Archive for November, 2020

The Great Work Begins

From the original production of Angels in America

“America, when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?”

America, Allen Ginsberg (1956)

Kushner’s “Angels in America” is a spectacle of diverse characters. The entanglement of individuals living and imaginary, along with deliberate choices in production such as having one actor play multiple characters, create a representative cohort to inhabit his depiction of America. 

A Character Map of the main characters in the play

At the beginning of the play, Kushner is detail oriented in his description of characters. What attributes of character backgrounds does he emphasize, why? Alongside pointing out relationships between characters, there is a focus on occupation, where they are from, and a re-casting of actors for sub-characters. How do these details influence your reading of and, from the perspective of a production, the portrayal of the play?

Each component of the characters plays into the threads that are discussed in this convener’s post and perhaps remind you of prior readings as well: the focus on Mormon and Jewish religious minorities, AIDs, intergenerational politics, LGBTQ issues and power dynamics. These labels and personality traits have a particular function and continually raise questions about identity.

For instance, Belize, “a registered nurse and former drag queen whose name was originally Norman Arriaga” is a black gay man whose character pays homage to the ball and voguing culture of mid to late 80s in New York. Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris is Burning” explores this scene through a similar lens as Kushner, focusing on gay and drag subculture and its importance in tackling AIDs, homophobia and racism and defining the modern LGBTQ movement.

The production history of the play is a story in its own right. Since its first performance in May 1990, the play has been re-invented by theatres all around the world and adapted to film and new media. Kushner also informs specific staging choices, like split view, where he does not encourage the use of freezing characters, but rather recommends that ‘active choices’ be made to stay silent to shift between the two simultaneous threads. What are the roles of these details in staging? What is lost when more artistic agency deviates from these instructions? 

Angels in America unfolds against the backdrop of intersecting historical moments in 20th century America. There is the era of the Reagan administration, characterized by significant political polarization and a heightened “conservative revolution.” There is the Cold War, with references throughout the play alluding to McCarthyism and Russian espionage— the title of the second part itself, “Perestroika,” a reference to the reformation policy promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 70s. There is the post-WWII era, characterized by the influx of Jewish migrants from Central and Eastern Europe into the United States. And finally, there is the U.S. AIDS crisis, which was also historically defined with severe undertones of homophobia.

It is through such a potent intersection of historical eras that issues of politics, race, and gender come to a head in Angels in America. Tensions between progressivism and conservatism play out vis-à-vis the contrasting political beliefs of the characters. The conservative views of Joe (despite his closeted homosexuality), for example, starkly contrasts the more progressive views of Louis. But the play does not necessarily shy away from complications to this central tension, either. Issues of progressivism versus conservatism are over time complicated by the nuances of socio-economic privilege. Louis, for example, is more concerned with the notion of America as a political arena between the conservatives and the progressives: “there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” Yet in doing so, he fails to acknowledge the significance of America’s race problem, and his own privilege as a white man.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about a play entitled Angels in America without discussing its heavy religious motifs. Kushner’s play is brimming with Judeo-Christian imagery. This includes everything from references to Biblical stories like Jacob wrestling an angel (51) and Louis finding the Mark of Cain on his forehead (104) to larger overarching themes of prophecy, divinity, and sin. At the center of these religious themes is Prior who is visited by an Angel and chosen to become the prophet of America. Prior himself is not associated with either of the two main religions surrounding his visitation. He is not Jewish and does not understand the Hebrew spontaneously being spoken around him. He is also not Mormon, yet he is visited by the angel in the same way Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was visited by the Angel Moroni in 1820. If anything, Prior is the non-religious descendant of WASPs who were most likely Protestant or Catholic. The deliberate choice to make him the chosen prophet both speaks to the implied universality of the religions and the redemptive narrative of the angel’s appearance. Prior is dying of AIDS and abandoned by his lover. He has lost all hope, therefore the appearance of an Angel is almost Messianic.

