Set in an imaginary village in China’s Henan province, Dream of Ding Village (2006) by Yan Lianke is a story about rural Chinese citizens who lived through China’s Plasma Economy. It reveals the sufferings that arose from this profit-seeking campaign. The novel invites us to imagine the early years of China’s AIDS epidemic, the time when farmers, or the villagers of Ding, awoke from dreams of wealth and prosperity to a fatal disease, their “dream” for a better life turned into a nightmare.
Ding Qiang, the murdered twelve-year-old boy and the narrator of the novel, is the son of Ding Hui, who was the village’s most scandalous bloodhead. The boy was poisoned by the villagers in retaliation for his father’s doings, which was setting up Ding’s largest and unhygienic blood bank that eventually caused the spread of AIDS, while using the profit to improve his family’s house. 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. Even though the grandfather dreamt that this would lead to a disaster, he still persuaded people to do it, obeying the request of the “higher-ups.” Who do you think is to blame for the blood selling? Does the dream aspect of the novel remind you of a story we have read?
The father’s greed has caused tragedies upon Ding’s villagers; it had ‘cost’ people their lives. The blood business has become very competitive to the extent that he put his plasma bank on wheels, pushing it around the village to collect blood. The blood selling business was booming and it seemed as though it became something sacred to them. The villagers “didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more; they believed in selling blood” and they sold it religiously (24). People seemed to be convinced that this trade will bring them more prosperity than religion. Selling blood became an ‘addiction’ and people’s veins started to feel like they will burst if they did not extract any blood. Once someone began to sell their blood, there was no coming back. They could not escape it just like they could not escape the fate that was coming their way (i.e. AIDS). The villagers have become so absurd that they were easily persuaded to sell their blood, even by the smallest self-serving kindness from Ding Hui and the other officials, particularly the former Mayor Li Sanren who absolutely condemned the campaign at first. Moreover, those who were against the idea at first had no other choice but to sell their blood as well due to social pressure. They were forced to give away part of themselves to be able to afford living in the village and feed themselves to survive. Little did they know, however, they were killing part of themselves by doing so. Why was instant gratification worth risking one’s life in this case? Whose fault is it that people had to resort to selling ‘part of themselves’ to make money? Is it an ethical way of dealing with loss of money (on the part of the government and on the part of the villagers)?
Bloodheads were getting out of control; they were demanding blood to the extent that they were bribing the villagers with words. They were like mad vampires, except they were able to walk in daylight. Ding Hui was the most manipulative bloodhead of all; he knew how to persuade the villagers to stretch out their arms to him and he made them think that when they get the money and live in comfortable conditions, that will, in turn, ‘stretch’ out their lives. A particular scene that shows how his bribery worked is when he convinced the resistant Li Sanren, the former mayor, to do just that:
While pushing his mobile blood bank round the village, Ding Hui saw Li Sanren working his field and asked him if he wanted to sell blood. Li Sanren angrily replied: “You Dings, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve milked this village dry.” Ding Hui, not wanting to lose a customer turns to Li Sanren, calling him “Mr. Mayor” which he knew was a strong way of getting him to listen, starts talking about the county cadres’ search for a new mayor. He then tells him that they had offered him the job but then exclaims: “Of course I’d never take the job, I told them there’s only one person in this village qualified to be mayor, and that’s you (87).
How effective is propaganda / manipulation in this situation? Those who benefitted financially from this scandal, such as Ding Hui, viewed this AIDS crisis as a good opportunity for making money. However, before the epidemic, when blood selling earned you money to live comfortably, everyone was happy about it. Only when the consequences of their decisions came, people started complaining. Do you think the people “asked for it?” Do they have the right to complain? Who is to blame for the start of the epidemic after all? Although it was the government who encouraged the trade at first, when people saw how beneficial this transaction was to their lives, they were willing to continue and sell more frequently each time.
Because doctors used unsanitary equipment for the procedures to lower costs and maximize profit, it was as though they were treating humans like production machines by disregarding their health and safety. The poor villagers were like slaves; the “higher-ups” were ‘buying’ their lives and benefitting from them, and then they left them to die. Would you consider this objectification? The villagers seemed to be even less than objects as they were treated with indifference and money was seen as more valuable than people. It is as though the father and the other bloodheads exemplified lack of empathy which is one of the characteristics of an ‘authoritarian personality.’
In addition to manipulation, indifference, instant gratification and ethics, other prominent underlying themes in this novel are power and pride. Ding Hui was a powerful man in Ding Village and he used his house as a reflection of this power. For instance, he refused to have a house on the same level as the other villagers: “When everyone else started building bricks-and-tile houses, my father [Ding Hui] tore down ours and built a new two-storey house. When everyone started building two-storey houses, my father added a third storey” (19-20). The people of Ding village were materialistic and used wealth to reflect their position in society. This is why Ding Hui bought all the unused machinery in the house, just to “show we could afford them.” (20). When the father was asked to apologize to the people for what he had done, his pride got in the way and, as a result, he said: “You’re not my father and I am not your son” (22). What do you make out of this situation? Do you believe that this reply was a consequence of the father’s powerful position? What do you think would have been his reply had he not been wealthy? Do you think that apologizing hinders one’s position or lifts it? What does Ding Hui think?
