Author: aah610

Dream of Ding Village

Dream of Ding Village
is a storyline, but also an assessment of the spread of the disease in a given space. Through the journey of a man and a family, Lianke takes the readers through the process of discovery, healing, and cooperation within a society. But also, through a process where factors or boundaries such as elites, government, rigid economy and decision-makers play a role in deciding the fate of many small villages and communities at large. 

The first interesting characteristic of the novel is that the narrator is dead. He is the grandson of the Ding family, who is poisoned at the beginning of the novel by the village people in retaliation for his father’s transgressions. His father was the main bloodhead within the village who set up his own private blood collection practice within which he did not follow health and safety measures, and therefore he caused many of the villagers to get infected by HIV and AIDS. Going back to comments from the April 2015 convener’s post on this novel, they mention how this narration and the insight provided by this relates to works previously read on this class.

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. 

As seen, by relating it back to Oedipus’s story and the play Ghosts, the idea of the sins of the father being passed on to the son remains a general theme in these types of tales, especially when it is used to provide an explanation for who gets sick in mass contagion. However, what this convener’s point fails to mention is how the sins go both ways, as the father (the Grandfather) also pays for the sins of his son (the Father).  As mentioned in this previous post, the omniscient and morbid narration of the death child serves to provide insight to the thoughts of all the main characters, from the Grandfather to the Uncle, and also to remind us how the child died for his father. However, this omniscient, ghost-like narrator also serves as a constant reminder to the Grandfather of what his son did and how he is the one who has to deal with the consequences. While the son (the Father) continues rising up and ignoring his mistakes, the father (the Grandfather) takes upon himself to take care of the dying, one of those being his own younger son, and cleaning up his older son’s mess. He is paying for the sins of his son. Moreover, the Father’s mistakes are also reflected on the rest of his family, from his wife to his younger brother, further proving that the idea of “the sins of the father” goes in fact many ways.

Thus, should the idea of the “sins of the father” remain as it is? Or should it be expanded to include all family members, in this case? 

Not only are people affected through the actions of their family members, but they are also affected by their fellow villagers. The role of society within this novel is strongly represented and used to show the intimate nature of village life. The villagers are driven in part by commerce and monetary gain, but also by the fear of judgement from others. Whenever anything happens within the novel, there are always spectators. When Uncle’s wife, Tingting learns about his affair, an entire mob of villagers follows her in interest as she marches to the school to confront him. The gossipy and judgmental nature of the village suggests a society which follows strict social guidelines (mannerisms, conformity), but one that is also easily swayed by crowd action. Once Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin take power in the town, they let loose with their influence and soon, the villagers are stealing everything from the school, the desks and black boards and beds. The villagers, sick and healthy, cut down all the trees in the villages to make coffins, tables, shelves, etc. They sacrifice the future of the village in these moments of ransack, sacrificing the school and the trees- representations of growth and learning.

These leaders are weak to suggestion and convenience, not considering the long-term welfare of the village, maybe because they themselves are dying of sickness? 

Some questions a previous Convener’s post raised, which are useful here

Should leaders conform to popular opinions to maintain popularity, like Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin? Or should they prioritize the overall sustenance of their people even if such acts would incur discontent, as in the case of Grandpa and former village head Li Sanren? 

Is it righteous to boost the overall economic growth of the country while inflicting some “unintended” regional sufferings?

Are they becoming better off defending their rights to coffins or are they digging their own graves by tearing down their own shelter and environment?

One may then ask, did the crisis lead to such degenerations or did it only bring out the dark sides of people?

The question of how to live in the face of inevitable death is one which recurs throughout the novel. Most of the characters we are presented with are dying from disease and they regularly use the excuse “I’ll be dead soon anyway” to justify their actions. At least the father, the one who made everyone sick, did not try to make up excuses for what he did, he simply does not apologize. While the sick villagers lose themselves to the ‘freedom’ and almost lawlessness which their inevitable death seems to allow them. This raises questions such as, how do we change when we are faced with death? Do people have the right to neglect the future if they know they will not be in it? How fragile are our social and individual values when faced with mortality, changing political structure, mob mentality? 

