Set in an imaginary village in China’s Henan province, Dream of Ding Village (2006) by Yan Lianke is a story about rural Chinese citizens who lived through China’s Plasma Economy. It reveals the sufferings that arose from this profit-seeking campaign. The novel invites us to imagine the early years of China’s AIDS epidemic, the time when farmers, or the villagers of Ding, awoke from dreams of wealth and prosperity to a fatal disease, their “dream” for a better life turned into a nightmare.
Ding Qiang, the murdered twelve-year-old boy and the narrator of the novel, is the son of Ding Hui, who was the village’s most scandalous bloodhead. The boy was poisoned by the villagers in retaliation for his father’s doings, which was setting up Ding’s largest and unhygienic blood bank that eventually caused the spread of AIDS, while using the profit to improve his family’s house. In other words, he got what he ‘paid’ for and his son died for him. Once again, a son is punished for his father’s sins, does this sound familiar? After Ding Qiang’s murder, the boy lingers over Ding Village as an observer watching over his father and grandfather. His omniscient narration gives us an insight on the daily life of the infected Ding Village and serves to illuminate the thoughts of his grandfather, who tries to care for the sick villagers while carrying the shame of his son’s actions. Even though the grandfather dreamt that this would lead to a disaster, he still persuaded people to do it, obeying the request of the “higher-ups.” Who do you think is to blame for the blood selling? Does the dream aspect of the novel remind you of a story we have read?
The father’s greed has caused tragedies upon Ding’s villagers; it had ‘cost’ people their lives. The blood business has become very competitive to the extent that he put his plasma bank on wheels, pushing it around the village to collect blood. The blood selling business was booming and it seemed as though it became something sacred to them. The villagers “didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more; they believed in selling blood” and they sold it religiously (24). People seemed to be convinced that this trade will bring them more prosperity than religion. Selling blood became an ‘addiction’ and people’s veins started to feel like they will burst if they did not extract any blood. Once someone began to sell their blood, there was no coming back. They could not escape it just like they could not escape the fate that was coming their way (i.e. AIDS). The villagers have become so absurd that they were easily persuaded to sell their blood, even by the smallest self-serving kindness from Ding Hui and the other officials, particularly the former Mayor Li Sanren who absolutely condemned the campaign at first. Moreover, those who were against the idea at first had no other choice but to sell their blood as well due to social pressure. They were forced to give away part of themselves to be able to afford living in the village and feed themselves to survive. Little did they know, however, they were killing part of themselves by doing so. Why was instant gratification worth risking one’s life in this case? Whose fault is it that people had to resort to selling ‘part of themselves’ to make money? Is it an ethical way of dealing with loss of money (on the part of the government and on the part of the villagers)?
Bloodheads were getting out of control; they were demanding blood to the extent that they were bribing the villagers with words. They were like mad vampires, except they were able to walk in daylight. Ding Hui was the most manipulative bloodhead of all; he knew how to persuade the villagers to stretch out their arms to him and he made them think that when they get the money and live in comfortable conditions, that will, in turn, ‘stretch’ out their lives. A particular scene that shows how his bribery worked is when he convinced the resistant Li Sanren, the former mayor, to do just that:
While pushing his mobile blood bank round the village, Ding Hui saw Li Sanren working his field and asked him if he wanted to sell blood. Li Sanren angrily replied: “You Dings, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve milked this village dry.” Ding Hui, not wanting to lose a customer turns to Li Sanren, calling him “Mr. Mayor” which he knew was a strong way of getting him to listen, starts talking about the county cadres’ search for a new mayor. He then tells him that they had offered him the job but then exclaims: “Of course I’d never take the job, I told them there’s only one person in this village qualified to be mayor, and that’s you (87).
How effective is propaganda / manipulation in this situation? Those who benefitted financially from this scandal, such as Ding Hui, viewed this AIDS crisis as a good opportunity for making money. However, before the epidemic, when blood selling earned you money to live comfortably, everyone was happy about it. Only when the consequences of their decisions came, people started complaining. Do you think the people “asked for it?” Do they have the right to complain? Who is to blame for the start of the epidemic after all? Although it was the government who encouraged the trade at first, when people saw how beneficial this transaction was to their lives, they were willing to continue and sell more frequently each time.
Because doctors used unsanitary equipment for the procedures to lower costs and maximize profit, it was as though they were treating humans like production machines by disregarding their health and safety. The poor villagers were like slaves; the “higher-ups” were ‘buying’ their lives and benefitting from them, and then they left them to die. Would you consider this objectification? The villagers seemed to be even less than objects as they were treated with indifference and money was seen as more valuable than people. It is as though the father and the other bloodheads exemplified lack of empathy which is one of the characteristics of an ‘authoritarian personality.’
