I was struck, while reading a 2016 interview with Zhao Liang, the director of the documentary Together, by the following description of China’s contemporary “ghost cities”:
There are hundreds of ghost cities like that in China. They are nearly everywhere: in “tier 1” cities [metropolises], in “tier 2” cities [provincial capitals], and “tier 3” cities [cities of smaller dimensions and secondary economic importance]. There is a ghost city in my hometown as well. The ghost city is caused by the blind development, by the unplanned expansion. It is a consequence of the economic model with Chinese characteristics, which is not following the economic laws, namely the regulation of price driven by the supply-demand system. As a matter of fact, the ghost city is the result of one of the many economic bubbles artificially created by the Chinese political system. In China, the price of property is manipulated to allow investors to make huge profits. The possibility of speculation nurtures a fever of real-estate investments, hence the flow of “hot money” in the sector over the past few years. Local governments actively encourage property developers to construct more and more new cities by offering them preferential policies. This way, the government can boast its land-developing achievements and Gross Domestic Product figures, and more plots of land and buildings can be sold under these circumstances. However, the bubble doesn’t last in the long run. These days, making money in real estate has become very hard in China because of oversupply. Hence, all the failed mortgage repayments by the investors, the bad debts, the banks acquiring property, the ghost cities.
One way to read the dream passages in Yan’s Dream of Ding Village, then, may be as a prophecy of or commentary on precisely this phenomenon. The caskets themselves become more than just emblems of hyperdevelopment: they become ghost cities, residences for our spectral narrator an others like him. The final irony in Yan’s novel is that not even the ghosts want to live there. “All I knew was that my home was Ding Village,” the narrator says as his family prepares to rebury him in a new-and-improved casket, covered with scenes not just of Chinese metropolises but Paris, New York, and London as well. “I didn’t care how fancy my casket was, or if the gold paint on it was real, or if it was worth as much as all the land in the village” (320).
His cries, as they carry him away in his new casket (“Save me, Grandpa, save me…”), fall “like raindrops on to the parched and blighted earth” (321). Could this be the beginning of the rainstorm that finally transforms the plain in the novel’s final paragraphs?