Another way of dealing with the sickness and possible death is quarantine. Early in the novel, we learn that “the higher-ups wanted to quarantine all the sick people in the village so that they wouldn’t spread the fever to the healthy ones.” Realizing that no cure is available, the government wants to contain AIDS. Grandpa acts on this directive by opening up the school as a place for the sick to come and stay. This is a zone removed from the main local community. Unlike other representations of quarantine in texts we have read so far, like Camus The Plague, where quarantined Oran suffers from “the ache of separation”, in Ding village, the sick village-folk find life in the school superior to even paradise. In the beginning, at least, it is “a paradise beyond compare” (70). Even later, Uncle says that people are eager to move back into the school (131). There is something about this “quarantine” that appeals to the sick masses.One reason for this might stem from how becoming a resident of the secluded school is presented as a choice for the ailing villagers. Grandpa says, “anyone who is sick can come and live in the village school. Now, I know the village hasn’t had a cadre in years, but if you’re willing to put your trust in me, I promise that I’ll take care of you.” (56) Prior to this, he asks for forgiveness for having played a part in facilitating the spread of AIDS. Grandpa’s guilt leads him to create a place that feels like a resort for the sick, not a barriered zone of exclusion. Initially, people can come and go as they please. So, it is a failed quarantine. Grandpa seems to believe a non-oppressive, magnanimous atmosphere can prevail in the school as everyone – already condemned to eventual death – will cooperate to enjoy their last days. Of course, thieving, and then blackmail grows in the school, and soon new constraints are put in place – a more quarantine-like quarantine is established. This raises questions about how people react to sickness and spaces created to host diseased people. Also, is there a middle ground between strict, authoritarian policies that stifle all freedoms for the sake of preventing infection and complete freedom to move and interact with people, which risks large-scale infection?

Also, in the text, blood-selling is also linked to nationalism and masculinity, while also being institutionally validated. Li Sanren, the former mayor of Ding village says to a blood-merchant, “what’s a few drops of blood, if it’ll help my country?” (88) showing the way he links his bodily fluids to his nation’s success. Earlier, however, when he was reluctant to engage in such activities, his wife asked him, “What kind of man gets scared by a few drops of his own blood?” (83). In developing China invested in realizing the “plasma economy”, the path to wealth, which is linked to the role of the male ‘provider’, is most easily accessed through blood-selling. The prosperity of many counties, like Cai, rests on it. A narrative of success and progress has been created to promote this activity. The government, for example, awards stars to display the best families – houses with more stars are better blood-sellers (35). Of course, the negative side of this is the spread of AIDS. While people give blood, coaxed by the wonderful future it promises for the individual and the collective, the eagerness to achieve the dream of a prosperous China blinds people and institutions involved from taking adequate precautions. In pursuing the infectious dream, one manufactured to be desirable, of money and development – a dream that leads to people like the narrator’s father to disregard health and other factors – a country leaves its citizens’ well-being behind. Socioeconomically motivated contagion triggers biological contagion, and dreams of homes on New Street lead people to infections that leave those houses empty.

How do the social, the economic, and the biological interact in the novel – in terms of contagious ideas, diseases, etc.? Why do you think economic development in a capitalistic mode, often come at the cost of disregarding the health of communities and interpersonal relationships?

An interesting element of the novel is how AIDS, the terrifying new disease, comes to be introduced to the infected people of Ding village. Grandpa says “what they told me is that the fever is really AIDS, and that it’s a contagious disease, like the plague” (57). The narrator goes, “some said that the government was planning to send trucks and soldiers to round up people with the fever and bury them alive in the Gobi Desert, like they used to do with plague victims long ago” (18). In both cases, AIDS, an unprecedented disease, needs to be contextualized in comparison to some other illness, so that it can be adequately communicated as a threat. The choice of plague links nicely with many of our other readings – from Bocaccio to Defoe to Camus to Stearns. Plague has been historically devastating, so, using it as a means to locate AIDS in the gamut of potential contagion serves the dual role – of familiarizing the public to the kind of sickness they are dealing with and also reasserting the uncontrollable danger it poses.

This raises questions relating to language and how it is used to share knowledge, especially about disease. What can a simile do, when comparing the treatment of AIDS victims and plague victims? What are the histories get evoked in the way something new is first presented? 

