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?
In the novel, we notice familial ideas dictating the behavior of the characters, and in most cases exacerbating the circumstance. Familial notions of supporting the family drives most people to sell their blood, resulting in the spread of AIDS. Ding Hui and the government capitalize on the necessity for marriage, profiting by marrying off dead people to other dead people. The need for a coffin, to not shame the ancestors, leads to a general ransacking of the school.
The pervasiveness of familial notions, strengthened even in the presence of the plague, brings to mind the idea of ghosts from Ibsen. Past ideas and traditions remain in the present, exerting their influence even when people are on the verge of death. Instead of focusing on the present, people still struggle to abide by past ideas.
The casket carvings offer an abstract utopian world. A place where the dead perhaps can go, where they might be treated better comparably to the world they died in. Yet, whether the utopia is abstract or concrete, it is just that, a dream. However, what the utopias do offer is a sense of hope. More importantly, the casket carvings provide an answer to an ever-important question within all the texts we have read: What makes life worth living in the face of death? Material goods seem to be the answer from the caskets, but we should not trust this illusion. Striving for wealth, via material good, is impart what kills Ding Hui. Searching for answers to these questions opens up a much larger can of worms. In fact, by asking this question we begin to explore one of the foundational questions of this course. Is it art? Human connection? Love? Hope?
Some things remain unresolved following our two discussions of this text. (Really not enough time with it! Sorry!) One is whether monetizing blood is itself inimical to blood as a source of family identity. Another is whether family identity itself is problematic: from Ibsen back to Oedipus we’ve seen a variety of ways in which the inheritance of family identity can be pretty problematic. I would love for us to think about some of these representations of damaged families to see if we can be quite specific about variations on the theme. Where do these texts make similar cultural diagnoses and where do they contradict one another?
As Yoon mentioned in his comment, there are familial ideas that are dictating the behavior of the characters in this novel. Characters such as the narrator’s father who aimed to support his family by selling blood. Behind this noble cause, however, is greed in my opinion. This greed made the father blind to the consequences of his actions, resulting in the father’s sins being passed onto his son, ultimately leaving him for dead. This brings me to the issue of filial piety. In Confucianism, children are eternally bound to their parents. Does that extend to their parents’ sins as well? Did the narrator really have to pay for his father’s sins with his life? Finally, the fact that the grandfather has also been carrying the sins of his own son has left me surprised and confused. Not to mention that he has also been disrespected on multiple occasions by him. According to my limited knowledge about China and the Chinese community, is that filial piety is a very sensitive issue and is not something to take lightly. Why did the author create an entirely different family dynamic between these two characters?
As Alia mentioned in her comment, the question of the narrator paying for his father’s deeds is still an open question? Was it him paying for the horrific medical negligence that his father did, or was he just another victim of this blood selling act, which had affected many thousands of other villagers? One could call it a combination of the two. Perhaps, this was actually a punishment for the narrator’s father, to teach him that what he inflicted on so many others could come back to his own home.