The theme of power also reoccurs when the county director visits the grandfather in school. The grandfather is asked to use his powerful and respectful position in the village to mobilize the selling of blood. The grandfather is in complete disapproval of the phenomena at first. However, due to the powerful position of the county director and the fact that he used his position to allow the grandfather to be nominated as a model teacher, he agreed to promote selling blood in the village. In the end, however, the grandfather becomes the caretaker of the sick villagers instead of the model teacher. This could be seen as the cost of choosing to obey the authority’s instructions in order for him to be raised to a better position (“You reap what you sow” ). Nevertheless, his efforts to help the sick at the school was done voluntarily out of compassion, restoring the humanity that was lost from the way the bloodheads treated the villagers. Do you believe what the grandfather did was morally justified (i.e. obeying authority to raise his position in society)? Is obeying authoritative figures more beneficial to the community than staying true to one’s self and moral standards?
The grandfather’s character reminds us of the doctor’s wife in the movie Blindness (2008) who did not catch the disease and remained in the asylum to take care of the sick. Both were willing to risk their lives and stay with the diseased to support them in their last days even with the idea that there was no cure (which the people did not know at the beginning of their stay in the school). Does risking one’s health, by any chance, remind you of Arthur Mervyn (1799)? Moreover, does the idea of secrecy and telling people there is a cure for AIDS (in the beginning) remind you of Dr. Rieux from The Plague (1947)? Another striking similarity to the movie Blindness is when the infected population created their own organized society in which the healthy held the role of the leader. Although the people did not get along at first and everyone was frustrated with their fate, they were forced to accept this destiny and work together for a better end to their lives. As we have seen in our previous readings as well, disease brings people together just like a celebration (shared feelings; the aim of ‘making most of today’). People collectively want to forget and that, as a result, intensifies their bonds. This is similar to Emily Davis’s quote from Priscilla Wald’s book: “The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community.” Can you draw a connection to Camus’s The Plague (1947) or Pushkin’s A Feast During The Plague (1830)?
Lastly, in order to understand the bigger picture of the way Ding Village’s society works as a whole, we found it necessary to examine the major setting of the plot: the village school. Prior to the epidemic and the rise of the phenomena of selling blood, this place used to be “part of a village temple dedicated to Guan Yu, the god of wealth” (24). From this explanation alone, we can come to a conclusion about life during this period in Ding Village. It is safe to say that people were humbled and religious, and were also filled with hope that one day, they would have their share of wealth. Following this period, the action of blood selling was introduced in the village and that is when “they [the villagers] started getting rich from selling blood, [that] they tore down the temple” (24). The change brought by selling blood to this society was massive. The religious beliefs of this society collapsed as they found praying for wealth useless when compared to selling blood. During this period, the people of Ding Village found that the best use for this physical space is education which is when the school was built. Years after the school was built, the AIDS epidemic started, which is when this place took on a different role in benefiting the society; it served as a safe haven for those who suffered from AIDS.
This selfless act proposed by the grandfather has helped re-establish some of the values this place had prior to being a school; the values of giving without expecting anything in return. It once again became a symbol of hope, but a completely different type of hope. People no longer hoped for wealth and were no longer materialistic. Instead, they hoped for the recovery of their loved ones; they hoped to go back to the time before they sold their own blood for the sake of money; they hoped to restore the humanity in this society that seemed to have died the moment they extended their arms for a few yuans.
Mahra, Aysha, and Ali
This is one of the greatest and longest posts I have read. As always, you have put forward numerous ideas.
The most interesting and complicated question addressed the idea of blame; who is responsible for the spread of the disease in Ding Village. As a simple as it sounds, the government is responsible for this. They should not have allowed individuals, doctors, and nurses to run a blood houses without training. The people such as the grandfather and his son did not mean aim to spread the disease by encouraging the people to sell their blood or run the blood houses. However, I do believe that the son should have apologized to the people.