One notable image worth investigating is that of the “coffin factory” from an involuntary dream Grandpa could not escape (from page 116 – 122). How does the provision of mass-produced coffins for those who die of fever work in relation to the spread of AIDS? For a disease whose prevalence in Ding village stems from the authorities pushing the blood-selling/plasma economy agenda onto rural populations, how can the governmental response stop at just helping with the funeral? The issue of curing the victims seems to be conveniently pushed aside. The narrator writes of a dream, of a hope that “the government would have to do something for the people of Ding Village. It couldn’t just ignore them. It couldn’t stay silent, blindly doing nothing. Because who ever heard of a government that saw and heard nothing, said and did nothing, took no action and showed no concern? (114) Except, in reality, only coffins were forthcoming – little concrete aid for those suffering in the village.

What more could the government have done? Where does it fit into the novel, in relation to the blood-selling, the blood-merchants, contagious diseases and ideas, “the past, the future, the development of a ‘plasma economy’ and the need for a “strong and prosperous China”.

And finally, what significance does the most intricately fashioned casket hold? The most beautiful one, called the “finest model” (120), which seems to stand for a critique of the “Chinese Dream” – along the lines of an “American Dream”, which are contagious fictions constructed to idealize a dream of what a nation represents (to its citizens and the peoples of the world).

How does the startling discovery that “this vision of paradise”, meticulously carved on the casket, “[was] filled … with a television set, washing machine, refrigerator and an array of gadgets and household appliances that my grandfather had never laid eyes on” mean?

Separation, Loss, and the Berlin Wall

Image source:

(written by Bernice)

The sentiments of isolation in Albert Camus’ The Plague, especially in the beginning of part 2, reminded me of similar sentiments in Berlin in the early 1960’s when the wall was erected through houses and communities to separate East and West Berlin. Though parts of Germany were contested and divided between the American, British, French, Soviet troops after World War II Berlin remained fairly borderless and East Germans could cross to West Germany/Berlin relatively freely. However, this caused brain drain in Eastern Germany, prompting them to build a wall to prevent Eastern Germans from moving to the more liberal West Germany.

Like in Oran, families were unexpectedly split, and communities that once co-existed despite being at the border of West/East Germany were demarcated by an impenetrable wall. Similar to Oran, loved ones were torn apart and communication ran scarce and dangerous. Though the separation causes are different, this overarching theme of uncontrollable big events causing individual collateral damages runs through not only for Berlin and Oran, but through other parts of history. I write about this because the fall of the Berlin Wall celebrates its 30th year today (Nov 9), and 30 years later such separation and isolation of human beings still occur, as evident in contemporary political issues of family separations at the U.S. border. In reflecting on this, I wonder how we can humanize such grand occurrences? It’s books like Camus that localise such sentiments to a particular socio-cultural context, and allows readers to resonate more with specific stories of love, loss, and separation. New forms of media such as this now function as more contemporary ways to memorialize the individuality of such events. While these remediations of reality capture the nuance of human emotion and experience during such historical events, and allow us to ponder on the complexities of human experience especially under such circumstances.

Bound in the past, loom of the future

Ibsen’s Ghosts is a dramatic play that centers around the theme of family and inheritance. There are also other themes such as the role of women, power, and hierarchy that are present throughout the play, and all these themes are presented to the audience through the drama of the Alving family and their interactions with each other. In this play, most characters have a profound role that emphasizes their existence and their decisions are impactful that pushes the events of the play forward. Mrs Alving and Oswald have a somewhat complicated relationship – there is love, fear, protection, possession, tenderness, and confession. Mrs Alving goes through a long journey and makes decisions to protect her son and save him from inheriting anything from his father. Inheritance in this play involves what can be tangibly inherited such as a house, furniture, clothes, and money. The other type and most critical in this play is the intangible inheritance such as inheriting characteristics, personality traits, ideas, and tradition. In this review article, Hossain talks about the Hereditary Genetics and explores it through Ibsen’s play. He says “hereditary character of any kind is not an entity or unit which is handed down from generation to generation, but is rather a method of reaction of the organism to the constellation of external environmental factors under which the organism lives”. Looking at this definition through the lens of the play, Mrs Alving sent Oswald away early in age so he does not inherit or take upon the ideology that circulated their house. At the same time, while Oswald was away in another different environment, he was exposed to a lifestyle and adopted ideas that might not necessarily be accepted or appropriate at his original home. The environmental factors here are mixed up with Oswald, so where exactly does he lie within that spectrum? It is interesting, the fact that “most conventional genetic studies of human behavior are biased in which they include cultural transmission in the estimation of heritability, treating the situation as though cultural differences were genetic in origin”. This drives us to think about what exactly is going on in Oswald’s mind and where does the equilibrium between his foreign ideas and what he inherits lie?