But for all its metaphors and references, religion in Angels in America is a cultural presence more than a spiritual one. We as readers encounter religion most in Jewish funerals and Mormon visitation centers. The choice to focus on Mormonism and Judaism specifically is interesting since both religions seem incredibly different at first glance. One is ancient while the other is barely a hundred years old. One is liberal New York the other is conservative Utah. Yet they are also the same in their separation from society, the prejudice and ignorance they face, and the strict moral rules they impose on their adherents. Religion casts a long shadow over Louis and Joe for example, as religious values of loyalty condemn their abandonment of their partners. It begs the question, how much of the characters’ beliefs and views are influenced by their religious upbringing? And also, what is religion really beyond a set of cultural practices and moral values?

Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?

Roy Cohn (page 46)

Roy’s rather short interaction with Henry shows a lot about his character: to Roy, everything is about power and it is also ever present throughout Angels of America. Even in hearing about his condition, he dares Henry to tell him that he is gay, but threatens to destroy him if he tries. He differentiates himself with homosexuals, saying labels are not about sexuality but rather power, and that he, Roy Cohn is a “heterosexual man, who fucks around with guys.” Ironically, he is stripped of his power before his moment of death in which he becomes a “little faggot” and his excess supply of AZT is not enough to save him.

But labels and words themselves seem to have power throughout the play with characters unable to speak out about homosexuality. Louis at the hospital responds to Emily’s inquiry that he is in fact Prior’s “uh”. The conversation is casual but ultimately incomplete. The same lack of acknowledgment of the AIDS epidemic from the Reagan administration can be found here. The lack of acknowledgment and reaction And there is constant struggle from characters due to the stigmas, even more so when they and their loved ones are faced by fatality, highlighted by Louis and Prior.

A power shift also appears towards the end of the novel with Harper. Initially she is the first to fight for no change, she is already so alone and frightened that it seems that any change would break her. In the real world she is both sexually and ideologically suppressed and finds herself escaping from it. Towards the end, she overcomes her fears, realizes that loss is needed for change and finally leaves Joe, who “[doesn’t] know what will happen to [him] without [her]”, slapping and handing him some Valium in the process. The second play ends with her on real trip, as she flies to San Francisco.

The plague for amphibians

We have been tackling COVID-19 in our daily lives and pondering over other forms of contagions such as the plague, sins, memes, information, beliefs, syphilis, family values, memories, influenza, AIDS, and even fictional diseases like the Shen fever every Monday and Wednesday morning. However, our discussions have been concerned about how humans are affected by and react to these contagions. Through this short post, I want to introduce you to a different perspective on contagion through the example of chytridiomycosis, an infectious disease discovered around 20 years ago that is known to have caused the decline of hundreds of amphibian species, including 90 presumed extinctions (Scheele et al. 2019).

Kermit the Frog might be in danger (Via Giphy)

Chytridiomycosis is a fungal infection caused by the spread of Bd/Bsal (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis/Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans) fungi through contact with spore-infected water or other infected hosts. The fungus replicates rapidly on the skin of the host and kills it off by blocking their breathing metabolism (most amphibians breathe through their skin). The contagious nature of the disease thus leads to mass die-offs in certain regions, and has been wreaking havoc on amphibians throughout the past half-century. Similar to COVID-19, Chytridiomycosis is also hard to detect without testing and thus in the absence of proper testing, the global trade network has also led to its spread across the continents. So while humans initially might not have been directly responsible for this plague on amphibians, the trade of animals without realizing its consequences has certainly exacerbated the problem.

