Moral Issues in Dream of Ding Village

Yan Lianke was interviewed by Laura Dombernowski in connection to the Louisiana Literature festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark in August 2015

From 10:35 to 14:06, Yan talks about the composition background, the theme of love and his understandings of Dream of Ding Village

The Dream of Ding Village is based on the government encouraged blood-selling tragedies in Yan’s hometown, Henan, China in the early 2000s. Through the medium of the grandson’s ghost narrative and the dreams of Grandpa, Yan narrates the demise of the AIDS-stricken Ding village while raising a series of moral questions in a detached and surreal tone.

The novel opens with the sudden realizations of Grandpa, who pinpointed the origin of AIDS to the blood-selling campaign he acquiesced in ten years ago. Pressured to meet development metrics, the local officials aggressively allured the skeptical villagers with monetary benefits, yet failed to inform them the danger of excessive blood sales or unhygienic practices. Consequently, as limited official blood stations in rotation and inadequate regulations of black market gave rise to the explosive growth of private blood collectors, under-informed villagers became the prey of ruthless blood sellers, who prioritized commercial gains at the expense of citizens’ health. The novel thus brings our attention to the devastating implications of a public policy that lacks of a proper set of supporting regulations. It also prompts us with the question of how should a government balance between overall capitalist progress and individual human well-beings. Is it righteous to boost the overall economic growth of the country while inflicting some “unintended” regional sufferings?

On the community level, moral issues centered around the paradoxical theme of justice. In an attempt to revenge on Hui, who exploited them by extracting blood unhygienically and selling coffins they were entitled to, villagers poisoned Hui’s innocent, defenseless child to death. Without the slightest regrets, the villagers believed the sufferings Hui inflicted upon them justified for such acts and that it was only fair for Hui to suffer like them. This similar mindset resurfaced again when the community destroyed their living environment under the excuse of justice. Upon the approval of the new leaders, Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin, who were trying to reinforce their popularity, the villagers looted all the property from their communal shelter, the school, and stripped bare of all the trees in the Ding village in a revelry. Again, they were unapologetic, believing that these acts were “righteous” compensations for their coffins taken away by Hui. 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? Here, Yan also brings into question the role of a leader in crisis.  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?

Moral questions are also manifested in the degeneration of core relationships between individuals. Hui continued with blood selling, despite the consequential death of his son and Grandpa’s threats to sever relationship with him. Married couples turned their back to their diseased partners, as in the case of Tingting and Xiaoming, while the sick sought to vengefully infect their partners. And to help Genbao get married and be a real man (Yan, 160), the whole village was willing to lie to a girl from another village, while judgement was passed on to Grandpa, the only person who found such act troublesome. One may then ask, did the crisis lead to such degenerations or did it only bring out the dark sides of people?

In summary, the Dream of Ding Village is a sad story ridden with moral issues spread across the government, the community and the individual levels.


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  1. The theme of hope from Marium:

    The dilemma around the ‘new medicine’ was especially intriguing because it highlighted how hope, even the false pretense of it, has the power to radically change mindsets until truth or morals reigns in. Ma Xianglin’s zhuizi performance, promoted by Grandpa as the ‘the strength to last until the new medicine gets here’ (Yan, 43), embodies the anesthetic and devastating effects of false hope harbored by the villagers, which led to Ma Xianglin’s temporary vigor on stage and sudden death right after Hui exposed Grandpa’s lie. A similar pattern could be observed in the rise and fall of the shelter at school. The school where all the sick accumulated in order to receive proper care and keep their families safe also provided temporary release from reality, where ‘life in the school seemed like paradise beyond compare’ (Yan, 70). This held true until the ‘thefts in school were escalating like an infestation of rats’ (Yan, 71) and the affair of Liang and Lingling was exposed, leading to the change in leadership and subsequent lootings similar to narratives in typical plague settings.

    • I always like to think of Ma Xianghlin’s performance scene in comparison with the opera scene in Camus or the dancehall scene in Pale Horse. What do we make of these performances/audiences in comparison to one another?

  2. This post raises some interesting questions about morality and leadership, and to tackle these themes, it would be worth discussing the character of grandpa. Unlike his sons, grandpa seems to be trying to do the right thing and helps the villagers as much as he can. Grandpa uses his role as a caretaker of the school to invite all the sick to stay with him in the school. He upholds his morals as he tries to protect the school property from being stolen by the villagers. For some part of the book, he becomes the leader of the sick, though not sick himself. Yet, grandpa’s character is not completely pure as he does try to strangle his own son Hui (and no spoilers here but grandpa’s most immoral action occurs at the end of the book). A question I would like to raise is whether he to blame for the actions of his sons, particularly those of Hui. If so, is he just doing damage control for the actions of his sons?

    • Thank you Tereza for bringing up Grandpa’s interesting character into examination! I had quite paradoxical feelings for him during the read.