Defoe: DePlague

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is a unique text which provides both historical fact and emotional narrative in order to portray the experience of London during the plague. Defoe references (or re-creates) Bills of Mortality, policies, signs on door, etc. throughout his piece, which gives the text a historical tone, yet he weaves personal narrative and the importance of talk between people as ways to further legitimize his depiction of plague. 

A post from Feb. 2019 poses questions about Defoe’s intention in using this format. 

What could be Defoe’s intention to write in that manner? Was he trying to make a historical account more gripping by including urban myths? Or was he trying to make fiction seem more relatable by supporting it with statistics?

These are very important questions when we consider the motives behind Defoe’s writing. Regardless of the intent, however, the effect is that we both believe the sources presented, and are gripped through the personal anecdotes and intrigued by the accounts he presents of the city. 

If his intention was to depict both historical and narrative perspectives of the plague, Defoe does this well through examining the attempted minimization of the impact of the plague, showing initial human resistance to accepting its spread in order to maintain order and not become objects of surveillance. For example, measures were taken to conceal the extent of its spread. He writes, “for all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at the thought of it” (10). People attempted to evade social stigma and the authorities as well, trying to hide their sickness. But at a point, it becomes impossible to conceal, and measures are taken. For example, houses are placed under surveillance. Yet, families still escaped the constraints placed by the government. This shows a disconnect between the on-the-ground reality of the plague, of which Foucault writes (in “Panopticism”, talking about disciplinary power) that “the plague-stricken town, traversed through­ out with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city.” In fact, we see how the exercise of power is not totalizing and people managed to move around and spread disease beyond the rules of quarantine. 

Regardless of intention, Defoe has a very clear framework for considering plague. He regularly mentions the parishes, in fact his entire account of plague-London is almost always set-up through a geographical account of the city and especially its limit (a.k.a. the city walls). We see that the plague is not fully feared by Londoners until it breaches the wall, even though the affected sick are just on the other side, and people move freely in and out of ‘the city’. 

One of the key questions we ask here is how do physical and socio-economic barriers play a role in how people perceive the plague as a threat? Moreover, does having a wall to prevent the disease from spreading and reaching the other side? Do people find having a physical barrier a way of reassuring their protection? On the other hand, how much more does the socio-economic barrier help in preventing the plague from reaching the people or be it more exposed to them?

We can also consider these questions in the context of our discussions on the barrier indifferent nature of the plague which affects all regardless of class, race, gender, etc. 

Though Defoe’s plague may seem, at least early on, to not cross physical barriers, it certainly seems to affect people regardless of class. However, he is also acutely aware of the rich people’s ability to escape the plague. Defoe notes, “The Truth is, the Case of poor Servants was very dismal… and of them abundance perished” (28) – bringing up, and then going on to elaborate on the way the plague impacted the servile classes, who were forced to continue working and lacked access to adequate support or treatment. This is in contrast to the excerpt from the Decameron, where the servants are not given much attention and whose health is not of importance in contrast to the Brigata.

Defoe simultaneously praises government officials for taking any action during this chaotic time, but also criticizes them for their inefficient policies. For example, a policy of quarantine is enacted in which watchmen are sent to guard the houses of the diseased in order to ensure no one enters or exits the houses, however, we learn through “Defoe’s” direct witnessing, as well as through second hand accounts told to him that this and many other policies do not actually work. 

“This is one of the reasons that I believe, that the shutting up Houses by force and imprisoning people in their own Houses…it was rather hurtful having forced those desperate People to wander abroad with the plague upon them” (Defoe, 61).

This consideration poses the following questions: How should the government respond to mass-hysteria? To plague? If people don’t feel free, can they ever accept quarantine? How harshly should we criticise government in moments of natural disaster? 

Whether or not this text is reliable or simply engaging, it offers us a platform for considering many questions about plague, human experience, religion and society.