Archive for April, 2015

Plasma economy & plasmapheresis

Plasma Economy in China in the 1990s

As we all found out by reading Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, in the early 90s, the Chinese higher-ups stared a campaign called the Plasma Economy to encourage locals to sell their blood and thus boost their income. Easy money, isn’t it? Go, sit, give your blood, come home with new red silk jacket. Completely painless, at least for the short term. In the long term, millions of people who sold their blood got infected with HIV and hence sentenced to inevitable death.

The blood-selling business was founded on plasmapheresis, a procedure that separates the cellular elements from the blood and then returns the remaining liquid back into the organism. More illustrative description is provided in the image below.

Plasmapheresis Diagram

Since the campaign was such a boom and resources were scarce (and blood heads did not really care much about the health of others), needles were reused, containers recycled and blood mixed together before being returned back to the patients. In all that mess, diseases spread like crazy. In this case, HIV/AIDS infected more than 40% of those who sold their blood. Millions of people died for money, money stained with blood.

And for those infected, life was not easy. The government refused to accept the existence of the epidemic while people were dying like moths. Instead of being sent into hospitals, people were being sent into jail.

And last but not least, what you get if you google Plasma Economy:

Keep reading!



Plasma Economy


Historical Background of the AIDS Scandal in China

Hi guys!

I just want to share with you guys some of the historical context for Dream of Ding Village. Author Yan Lianke is a Chinese writer and HIV/AIDS activist who is known for his satirical writings which in turn have gotten many of his works banned in China.

The novel we are reading is based on real events that happened during the mid 1990s.  The Henan Province was where many of the biotech companies that needed plasma focused their attention on. An estimated 40% of the 3 million people (mostly rural Chinese) who participated contracted AIDS! This plasma campaign did not really have any safety or health standards and consistently used unsterilized tools and reused needles. Therefore, Henan province is currently one of the highest areas of AIDS patients in China.











(Henan is yellow part in the middle)

The government until now was not helpful in the AIDS crisis. It consistently denied the alarm that AIDS was a problem in the Henan province, let alone China itself. When it became apparent that HIV was killing hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese in Henan, officials started to close down blood banks to cover up. Even current national statistics today say there are only half a million of people infected with HIV yet the real number is estimated to be much higher. When citizens started to notice people dying all around them, most had no idea it was HIV, they thought it was just some sort of secret disease or “fever.” That was another way for officials to cover their tracks: not educating the public of what was going on.

While today China has been more open about addressing the AIDS issue, it is still a touchy subject. Some of the major problems are the lack of medical awareness of the virus, inadequate investment in prevention work, and •provincial secrecy and cover-up.

Hope you find this helpful with reading Dream of Ding Village.

Best regards,



Sources: here, here, and here.

Love for life

Dear Class,

As promised, here is the link to the full movie based on Dream of Ding Village. This movie is directed by Gu Changwei, one of the most famous “fifth generation directors” in China, and performed by many famous Chinese actors, such as Zhang Ziyi. You may be familiar to her early film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Love for Life was released on 10 May 2011 in China. Though this movie is a little different from the novel and focuses more on Tingting and Ding Hui’s love, it faithfully illustrates the rural background and the tragic flavor of the storyline. Hope that you will further understand the setting of the novel by watching this film.

‘Nightmare’ of Ding Village

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” [32]). 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.

Happy reading,

Mahra, Aysha, and Ali

What is Fate? Who is Mpe?

