeling to avoid institutionalization and sterilization. In the world of An Excess Male, deceit and dishonesty are necessary traits. Being a true man meant having wits enough to survive under a repressive State and courage enough to fight for the right to be one’s true self.
Why was it significant to choose to tell An Excess Male from alternating points of view?
Since the “excess male” in my book wanted to join an “Advanced” family where there were already one wife and two husbands, the marriage affected more than the traditional husband and wife couple. I was interested in the stories of all four members of this potential family.
In these four characters, I wanted to capture a spectrum of people who would consider polyandry. Wei-guo represented the “typical” excess male—men at the lower end of the socio economic ladder who finally saved up enough dowry to enter the marriage market in his forties. For Hann and XX, sexual orientation and mental health issues, rather than money spurred their interest in an additional spouse. And finally, May-ling was essentially sold into this marriage with a gay man and his emotionally challenged brother by her daughter-breeding parents.
My book is called “An Excess Male”—Wei-guo has one more chapter than the three others—but it is really the story of a family coming together against all odds and this arrangement made out of urgent, individual necessities.
Often when we think of marriages, we think of power dynamics. In An Excess Male, it seems the state is trying to impose a set of dynamics that May-ling, XX, and Hann continually subvert. How do you see the polyandry they’ve agreed upon as challenging power dynamics in relationships?
In China’s past, wealthier and important men were able to take concubines or multiple wives. Their first wives were usually advantageous and strategic matches, women from families with social or financial status. Even after the marriage became polygamous, the position of first wife remained one of respect and power within that family and the larger community. These families typically lived under one roof and were often rife with gossip, slander, spying, and backstabbing—the stuff of palace intrigues—as the multiple wives jockey for position both for themselves and for their children.
In An Excess Male, the first husbands or “Alphas” enjoyed lead husband status, but unlike the first wives of yore, these husbands as head of the household also wielded the real power in the family. Hann at his worst ruled like a minor dictator. May-ling and XX went along with his wishes, but schemed and maneuvered to get their own way and felt much resentment. They loved and respected Hann, nevertheless; he was XX’s big brother and lifelong protector and May-ling’s best friend. When the family came under crisis, they were able to put aside their differences and come together.
By the time Wei-guo joined the family, the power dynamics had already been upended. Hann, though still considered part of the family, could no longer be involved day to day. XX held the family purse strings, but also Wei-guo’s deep gratitude for saving his life. Wei-guo and May-ling held the only key to the other’s heart. The shared power in addition to their individual motivation to make the situation work bodes much better for this new family.