Taxonomic distribution of chytridiomycosis-associated amphibian declines: Each bar represents one species, and color denotes the severity of its decline. Concentric circles indicate, from inner to outer, order (Caudata or Anura), family, and genus.  (Scheele et al. 2019)

Most prevention and detection efforts for Chytridiomycosis are currently being led by researchers (funding for which is also quite scarce, since the issue is quite low priority among governments) who test the amphibians for Bd/Bsal in suspected habitats. The results take 2-3 days to be processed in a lab and till then the tested individuals are kept isolated from their natural habitat in containers (quite similar to the practice of quarantine until COVID-19 test results come), which is quite undesirable (I think we all agree about that from our quarantine experiences). Finally, based on the results, the amphibians are released or treated for the disease using medicated baths and further measures are taken to prevent the spread of the disease from the area tested.

To aid the efforts to fight against this disease, the NYUAD iGEM team (which I am also a part of hehe!) has also been developing a diagnostic device that can be used in the field itself to give rapid and accurate results about the presence of Bd/Bsal. This will not only eliminate the need for isolating the animals for days, it will also encourage more testing, especially at trading ports, so that the disease can be prevented from spreading. Our progress this year has been slow due to restricted lab access, but the pandemic has also provided us with the opportunity to learn from some great (and still ongoing) rapid diagnostics research that was prompted by COVID-19. We are hopeful that we will be finishing the device soon and achieve our goals! I will leave you now with our 2-min project description video that illustrates most of what I have talked about quite well:

NYUAD iGEM Project Description Video

Ignoring the Root Causes (Lubnah’s Augmenter Post)

The town of Oran in Camus’ text is a breeding ground for an epidemic. The money-mindedness of the townspeople, and the culture of working, living and dying in the same manner, described as “feverish yet casual,” along with the shallow social interactions, create the ideal atmosphere for a plague to settle in just as comfortably as the people in the town. The sense one gets is that of indifference towards health, both mental and physical, as everyone’s “chief aim in life… is ‘doing business.’” It is easy for readers to imagine such a tragedy as an epidemic striking Oran without its inhabitants noticing its severity and gravity, as they don’t seem to be the type of people who notice the severity or gravity of anything. The author has, thus, used this passage to set the town of Oran up as an easy target, but not an unpredictable one.

Similarly, COVID-19 can be seen as a symptom of the larger structural issues in our world. A new report by the UNEP called “Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission” addresses how much of the human activity in recent years has laid the foundations for the current pandemic, which is very similar to what happened in Oran. The rapid urbanization, advancements in the expansion of cities and increased industrialized agriculture have been considered to be some root causes of the pandemic. While many people are quick to address symptoms of the pandemics – e.g., close contact for COVID-19 and rats for the plague – root causes remain largely ignored. Further outbreaks will continue to occur unless we address the underlying phenomenon. For some reason in both Camus’ text and the real world, we seem hesitant to, for that would require a 180 shift from our comfortable lifestyles.

A Theoretical Framework for Othering (Maitha’s Augmenters Post)

Among one of the most recurrent themes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe is othering, or categorizing certain groups of people as “Us vs. Them”. We witnessed this in the circulated story of how “AIDs travelled by foreign germs down from central and western parts of Africa” (p. 3 – 4). It is also seen in the vulgar nickname Makwerekwere , designated for black foreigners from other countries. (p. 20). It is also seen in the way white people are referred to, especially in all the stories circulated on what disorder takes place in the “kitchens” (p, 23).

Because of this very recurrent focus on othering, I couldn’t help but think back to Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Chapter 11 of Behave, “Us Versus Them” theorizes the concept of othering, taking into account both nature and nurture.  

One of the most memorable arguments in that chapter is the standardized ways in which human beings view “Thems” as well as the standardized ways in which “Those Thems” evoke responses from us (Sapolsky, p. 398). The following quote encapsulates this well:

“Thus, Thems come in different flavors – threatening and angry, disgusting and repellent, primitive and undifferentiated.” (p. 399)

Thems can evoke feelings of disgust, feelings of menace, or even feelings of threat and fear, depending on the way they are largely viewed (e.g. “I am afraid of Them because Their religion is radical”, or “I am disgusted by Them because They bring diseases”, or “I am angry at Their presence because They are stealing my jobs”) (p. 398 – 400).