In previous class, we ended our discussion with a conversation on fate. We somehow reached to an idea or a conclusion that the definition of fate differs from an individual to another individual. So, I thought that it would be interesting to see how fate is defined and analyzed in philosophical perspectives. The simple definition of fate from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is as follows:

:  the will or principle or determining cause by which things in general are believed to come to be as they are or events to happen as they do :destiny
:  an inevitable and often adverse outcome, condition, or endb :disasterespecially:death
:  final outcomeb :  the expected result of normal development <prospective fate of embryonic cells>c :  the circumstances that befall someone or something <did not know thefate of her former classmates>
pluralcapitalized:  the three goddesses who determine the course of human life in classical mythology
Other than the literal definition, I found three articles that explore the idea of fatalism:
I also think knowing the author will help to have a better understanding of the novel. Here’s a short biography of Phaswane Mpe. I also recommend you guys reading the introduction section of the book if you didn’t. :))

Welcome the Hillbrow… of Today

Mpe Phaswane’s Welcome to our Hillbrow was published in 2001 and in the book, the author gives a detailed description of life in the community of Hillbrow. He describes the hardships experienced by its inhabitants. However, Let us first backtrack and speak of what Hillbrow used to be and what has changed in the Hillbrow of today.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, Hillbrow was a designated ‘whites only’ area. Soon after, it become a ‘grey area’ where whites and blacks lived together. It was thought of as a very progressive and cosmopolitan neighbourhood as it was one of the first neighbourhoods in South Africa to be identified as accepting to gay and lesbian couples. However the development of this neighbourhood soon made a turn for the worst. Due to a lack of infrastructural planning and a lack of investment, the population of Hillborw grew faster than the neighbourhood could develop. The middle class residents left the community and thus led to the further decay of the community. Today, most of the residents of Hillbrow live in abject poverty. It is known for its high population density (69,000/sq. km), unemployment, poverty and crime. 

This is a link to a documentary created by filmmaker Cifford Bestall created in 2012. It takes the viewer on a personal journey through Hillbrow and tells the stories of some of its residents.

The Hillbrow Mpe describes is the Hillbrow that exists today. Perhaps part of the problem that Hillbrow experienced was that there were too many people from different walks of life that just never became one community. In the book, the author describes how the outsiders were treated by the Hillbrowians. However, no one really knew who the original Hillbrowians were. Who were the first to live in this neighbourhood and where are they now? Why hasn’t the South African government done anything to restore Hillbrow to its former glory?


Witchcraft in Africa !

For most people, the idea of witchcraft is absurd. However, the novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow depicts how traditional societies in Africa believe in witchcraft and use it to understand the certain events such as the spread of diseases and sudden deaths of individuals. An obvious example would be Refentse’s mother who was tortured, shunned and murdered by her own community, based on sympathetic assumptions.

The following video, outlines how witchcraft (today) is perceived and handled in several African countries. Laws have been placed to limit and control black magic. Also, organizations that aid witches who have been chased out of their own communities are in arranged to facilitate change.

Will the belief in witchcraft fade away? Does witchcraft suggest the weakness of people and the government towards the plague? 

Welcome to Our Conveners Post

The title of Phaswane Mpe’s novel may be Welcome to Our Hillbrow, but the xenophobia, racism and violence featured in the novel have the effect of making the reader want to turn and run the other way. Although this is post apartheid South Africa, the end of apartheid did not mean that all these social issues just magically disappeared, and the novel is, in a way, a criticism of the public’s failure to confront serious issues that hurt individual members of the wider society.

The novel is written in second person, with an unnamed narrator addressing a changing “you”. Indeed, the use of pronouns is extremely important to analyze, for it is through the language used in the novel that the themes of xenophobia and exclusion are delineated. The constantly repeated “our” and “your” serve to establish a distinct yet not very clearly defined group. The most fundamental element in defining a group is not only explicitly stating who is included, but also who is not; if everyone belonged then there is no point in there being a “group” at all. Welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow…but whose Hillbrow is it? Many people live in Hillbrow, from those who come from other parts of South Africa, such as Refentse the child of Tiragalong, to those who come from other African countries, the often discriminated against Makwerekwere. The novel takes a stance against this xenophobia through its intentional refusal to properly define “your” and “our.” Is the narrator speaking to Refentse as a “you” who is included with “us” or a “you” that is excluded?

