Listen To the Dead Man Sing

Dream of Ding Village, written by Yan Lianke, one of the most influential (and bravest) contemporary Chinese writers, is a depressingly realistic tale of an AIDS village in Henan, China. The story is based on actual blood sales that happened in Henan province when China faced a blood shortage in the 1980s. The Chinese government ordered each government official in each province to collect a certain quantity of blood donations. The officials in Henan provinces jumped at the opportunity for economic growth and marketed blood selling as a way of easy money to its people who are mostly farmers. 

Poverty and desperation for wealth blinded the Ding villager’s eyes and drove them to hop on the trend of blood sales. When the classrooms are turned into the dormitories for the sick and they are discussing why they first sold blood, most of the people were driven to it due to poverty, like the girl who sold her blood so she “could buy a bottle of nice shampoo.” The higher-ups were using the villager’s circumstances to pressure them into selling blood by successfully convincing them that blood-selling is more profitable than farming and keeping them in the dark about the practices being used and the long-term dangers. Although the older generation was worried about the consequences, the potential economic development in this rural town made blood sales irresistible to the villagers. The village grew rapidly on the “blood money.” Soon, the limit of the frequency of blood selling became ignored. People were selling more and more blood. People’s greed and ignorance obscured the potential harm this rapid development would have in the village. The blood heads started luring people into their business and into selling so much blood that the narrator says you could often spot people standing upside down to get their blood circulation back. Those blood heads became “bloody rich” indeed and were the main culprits of the AIDS pandemic that followed.

Dream of Ding Village | UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

The novel is about the AIDS pandemic in China, yet, it feels like a subtle commentary on China’s rapid economic growth. In the past 30 years, China has had great opportunities for a fast development the world has never seen before. However, the consequences of this fast development will have a cost on the land, nature, and the people in the foreseeable future. Just like the people in the villages, the blood-selling business gave them a new street and new houses, but the cost is only paid after a few years when almost the whole village feels sick and dies. The brand new houses then become the skeleton that reminds people of their blinding greed.

In the AIDS-stricken Ding’s village, we see that people “are dying like falling leaves. Their light extinguishing, gone from this world.” “If you hadn’t seen someone in the village for weeks, you didn’t ask where he or she had gone. You just assumed they were dead.” Not only did people who sold blood die, but others died like falling leaves as well. Girls were married into families and contracted AIDS without knowing their husbands were carriers. Our narrator died without ever selling his blood. No one in the village foresaw their fate (unless they read Camus), yet they were all stricken down by what made the village flourish years ago – blood sales. 

Death is central to the story not only because people are dying in almost every chapter, but also because from the very beginning of the book, we are told that the story is narrated from the grave: the omnipresent narrator Ding Quiang died of poison at the age of 12. The main story also unravels itself as we listened to the songs of Ma Xianglin, who then died on the stage. This is why we named our post “Listen To the Dead Man Sing.” 

We want to ask the following question: what does death mean?

One answer is that death means salvation. 

Throughout the book, Grandpa wishes his first-born son Ding Hui were dead. Ding Hui is certainly a sinner. A swindler and a scammer before and after the AIDS pandemic, he ripped people off from selling blood to selling coffins. As the biggest bloodhead in the village, he was a direct cause of the spread of AIDS. We also shouldn’t forget that because of his wrongdoings, his son–our narrator–was poisoned to death at the age of 12. Ding Hui wasn’t bothered by his sins, as he continued to earn “blood money” through his coffin business, but his father – Grandpa – was, deeply.

In the beginning, Grandpa started begging Ding Hui to get down on his knees and apologize to the villagers, but of course, Ding Hui never did and even threatened Grandpa that he would not support him in his old age or even go to his funeral if he brings this topic up again. At Ma Xianglin’s performance, Grandpa tried to choke Ding Hui to death. But what would Ding Hui’s death do? Perhaps, Grandpa wanted his death to serve as an apology and free him from all the sins he had committed in this village. Grandpa is also very specific about the way he wishes Ding Hui to die – in front of the public. This makes us think of an execution of a sinner. It also reminds us of the rats dying in streets while people dying in their homes in Camus’ The Plague. After what Ding Hui has done, he seems to have lost his value as a human, degraded into the likes of rats, and should now die in the streets.

Another answer is that death (or the sight of it) is the revelation of human nature.

Within the school where the AIDS-inflicted people gather, the worst of human nature flourished. We see lies, thefts, incest, betrayals, abuse of power … This reminded us of people in Defoe’s Journal of A Plague Year breaking into houses and robbing the dead. But it is even worse in Ding village because those people at the school are doomed to die. They have nothing to lose. 

HIV is growing so fast among Chinese youth that a university is selling  testing kits in vending machines — Quartz

But it wasn’t just the worst of human nature that prevailed. In a way, we also saw the formation of the school as voluntary quarantine and a way of doing good. The school was a utopian environment for the almost-dead to enjoy their last days. Inside this utopian society, since everyone was sick, the identity of AIDs patients was ignored. People started to view each other as humans, yet still contemplating their actions with traditions and values. In Chinese culture, there is the idea of doing good (积福)to pay back your sin, so you will have a good afterlife. These themes and ideas are also shown throughout the novel. In the previous readings, sin is often a result of an individual’s choice and action. Here, the sin is approached in a collection as a family or a community. The grandpa created the school as a way to pay back the father’s sin of starting the blood-selling business.