This framework, introduced by Sapolsky, could give us better guidance to understand the different forms of othering that are happening in Welcome to Our Hillbrow.


Mpe, Phaswane. Welcome to our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2001.

Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin, 2017.

“Hillbrow, scary? You have not seen the half of it.” (Augmenter’s Post_from Mingu)

             The video shot on March 30th, 2020, by AmaBhungane, an investigative journalism organization that focuses primarily on exposing political corruption in South Africa, contains scenes of violence from a policeman in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, against people who are “accused of” breaking lock-down rules. 

             In plainclothes, the police seen in the video is running after people with his whip and beating them, as his acquiescence to the orders from the “higher up.” Amid such police brutality, a crowd from what appears to be a vertical slum or a shabby apartment complex cheers from above, as the person being chased runs away from the officer.

             The sound of the cheers is analogous to that of a football/soccer match, an extremely disturbing resemblance that made me question if the noise could have ever been, at least for some, a reflection of the scene of tension and violence being considered entertainment of some sorts.

             Perhaps this assumption came from the experience of reading the following lines from Welcome to Our Hillbrow, which made me wonder if the person being chased could be by any chance a Makwerekwere:

             Makwerekwere knew they had no recourse to legal defence if they were caught. The police could detain or deport them without allowing them any trial at all. Even the Department of Home Affairs was not sympathetic to their cause. No one seemed to care that the treatment of Makwerekwere by the police, and the lack of sympathy from the influential Department of Home Affairs, ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country (23).

             The name of the organization that shot this short clip, AmaBhungane, means “dung beetles” in isiZulu, the primary indigenous language of South Africa. The center claims, according to its Twitter profile, that they are “digging dung, fertilizing democracy.” And it is thanks to the efforts of investigative (and citizen) journalism like AmaBhugane that accounts of police brutality and the want of public sympathy as shown in the YouTube video can be publicized to people and possibly contribute to holding the authorities accountable if any abuse of their power occurs.

             Through platforms such as YouTube and social media, the repeated patterns (and histories) of police brutality from the United States and Hong Kong to Nigeria and South Africa have been exposed to the world. Perhaps one of the ‘us versus them’ narratives that could be of focus in close-reading Welcome to Our Hillbrow is the relationship between the civilians and the police. While the efforts of AmaBhugane in sharing this video with the world helps to understand how police brutality is NEVER an issue that is confined to the United States, which is a misconception particularly common among the non-U.S. nationals, the following reply to a comment of the video further adds to an unfortunate and disturbing fact regarding the reality in Hillbrow:

“Hillbrow, scary? You have not seen the half of it.”

Link to AmaBhungane’s Twitter.

(Un)Welcome To Our Hillbrow

Apartheid in South Africa may have been eradicated, but its haunting remnants remained. Transition to a postapartheid society led to a host of problems that the South African government have to grapple with: Anti-apartheid people joining the police, labor disputes, criminal violence, conflicts between factions, the HIV-AIDS epidemics damaging a significant part of the population, corruption allegations being raised against their deputy president Zuma in 2005, poor living conditions of their citizens, the 2015 students protests against the increase in university fees. Mpe’s novel is one heavy with the weight of reality; therefore, it is no surprise for us to see W E B Du Bois’s words applied to “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”: “Readers, be assured that this narrative is no fiction.” 

As another post (and the opening paragraph on Hillbrow on Wikipedia) points out, “in the 1970s [Hillbrow] was an Apartheid-designated “whites only” area but soon became a “grey area”, where people of different ethnicities lived together. It acquired a cosmopolitan and politically progressive feel, and was one of the first identifiable gay and lesbian areas in urban South Africa. However, due to the mass growth of the population of poor and unemployed black people after the end of Apartheid, crime soared and the streets became strewn with rubbish.” Hillbrow has a deep history… of separation, and then, as seen in the novel, of “togetherness” born out of necessity. Hillbrow is a city of migrants fleeing violence, yet also a city where migrants are loathed. 