There is a gradual shift in the usage of “our,” for slowly it starts to be applied to more foreign places and more abstract concepts than just the physical place of the Hillbrow: “our Alexandra”, “our Heathrow”, “our Humanity”, etc. This shift is also seen in the shift from the second person “you” that addresses Refentse, to the third person narration of Refilwe’s story, and eventually to the second person “you” addressing Refilwe and the warm “Welcome to Our Heaven.” Do we take this shift to imply a hopeful process of inclusion of the ostracized victims of AIDS? Or is it only a welcome to Heaven, the only haven from South African societies that reject them?

As the story unfolds, we are hit by wave after wave of highly dramatic events, a product of the turbulent times that the people of Hillbrow often xenophobically blame outsiders for:

It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came. (118)

Xenophobia is a social disease. By repelling people with different identities from other groups, people attempt to protect the purity of their exclusive communities. From this perspective, xenophobia is a fear of fusion, diversity, and change. The exclusiveness or solidarity in this context is quite different from the confusion of identities in Angels in America, in which people from different backgrounds suffer together after being abandoned by God. Racism still exists, but the mixture of identities seem to be so natural that people barely notice it, and don’t need to make an active effort to interact with Others. In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, however, xenophobia is so widespread that people share prejudice towards not only foreigners, but also people from other cultural backgrounds, races, districts, neighborhoods, or even families. The fear of witchcraft is an extreme example. When Refentse’s mother was “necklaced” to die simply because her accidentally slipping into the grave was interpreted as a sign of guilt, it becomes apparent that the paranoia of Tiragalong has reached a horrifying and unreasonable level. They are afraid, extremely afraid of anything remotely different or suspicious even if it is as unbelievable as witchcraft. Both the people of Tiragalong and Hillbrow are guilty of suspecting the other communities of “contaminating” them with social decay, but they forget that

no one in particular can be blamed for the spread of AIDS. That Tiragalong should know well enough that its children are no better than others; the necklacing of witches…cousins stabbing and shooting each other in Alexandra and Hillbrow…Terror raping innocent and defenceless women and girls in our Hillbrow – all these things are enough evidence of that. (123)

The issue with naming presents itself yet again, and the novel is deliberately tainted with euphemisms to show how AIDS was treated in the Hillbrow. Even the author’s expression of his frustration at the way AIDS was discussed was presented through a euphemism:

How does it happen that Hillbrow is so popular, but writers ignore it? you asked.

Oh! I think it’s too notorious for them to handle, an acquaintance had answered one day.

They never saw enough of Hillbrow to be able to try to write about it, another suggested.

You were forced to shrug your shoulders. Nobody appeared to have a convincing answer. [30]

The Hillbrow possibly acts as a euphemism for AIDS here, showing how discussions about AIDS and sexual intercourse are kept secret. This idea of secrecy allows Mpe to simultaneously provides a critique of post apartheid South Africa’s inability to move past the ineffective and vague language of euphemisms in order to tackle the still prevalent issues of racism, xenophobia and AIDS. When writing a story, Refentse decides to pick English rather than Sepedi, because he “knew the limitations of writing in Sepedi” (59). These limitations refer to the native society’s unwillingness to confront issues of sex and xenophobia. Refilwe realizes that “calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers.” [56] Euphemisms give characters a chance to make a value judgement on other characters. The difficulty with which issues such as these are accepted in society lead to the dehumanization of AIDS victims, and these euphemisms or inaccurate labels prevent society from accepting universal human values.

References to the syndrome were often hushed even though it was rampant. This has come up in previous texts we have studied, most notably Ibsen’s Ghosts and Kushner’s Angels in America. In Ghosts, the characters are unwilling to confront the social and moral decay that bred Oswald’s disease. Angels in America is highly critical of president Reagan for his refusal to address the AIDS epidemic for several years. Why are people afraid of directly addressing sex and disease? Does speaking about it increase its acceptance, and frequency of occurrence, in society if there are such things as societal standards that need to be adhered to? Conversely, does keeping it hidden prevent society from progressing, by undermining the prevalence of these very real issues in society?