      In my opinion, Grandpa’s high morals along with his weaknesses in character render him a pathetic leader. He does not understand human nature fully and lacks the maneuver to maintain order in a time of crisis. Fully aware of the damage and scope of Hui’s misdeeds, he was naive enough to believe that simple apologies would earn the forgiveness of villagers. Guilted into affairs of Liang, he did not question the morality or intents of Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin before handing over his authorities. And for the one time Grandpa prevailed in keeping the tables of the school, he immediately felt sorry for the nepotistic Genzhu who backed off only to revenge on him later. While he always emerges as the moral figure, against villagers practices of looting school property, chopping down trees or cheating the neighboring village’s girl, he is too saint to engage in anything tactful to stop them besides plain exhortations.

      And back to the point of damage control, my personal opinion is that, despite Grandpa’s high standards with himself, he is especially and understandably lenient to his sons. Grandpa subconsciously chooses to downplay or cover up for his sons instead of punishing them upon discovery of their wrongdoings. In a sense, he has been doing damage control for the actions of his sons throughout the book. I haven’t read to the point of Grandpa strangling Hui, but I speculate even this act could arguably be interpreted as a deterrence for villagers to further harm the “innocent” family members of Hui?

  3. I think that the question of morality is treated very adequately as regards Hui, the community, and interpersonal relationships. Something that stood out to me in the novel is the central problem of selling blood, and while the post talks about it in terms of policies, the black market, and hygiene, it is also important to highlight the importance of blood as a signifier in itself. In capitalism, money is exchanged through trade of labour or commodities (part of why Engels said that proletarians sell themselves daily and hourly). This “selling” part of it seems to play a role here: what is being sold is not labour, but blood: a fluid the body needs to stay alive.

    Thus, I’d say that the question of morality is not just limited to community and interpersonal relationships, but also to this bodily capitalism that requires the selling of one’s health and vitality in the name of progress (something that you do mention when you question unintended regional sufferings). More importantly, the problem also raises with Hui and the problem with the blood black market: the benefits of blood selling don’t result in the kind of progress everyone was expecting, but rather it brings disease with it. The selling of blood becomes the acquisition of AIDS.

    (On a kind of related note, the novel kept reminding me of a Californian start-up from the end of last year and the beginning of this one called Ambrosia that offered old people the chance to get blood transfusions from young people for $8’000 a litre; might be worth considering to analyse the predatory nature of capitalism?)

    • I think your comment is very interesting Julian. And I completely agree, it’s one thing for people to be selling their labor, and it is another to normalize selling your own blood. It’s almost like opening a new market of selling organs to make extra money (and of course that happens but is not normalized) so how is a whole economy based on selling blood normalized in this text?
      I’m also always happy to analyse the predatory nature of capitalism, but maybe not only in the actions of the entire village selling their blood, but also in the people exploiting them, and telling them they need to be doing these things, aka selling blood for bigger houses and washing machines? Or Hui selling their free coffins? Do you blame the people enforcing the system, or the followers of the system?

    • The first time I assigned this book (back in Contagion 1.0, fall of 2012) we had a heated discussion on the ethics of blood-selling. Should people profit from their own blood, literally? And what does blood mean in symbolic terms (being bled dry? blood ties? etc.). There’s a lot here to discuss as Julian mentions.

  4. This is an interesting layout of the novel, yet it is also important to point out the aspect of how the narrative is illustrated and portrayed. Often we are thrown off our path in the story when trying to distinguish the perspective of Grandpa and of the narrating dead boy that is the son of Hui. It is interesting to contemplate the implications of such a narrative in a novel like this, that of a dead boy that no longer contributes to the present day of the story except as being another number in the death toll, and that of the protagonist Grandpa, whom we may consider stood helpless as he witnesses the disastrous unfolding of his village (though his role is somewhat controversial: a victim of the system, or a failure to help prevent disaster?). We have read novels with fictional narrators, present narrators, and even (mostly) anonymous narrators, what does it mean for a story about contagion, family, and community to adopt the eyes of a deceased young boy?

  5. Hi Noelle,
    I think u raise a very relevant point, why does Yan want the readers to see a rather somber, mature story through the lens of a young boy? There are instances in the novel that create inconsistencies in narration because surely a boy would have trouble commenting on coffins, and blood donations and people in distress. However, it can almost be seen as a critique of sorts by the author, Yan perhaps, tries to allude to the fact that we are still seeing these issues in a naive manner, much like a child would. Additionally, everyone in this novel knows their life is coming to an end, so who better give us perspective than someone who is already on the other side? Apart from our young deceased narrator, the book also has a few dream sequences, and those have a similar effect to the narration. The dreams are a representation of a parallel world in which potential outcomes have already happened. although they often foreshadow the events in the novel, they can be seen as points of view from the afterlife- experienced by the living.

    • I think you’re right that the ghost-child-narrator is a figure of unprejudiced clarity, but are there any places where he doesn’t seem to understand the full effects of the things he narrates? Or are there places where the dreamworld seems even more confusing than the real one?

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