The negative connotations associated with foreignness in “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” is prevalent and pervasive. It is evident through the repetitive use of the derogatory term makwerekwere, often used to describe black foreigners from other African countries (especially Nigerians). It is also prevalent in the description of AIDS and how it is caused by “foreign germs” that are “transported” from Western and Central Africa. Even the disagreements and tensions regarding support for sport teams is rooted in supporting foreign teams, especially those from elsewhere in Africa. The moral decay of Hillbrow is even claimed to be the result of foreigners, “Hillbrow had been just fine until those Nigerians came in here with all their drug dealing” (17). The idea of foreignness as an evil does not only manifest in the contagion of AIDs. It manifests in every dimension of life in Hillbrow. Foreignness is perceived an “other” that decays life even though it also makes Hillbrow what it is, “…there are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages…many of the makwerekwere you accuse of this and that are no different to us – sojourners…” (18). Essentially, the “foreignness” is also the core of what makes Hillbrow, Hillbrow. This leads us to question, how and when does something that defines what a community is, become othered? What is the criteria for being regarded as “foreign”?

In the novel, the themes of xenophobia and contagion are inextricably linked, serving as a haunting parallel to the current COVID-19 crisis and how it unleashed prejudice against specific racial/ethnic groups around the world. During COVID-19, what began as casual racism about the “China virus” slowly intensified into intense xenophobia against people of Asian origin across the United States, as illustrated by this article. Concerningly, this phenomenon was not isolated to the U.S alone. In fact, xenophobia and scapegoating particular communities for the virus became common in several countries. In China, this manifested as racism towards Black expatriates, who were barred from shops during the crisis, and routinely evicted from their homes as they were blamed for spreading the virus. Similarly, in India, it cropped up as intense islamophobia, where Muslims were targeted as a community and perceived as spreaders. Lubnah’s recent short documentary from this summer encapsulates the blatant prejudice and vitriol that became commonplace on every Indian WhatsApp chat at the outset of the pandemic. 

These parallels of xenophobia make it obvious that societies have a tendency to scapegoat certain populations, and more importantly, that these infections are simply used as covers for underlying racism. This also raises some pertinent questions: why do we turn to xenophobia and us versus them narratives in times of crisis? How does contagion, in particular, lend itself to prejudiced sentiments? 

As a previous Convener’s post pointed out, the city’s most destructive contagion might be “spread of judgement,” including its xenophobia, or its spread of gossip and superstition. In a city plagued by death, crime, blatant xenophobia, visited by AIDS, vulnerable to superstition and gossip, where does the origin of this contagion lie? Is it a city of multiple contagion? This idea brings up a very crucial point about Hillbrow which is its insistence on stories. The residents are surrounded by stories at all times – the “informal” news about the city, including the news about the origin of AIDS, comes from the “migrant grapevine,” Refentse’s cousin insists on assigning stories of blame to the migrants seeking refuge in Hillbrow, Refentse’s own death is altered by Refilwe shifting his story at his funeral, Refentse’s mother is also murdered because the story of witchcraft being imposed on her.

These are only a few examples from the first two chapters, but it seems like stories have the capability of changing lives in the city of Hillbrow. Which raises the question, where do these stories come from? Moreover, the migrants bring their stories with them to a city which already seems to be inundated with stories, their new stories don’t seem to get space in Hillbrow, on the contrary, does the city force itself together by the violent imposition of its existing stories on everyone who walks through its streets? What role do stories play in ‘uniting’ the city — or in doing just the opposite? Do these stories stem from the already separated, disjointed nature of the city, broken by its history? Can such a city begin to heal from its stories, and therefore its contagion that has tied everyone together? What does healing even look like?