We hope you have enjoyed “our” conveners’ post for this week!

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.

What is progress

“Change is not progress,” but progress requires change. The issue of progress is the main underlying theme throughout the entire second part of Kushner’s Angels in America. Progress can be easily identified as improvements made in the life of the human kind. How does this mean building a nuclear bomb is progress? If so what kind of progress? Also another interesting question: is there a morality aspect to progress?

In our context perhaps I believe that progress is best defined as: Human advancement is any change that makes some people consider themselves better off without making anyone else worse off (This is called the Pareto principle.) I believe that this is the message Kushner is trying to push that progress shall either positively enhance or doesn’t enhance one’s life;it should never make it worse off. This mentality is essential in our Novel as Kushner throughout the novel is making us doubt the policies of former presidents Ronald Reagan and is trying to deliver the message that advancements in nuclear weapons and failing to acknowledge the Aids epidermal is not in any form progress. He tries to deliver the message through the character of the angel and Harper who strictly rejects progress.

However I would like to challenge this approach. If we think at the invention of the automobile it threw the manufacturers of buggy whips out of work. If we think of achieving democracies, it dramatically stripped the previous rulers out of power and changed their lives to the worse. If we think of the invention of the internet it has improved the quality of life of people and disadvantaged those who have been subject to cyber attacks. I believe most people would view these examples as progress but by this definition they are not. And if we choose a different definition as “development towards an improved or more advanced condition.” Then the very notion of nuclear weapon which Kushner would fall under the label of progress. I failed to find the meaning of progress but perhaps one of you can…..

Don’t forget to progress,
Ali Abouelatta

Why did Kushner write this play?

After our multiple discussions of this play, we can see how this literary work impressively addresses serious social and political issues, the politics of a homosexual identity in the era of the AIDS epidemic in particular, in an artistic, entertaining and humorous way. While I was reading around different responses on the book I found myself reading Kushner’s biography, which helped me make sense of the real purpose of this well-recognized play. We did not talk about the possibility that Kushner’s personal life has influenced the production of this play as well as its specifics so I will try to make a simple connection.

Kushner was born in New York City on July 16, 1956, and grew up in Louisiana. He is originally of Jewish descent, which explains the constant references to Judaism and his choice of Mormon characters. Kushner was also a homosexual; he became aware of his homosexuality at an early age but he did not come out easily. He tried to change his sexual preferences during his college years with psychotherapy but he eventually accepted who he was. This is interesting because what Kushner went through resembles what some of his characters experienced. There is no doubt that at the time when Kushner realized his sexuality, homosexuality was not the norm. People did not accept this difference, in fact some feared homosexuals, and those who declared their preferences were attacked and criticized. It was also shameful to be a homosexual, as you were considered abnormal and sometimes mentally disrupted. Therefore, just like his own characters, like Joe and Roy, he was also pressured because of what he was.

Roughly, maybe at the time of this struggle and realization, the Reagan era had begun. Reagan was a Republican and as the previous conveners mentioned, “20th century Republicanism generally is conservative, which means it wants to retain old ideals/methods and is usually against change.” This made the lives of homosexuals even harder as they are now even more unaccepted than before. Reagan was known to be a strong conservative and extremely anti-gay. The play includes various critiques of Republican ideals and also various scathing references to Reagan (the jokes). Kushner’s exploration of the relationship between the political circumstances and the personal lives of his characters might also resemble his own personal struggle as a homosexual at the time. In addition, the failure to act upon the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan era was a bold manipulation of the AIDS crisis into a way to halt the acceptance of homosexuality in America. Therefore, it is clear how Kushner’s play was influenced by what was going on at the time and that might have been his motivation for writing it. His personal experience and how it has been mapped in the play could have added to the play’s success and strength.