This also brought us to think about the element of family in this story. Family is worshipped as the single most important unit in Chinese society. The collectivity of a community comes before each individual, meaning that people think from and for the family. In the positive aspect, the villagers tried to turn a new leaf and provide a better life for their families. They strived for the betterment of the tight-knit community. However, on the negative side, the bond could become suffocating shackles that bound you to the faults of other family members. The narrator was poisoned for his father’s cruelty. The villagers were blamed for carrying the virus. Both took the consequences of others’ sins. The sins do not only harm the wrongdoer but also infect other family members. In society, you are seen as one. It was interesting to see that the villagers tried to find a sense of community within the school like the citizens of Oran. In both the Plague and Dream of the Ding Village, we could see how they committed terrible deeds against one another. Selfishness shone through before they could find a common ground. However, as they bond over the shadow of overseeable death, the anguish of the disease, and the discrimination and isolation from the outside world, the villagers came together to fight the disease.

In Ghosts, the Plague, and now Dream of Ding Village, the theme of victim-blaming persisted. Even though everyone was impacted by the disease, the victims were, directly and indirectly, distorted as the perpetrators of the tragedy that did something to deserve the disease. In Ghosts, Oswald deserved to die because of his freethinking and exploring his authentic self. In the Plague, the citizens of Oran paid for their sins with their lives. In this Henan village, the villagers deserved dehumanization because they tried to make a living by “cheating the system.” Their sufferings were justified by “logically” connecting what they did to what they received. People that blamed the victims were making sense of this shock by not making any sense and sensible conclusions. So how can we stop shifting blame for the mere sake of finding the scapegoat? Moreover, how can the scapegoats survive the approaching blade of the public? 

Increase in number of HIV cases in China raises concerns | Financial Times


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  1. Very nice post, couple things:

    – “After what Ding Hui has done, he seems to have lost his value as a human, degraded into the likes of rats, and should now die in the streets.”
    I kindly suggest removing the word “seems” from the sentence above. That piece of garbage, sharp as a marble is a waste of oxygen and is indeed a rat and must die in the streets.
    – great post!

    I think the idea of scapegoat can also be linked to the concept of family. The village is also a family, where granpa is granpa not only for his family, but for the whole village. He is respected and looked up by everyone in the village. Everyone listens to what he says, follows and trusts him. Why this is important is because, that waste of oxygen that is shameful to even call human, yet along son, is doing stuff that affects not only him, but also the granpa. And because they are one big family, grandpa’s reputation is also tarnished. He is the one who has to carry around and humiliate himself for the mistakes of those two sharp marbles. Grandpa has to make up in front of the villagers by creating this paradise for the infected at school. He is the one who is then told to “step down due to the inability to discipline his sons”.

    He becomes the scapegoat of his family. Both families. Village and his own. Important thing to remember, granpa still considers village members his family. But the latter are starting to drift away from him (those ungrateful fools). In a matter of couple days, granpa lost not one but two of his families. Poor creature. To what extent did he deserve all that? What is happening to the members of the village? What are they turning to? Just how far can their illogical thinking come?

    I also think it is important to talk about why the narrator is a little boy who has already passed away. In addition, I am curious about the role of dreams in this book.

  2. These are very interesting points! The decision to depict the story from the dead grandson’s perspective also intrigued me. First, this gave the story a realistic yet dreamy vibe. It also reflected the Chinese religious ideology that after one dies, their spirit would look over the family. Secondly, it justified the omnipresent and all-knowing narrative of the story, creating a space that brought the readers closer to the character dynamics. It was as if you were the child embroiled in this tragedy.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post! The way you introduced the novel, then centered the post around the question of “What does death mean?” makes the structure very organized. Thinking upon this question, I also wondered what role does morality play in the face of death? It seems like Ding Liang and Lingling, the Butterfly star-crossed lovers, have different answers to this question. Before officially consummating their marriage, Liang was actively pursuing Lingling, whereas Lingling was still worried about her reputation and status as the wife of Liang’s own cousin. Liang, however, argues that “he cheats death everyday…what do I care if I get caught cheating with someone else’s wife?” His logic was that since he is verging on the edge of death, he should have the sympathy of his society and be granted pardon for his sins. This naturally raises the question: Should a person near death have more power and free will so that he/she can live a life without regrets? Regret seems to be a recurring motif in this story, where many death scenes in the novel centers around the idea of living one’s life to the fullest so that he/she can pass away without any regrets. There was the former mayor Li Sanren and his cherished seal, Ma Xianglin and his first and last stage performance, and Lingling with her desperate attempts to douse herself with cold water, even at the cost of her own health, so that she can keep Liang comfortable. I’m curious as to what others think of the idea of living a life without regrets and whether more power should be granted to those near death so that they can achieve this goal.

    • I think Jenn raises a very important question of power dead (or near dead) people hold. Should moral values and judgment of their actions persist even in the face of death? I think my answer would be yes. Yes, moral values and judgments should maintain their power even when one is near deathbed. Now, it is important to point out that I am not saying that you should never help a dying man achieve his last goal. What I am saying is that his goals should still abide by moral standards. In the case of Lingling and Ding Liang the aftermath of their immoral relationship results in a lot of sufferings for others. One of the obvious examples is Grandpa. Like a sacrificial lamb, he is cornered by Lingling and Ding Liang into asking permission for a divorce from Linling’s previous family. Then, he has to witness the fall of morality from that family, as they all try to act all high and mighty, saying that they lost their face, when in reality they are ready to sell those values for a house or bridal dowry in a second. I cannot imagine the feelings of Grandpa at that moment. This fact that the union of Lingling and Ding Liang resulted in so many consequences for various individuals in the village, is, in my opinion, something that should not be brushed aside. They should not have been together. And if they decided to be together, they should have suffered everything by themselves without involving others.

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