The (Two) Old Men and The Sea

Great wave off the coast of Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1830)

Title of this post is retrieved from Earnest Hemingway, “The Old Man and The Sea”

Having established their friendship, what do two men do in their seek for a moment of solace amid the plague-stricken city? Well, they go for a swim together in the sea.

For a long time, many literary works have included the image of the sea and its symbolism. This paper should help you dig deeper into the meaning behind the recurrence of the sea in Camus’ works, as well as another symbolic image that he used – the sun.

Before the vast, immese ocean, human beings suddenly internalize our smallness, and at that moment we can’t help ourselves but contemplate about life. What do we learn about life from The Plague? Life is absurd, there is no such thing as value or meaning, but we have to continue fighting our battle anyway.

What I write below can be unrelated to Camus and The Plague, so please consider this a prior warning. From here, let me take you away from the shore of “recognized” literary works, and dive into the sea of the more “unofficial” form of literary: fanfiction. More specifically, slash fanfiction. This very swimming scene of Dr.Rieux and Tarrou in “The Plague” reminds me of a similar scence in my most favorite Vietnamese fanfiction of all time, “Head like a Big Row of Trees” by Mike Kobayashi. (title loosely translated into English by me.)

I have no doubt that Mike must have got inspiration for his swimming scene from Albert Camus. Two people, two men: while Dr.Rieux and Tarrou was looking for a moment of pleasure and solace, for oneness and isolation from the city; Mike’s characters were looking for a moment of purification, a spiritual transcendence, and maybe oneness as well.

This paragraph is the narrator’s monologue in “Head like a Big Row of Trees” after the swimming scece. If you are interested in this kind of writing, you can also read the summary of the story and the full swimming scene here. (This is also loosely translated by me.)

“I used to think, on that night, there was something dying inside us. But not until much later did I realize that death has always lied inside of us. When we were standing in front of the sea, the hauntingly black body of water, death suddenly stepped out and faced us, rendering us unable to utter a word. I realized, there are things that you cannot carry with you for a lifetime, you pick up the extra luggage and you throw it away, childhood toys, laughter from the good old days, leave them behind and move forward. It’s just that we have to accept the loss. Accept the fact that we are born to die, and day by day, we are coming closer to the immense organism that is the eternal sea of death.”

Lavish Excess in the Face of Death? (Siya’s augmenter’s post)

Ding Village hadn’t celebrated like this in years. The villagers couldn’t remember the last time they had seen a ceremony so exciting and lavish. There were tiny firecrackers that exploded with a pop, and great strings of them that popped and crackled for minutes on end. There were fireworks that exploded with a bang or a boom, and rockets that whizzed up into the air, sending down showers of sparks. It was a display to light up the sky and dazzle the senses. The noise of fireworks mingled with the babble of voices; smoke and charred bits of red paper floated through the air. 

At two key moments in the plot of Dream of Ding Village, we find that the community resorts to the strange phenomenon of celebration and gatherings as a means to alleviate the suffering of the AIDS epidemic: first, at the outset of the outbreak at Ma Xianglin’s concert, where nearly 300 people gathered despite the fever taking over the village; and second, during the narrator’s “wedding” (refer to quote above). In the first instance, the concert seems to serve as a happy distraction from a potentially threatening disease, whereas in the second, it is a display of lavish excess and a momentary respite from the widespread death that has ravaged the village. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, this raised several questions: what coping mechanisms do people gravitate towards when mortality is in question? Why are gatherings and celebrations continued in the face of crisis?

During COVID-19, underground parties have become increasingly commonplace. As this article highlights, millennials in metropolitan cities have been using secret WhatsApp groups to organise parties during this time, completely flouting social distancing norms. While the celebrations in Dream of Ding Village were strange enough already, the phenomenon becomes even more bizarre in the COVID context, as this is a virus that spreads through droplets, making each gathering potentially life threatening. This begs the question: why is it worth it? Why do people continue to seek opportunities to “celebrate” during crises even when the costs far outweigh the benefits? 

