Live The Life Together

On the spine and back cover of Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, there are Chinese characters meaning “Live the life together.” Interestingly, these characters are not translated into English. This hidden message of sorts, for readers who cannot read Chinese characters, is not lost, as its message becomes evident through the text.

As AIDS sweeps through Ding Village, leaving the once-prosperous streets barren as a winter field, a makeshift quarantine is imposed on the village. Ironically, while quarantine is used as an isolation method for the infected, two characters find solace in the village’s tragedy. Lingling and the narrator’s uncle, both ostracized by their spouses, find comfort in each other’s dying arms, creating warmth in a place that had none. This response to the AIDS contagion is strikingly similar to Welcome to Our Hillbrow, where Refilwe and her Nigerian lover die together with AIDS, meeting in heaven after their mortal days had expired. In the midst of tragedy, it seems there is often a uniting force that sadness has upon a people. Lingling and the narrator’s uncle, choose to live their last moments together instead of succumbing to the loneliness of death.

Another parallel one can draw between Dream of Ding Village and Welcome to Our Hillbrow, is the use of atypical narration. In both texts, the story unfolds like a eulogy, filled with languor and melancholy. Refentse is already dead in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, and the dead, unnamed 12-year-old can only watch from beneath the schoolyard as his family and his village wither away.

Dreams are an element evident in both Angels in America and this text. Grandfather’s dream in Volume 3 contains as much allegorical and sociopolitical significance as those in Angels in America. While AIDS is crippling Ding Village and the winter wind howls against the schoolyard quarantine, Grandfather dreams that springtime has come, and with it, blossoming fields of rainbow flowers seductively perfume the air. Underneath the soil, gold is discovered in the form of coins and bullion. However, Grandfather awakes, realizing that the only thing beneath Ding Village’s barren soil is a pool of blood. Like Angels in America, this dream suggests a dream gone astray and replaced only with pain and despair. For all the labor the Mayor and the Communist Party have put into modernizing Ding Village, the only real returns are disease and destruction.

The biblical epigraph highlights the theme in Dream of Ding Village of the dichotomy between desolation and prosperity. In the Old Testament, Joseph predicts that Egypt will experience several years of unprecedented fertility and harvest, followed by a terrible famine. Similarly, the villagers experienced years of prosperity from selling their blood, even adding a new street with large houses. However, after the “fever,” as they call it, falls upon the village, the prosperous period comes to an immediate end and those infected with AIDS can only wait to die “like falling leaves” as others before them. The selling of blood was at first taboo until the villagers saw another prosperous village that made its fortune off of blood. The drive to sell one’s blood to elevate one’s material status is a motive for many of the villagers. This materialistic view drives the village’s ascent to prosperity, and yet the blood boom fostered neglect for health practices such as using sterilized needles or fresh cotton swabs.

As our third text about AIDS, Dream of Ding Village has opened up a new view of the disease from the perspective that it is not strictly sexually transmitted. The attitudes and connotations of AIDS are different in this book versus the previous two. In our class discussion this may be a good thought to keep in the back of our minds.

– Allen, Diana & Adam


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  1. “…yet the blood boom fostered neglect for health practices such as using sterilized needles or fresh cotton swabs…” No, the lack of regulation, absent health and safety mechanisms, and ease of exploitation underpinned by the desperate poverty – these fostered neglect for health practices such as using needles or fresh cotton swabs.
    Think of drugs. Simply speaking, these are substances that alter the way the body works. However, most pose risks and have negative side effects. But as long as the benefit of a drug exceeds the side effects, it is used. In biochemical terms, the risk is evaluated by the therapeutic index; the ratio of LD50/ED50 (lethal dose to 50%/effective dose to 50%). If you take too much of anything, then it will result in a negative net outcome. However, over exploitation of the drug makes people have negative views about the drug, rather than about the overexploitation. Morphine is a particularly useful drug, if used correctly, and inherently has nothing ‘evil’ about it, but when abused, can be percieved as a social vice. Hence there is a need to regulate its usage for maximum social benefit. Similarly, nothing is inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘materialistic’ (and all its connotations) with blood, but if its trade is left unchecked, then we will witness blood abuse, and this abuse taints the blood’s actual value. There is a level at which one should not be allowed to give (or take) any more blood because the side effects lead to a net negative outcome (tiredness, unproductiveness, low immunity, death) just as there is a point at which it becomes illegal to drive under the influence. My post will elaborate further on this.

  2. “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.
    I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
    I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
    I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar’s child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.
    Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flea the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.”
    -‘A Modest Proposal’ by Dr. Jonathan Swift, 1729

  3. Suel’s comment implies an important aspect of the blood trade in Ding Village – to approach the practice as viable in the long term and as perfectly normal would be akin to accepting Swift’s Modest Proposal as something other than satire.

    In the same way that suggesting the sale of Irish children for consumption is absurd and despicable, coercing others to sell their blood as a means of making an income is not a nice economic gesture to the lower classes, it is demeaning and morally wrong. Blood is part of one’s person, and thus holds more meaning than simply a liquid off of which to make a quick buck. Blood is the life force that runs through every human’s veins. A contagion of confused morals or values definitely afflicts the inhabitants of Ding Village. To sell one’s own blood in order to procure newfound materialistic wants, such as a new bottle of shampoo, is not healthy and it is not sustainable.

  4. Suel’s statement indeed implies an important aspect of the blood trade in Ding Village and Diana’s response seems to make perfect sense to me. Looking at the practice as feasible and normal would be similar to Swift’s proposal, yet it is a very thought-provoking approach.

    Kefa’s point on blood trade is great, but I don’t completely agree with it. Using the example of drugs is a good way, though it would never have occurred to me, to be honest. I don’t like the whole idea of trading blood – the way it worked in Ding Village – but as Kefa suggested, if it had been better controlled than maybe negative consequences could have been partially avoided. I agree there should be a limit – if blood business must exist – to donate blood hence minimalizing the side effects of possible loss.

    Blood is scarce, so it should be worth a lot of money, yet it somehow loses its value in China and becomes cheap – and still it is a good deal for citizens to make a living. This is very sad, and it clearly shows that the difference – the loss value – is making someone (Ding) far better off, exploiting the needs of people. The practice of blood trade as it happened in China is definitely not okay and neither should it claimed to be as viable.

    • Suel’s quote about “A Modest Proposal” shows an interesting parallel between consuming babies and selling blood. As Diana has pointed out, blood means more than a commodity in the economic system and carries moral value to it. As a follow-up of last class’s interesting debate about whether blood-selling is the perfect market system in terms of sustainability, I’d like to add this review of the book “What Money Can’t Buy” to debate.
      “In What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel shows how goods can change their nature when they are supplied through the market. Blood that is donated by volunteers to the NHS may not be physically different from blood sold to commercial blood banks in the US. But treating blood as a commodity has moral consequences. Not only does the blood that is bought and sold come largely from the poor; the social cohesion that is promoted when blood is collected by means of a gift relationship is lost. The idea that markets can rule as long as the distribution of income and wealth is corrected was accepted by many left-leaning economists. But although it may be an improvement on the worst kind of market fundamentalism, redistributive market liberalism is a flawed philosophy.”

  5. Thanks for that link, Kee. That’s a great statement of the argument against making blood a commodity like any other.

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