In addition to manipulation, indifference, instant gratification and ethics, other prominent underlying themes in this novel are power and pride. Ding Hui was a powerful man in Ding Village and he used his house as a reflection of this power. For instance, he refused to have a house on the same level as the other villagers: “When everyone else started building bricks-and-tile houses, my father [Ding Hui] tore down ours and built a new two-storey house. When everyone started building two-storey houses, my father added a third storey” (19-20). The people of Ding village were materialistic and used wealth to reflect their position in society. This is why Ding Hui bought all the unused machinery in the house, just to “show we could afford them.” (20). When the father was asked to apologize to the people for what he had done, his pride got in the way and, as a result, he said: “You’re not my father and I am not your son” (22). What do you make out of this situation? Do you believe that this reply was a consequence of the father’s powerful position? What do you think would have been his reply had he not been wealthy? Do you think that apologizing hinders one’s position or lifts it? What does Ding Hui think?
The theme of power also reoccurs when the county director visits the grandfather in school. The grandfather is asked to use his powerful and respectful position in the village to mobilize the selling of blood. The grandfather is in complete disapproval of the phenomena at first. However, due to the powerful position of the county director and the fact that he used his position to allow the grandfather to be nominated as a model teacher, he agreed to promote selling blood in the village. In the end, however, the grandfather becomes the caretaker of the sick villagers instead of the model teacher. This could be seen as the cost of choosing to obey the authority’s instructions in order for him to be raised to a better position (“You reap what you sow” ). Nevertheless, his efforts to help the sick at the school was done voluntarily out of compassion, restoring the humanity that was lost from the way the bloodheads treated the villagers. Do you believe what the grandfather did was morally justified (i.e. obeying authority to raise his position in society)? Is obeying authoritative figures more beneficial to the community than staying true to one’s self and moral standards?
The grandfather’s character reminds us of the doctor’s wife in the movie Blindness (2008) who did not catch the disease and remained in the asylum to take care of the sick. Both were willing to risk their lives and stay with the diseased to support them in their last days even with the idea that there was no cure (which the people did not know at the beginning of their stay in the school). Does risking one’s health, by any chance, remind you of Arthur Mervyn (1799)? Moreover, does the idea of secrecy and telling people there is a cure for AIDS (in the beginning) remind you of Dr. Rieux from The Plague (1947)? Another striking similarity to the movie Blindness is when the infected population created their own organized society in which the healthy held the role of the leader. Although the people did not get along at first and everyone was frustrated with their fate, they were forced to accept this destiny and work together for a better end to their lives. As we have seen in our previous readings as well, disease brings people together just like a celebration (shared feelings; the aim of ‘making most of today’). People collectively want to forget and that, as a result, intensifies their bonds. This is similar to Emily Davis’s quote from Priscilla Wald’s book: “The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community.” Can you draw a connection to Camus’s The Plague (1947) or Pushkin’s A Feast During The Plague (1830)?
Lastly, in order to understand the bigger picture of the way Ding Village’s society works as a whole, we found it necessary to examine the major setting of the plot: the village school. Prior to the epidemic and the rise of the phenomena of selling blood, this place used to be “part of a village temple dedicated to Guan Yu, the god of wealth” (24). From this explanation alone, we can come to a conclusion about life during this period in Ding Village. It is safe to say that people were humbled and religious, and were also filled with hope that one day, they would have their share of wealth. Following this period, the action of blood selling was introduced in the village and that is when “they [the villagers] started getting rich from selling blood, [that] they tore down the temple” (24). The change brought by selling blood to this society was massive. The religious beliefs of this society collapsed as they found praying for wealth useless when compared to selling blood. During this period, the people of Ding Village found that the best use for this physical space is education which is when the school was built. Years after the school was built, the AIDS epidemic started, which is when this place took on a different role in benefiting the society; it served as a safe haven for those who suffered from AIDS.
This selfless act proposed by the grandfather has helped re-establish some of the values this place had prior to being a school; the values of giving without expecting anything in return. It once again became a symbol of hope, but a completely different type of hope. People no longer hoped for wealth and were no longer materialistic. Instead, they hoped for the recovery of their loved ones; they hoped to go back to the time before they sold their own blood for the sake of money; they hoped to restore the humanity in this society that seemed to have died the moment they extended their arms for a few yuans.
Mahra, Aysha, and Ali