Psychologists recommend that despite COVID, children’s birthday parties (even virtually) are essential, as celebrations make children and adults feel like they are part of a community, and break the monotony of life during the pandemic. The psychological benefits of celebration during a crisis seem to make sense, however, I am still left with the question of why there is such an emphasis on excess and lavish grandeur in these celebrations. We observe a similar phenomenon in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, illustrating the historical use of sensory pleasures as a way to numb the pain of loss during crisis. 

Death: The High Cost of Living

When coffins are first introduced to the novel in volume one, they serve a utilitarian purpose: Grandpa makes the narrator a narrow wooden coffin to bury him outside the schoolyard. It is a humble coffin, but the narrator is still appreciative and the reader is given a sense that he was buried with respect. But the sudden influx of death in the village makes the once ominous and morbid coffin a well-sought after prize. Coffins become a scarce and therefore valuable resource. 

Yan is not exactly subtle with the message he wants to convey in his novel. When villagers begin cutting down old trees and repurposing school furniture for their coveted coffins, they are quite literally sacrificing their past and future. Yet it is hard to blame the villagers for wanting to honor their dead in such desperate times. The reason this sparks such outrage however is because all of it was ultimately unnecessary. If Ding Hui had not stolen the coffins in the first place, the villagers would have been fine. This is taken to the extreme when Ding Hui treats this as a personal challenge to show the villagers once and for all how capable he is. He pays for the coffin of his brother, the supposed family disgrace, with not only the blood of his village but their coffins too. It is a callous display of wealth that drives a nail into how a beautiful coffin is really just a symbol of mindless vanity and excess. It is a rats race. There is no benefit to a beautiful coffin to the dead. It is only a status symbol for the living.

Funerals are still often status symbols today. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which can include everything from body preparation, service fees, to actual casket costs. It is interesting to note that Mao himself was very much against burials as he thought they were a waste of wood and money and burials encouraged superstition (while his body ironically now lies embalmed in a glass sarcophagus in Beijing). As of today, there is a strong effort on the part of the CCP to eradicate burials in favor of cremation, although modern campaigns are more concerned with arable land scarcity than the actual needs of the people. It seems to echo the continuing theme of capitalist objectives pervading our treatment of the dead.

Plague Arbitrage

The leaves on the trees withered and curled. The scholar trees, whose shallow roots couldn’t absorb enough moisture from the soil, began shedding yellow leaves, as if autumn had come early. The deep-rooted elms remained green, but they attracted legions of insects. The whole insect kingdom converged on their branches and leaves. Small green worms, spotted ladybirds and yellow beetles turned the elms into private fiefdoms, marching up and down the branches, munching on the stems and leaves.

Volume 7, Chapter 1, Part 1

One of the easier themes to identify in times of plague is of the economy. The link is not difficult to grasp: plagues kill people and leave many stuck in their homes, reducing economic activity and thus business.

The blood selling of The Dream of Ding Village begins with the premise of a “strong and prosperous China (Vol 2, Ch 2)” but results in suffering for thousands and in the end, Ding Village is left empty. In terms of the real benefits, Ding Hui was able to exploit the system and made himself enough money to finally leave the village, with even more to spare, despite the villages and people that were crumbling around him.

COVID was not as debilitating, but the damage done to the economy was very clear – people being forced to leave the workforce, areas destabilized and overall loss of confidence. Yet still, there were many that seemingly were able to profit from this situation.

The S&P 500 Index since November 2019 (

When the virus was very much active, numbers growing and with economies far from recovery, the S&P netted over 60% returns (with NASDAQ over 80%) between March and August of this year. The amount of greed presented in the market parallels that of many officials as well as characters in the novel.

Perhaps on a positive note, the gains weren’t all allocated to those in power as presented in the novel, but there is a concern about the disconnect between a weakened economy (with uncertainty of the future) and a soaring market trying to point out an inefficiency.