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