Also, we have not discussed the symbolism of blood. In many cultures, blood signifies identity and reputation. “I spent half of my life working for the revolution, and now I’ve been reduced to selling my blood,” explained Li Sanren. After going against the communist party for years, he now follows their ideas and orders. To him selling his own blood, implies that he stands with the government, and all the years he has spent in politics were lost. Blood symbolizes his identity and belonging, by selling it he is assimilating to the ideas of the Communist party.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Firstly, I agree with you that the government played a role in the spread of AIDS in Ding Village. This is especially because they were the ones who persuaded the grandfather and the other officials to convince people to sell their blood to “better their conditions” and to benefit the larger national economy. One may claim that the people did not take necessary safety measures but it is the government’s responsibility to send trained professionals to inform its citizens to take safety percussions and to notify them about the risks of blood selling. Another argument one may state (as Aysha suggests in her comment) is that the government may not be aware of the unhygienic ways people are selling blood but it is their duty to routinely check and make sure their citizens are safe. I also agree that it was not the son’s or the grandfather’s goal to hurt people; they just wanted them to live a comfortable lifestyle. Although, the son does hold some responsibility because he continued to buy and sell blood even after the outbreak. Thus, like you state, an apology from the son to the villagers was needed instead of staying indifferent to the situation to protect one’s pride The symbolism of blood (i.e. its connection to one’s identity and reputation) that you bring up is very significant, especially since I do believe that one of the aims of the book is to critique the government. It is also interesting and ironic how Li Sanren wanted a revolution but he did not succeed and so, he became of those who listened and submitted to the government.
Thanks & Regards
Mahra Al Suwaidi
This a very intriguing and interesting post. I enjoyed reading it a lot. I do find some strong connections with Camus’ The Plague and Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague.
In the Pushkin play, the feast was seen as something that should not happen. The priest walks in and condemns the feasters for their actions. I feel like there is a odd connection to this play and the scene in Dream of Ding Village when grandfather walks of to the father’s house to ask him to do kowtow. When he grandfather arrives, the gates are locked suggesting a for of segregation from the dinner that was happen inside and the plague that was happening outside. When grandfather enters, he is given a seat at the table but he takes on a role similar to the priest. He asks his son to reconsider his actions and ask the people of the village to forgive him. His son refuse and just as Walsingham does, his son tells him he is not welcomed in his household again and tells his father to leave. What then is the significance of this scene that take place in the Ding household.
On the other hand, the scene in Camus’s The Plague where two of the characters go for a swim (I seem to have forgotten their names), is quite similar to the scene where the villagers gather in the school yard as part of the audience for Ma Xianglin’s concert. When the two characters go for a swim in The Plague, we get the sense that they are still aware of the plague, however, they would just like to escape the plague for a few brief moments. We get the sense that they just needed a break from the plague. However, they were not ignorant to what was happening like the feasters were. Similarly, Ma Xianglin had this concert so that it would cheer everyone up so that they won’t think of the fever for a few brief moments. Everyone knew that those with the fever would die but the concert was a way for everyone to take their mind off the reality of the plague that was occurring int he village at the time.
What other similarities have you found?
Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I believe that Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, Pushkin’s A Feast During The Plague, and Camus’ The Plague contain many similarities. In terms of Pushkin’s piece, the connection we came up with when writing the convener’s post is the fact that those who were in the quarantine (i.e. the village school) and were playing music to try to forget their sorrows were similar to the characters in Pushkin’s play because, in Pushkin’s piece, the people wanted to have a feast and escape the plague. I like how you specially related the grandfather to the priest as they both seem to be the sane ones who condemn other people’s actions. Moreover, Ding Hui is similar to Walsingham as they are both very prominent and they both stood out from the crowd (i.e. Ding Hui being a rich scandalous blood-head / Walsingham being the Chairman). I feel like Walsingham’s contemplation at the end and the connection he feels with the priest can also represent the relationship between the grandfather and Ding Hui as they are father and son. When it comes to Camus, the relationship we saw between his novel and Lianke’s is the idea of secrecy and the way in which the grandfather avoided telling the citizens that there was no cure for AIDS. Although, I like how you look at more specific examples and I believe that connecting the swimming scene in Camus’ novel to the concert in Lianke’s piece is significant as it shows how people wanted to live in the moment and enjoy it as much as they could because they are aware of the illness and that they will have to go back to reality once it is over.
Thanks & Regards
Mahra Al Suwaidi
Hey Mahra, Aysha, and Ali! Thanks for many great questions! 🙂
It is really amazing of you guys to identify many parts in the novel and connect to the ideas that we have discussed in other books or plays. While I was reading this novel, I indeed encountered some scenes that reminded me of the other books that we read, but I wasn’t able to connect them as many as you guys did. It’s very interesting! I do agree that the son being punished for his father’s sins has been one of the recurring ideas throughout our course (from the very beginning of the play we read, “Oedipus.” And yes, the instances that you have discussed also reminded me of “Arthur Mervyn” and “The Plague.” But, the idea of people collectively wanting to forget, creating a stronger bonds and interactions among them, thereby resulting in a community reminded me of Pushkin’s “A Feast During the Plague” too as you guys have mentioned. I think this theme is one of the recurring themes in contagion itself. Somehow contagion brings people together, sometimes making them create their own microcosm. This idea is also evidently seen in “Decameron” remember? 🙂 It also reminded me of Solnit’s “The Paradise Built in Hell.” I just merely get amazed how much connections we can make with the books that we have read in class.
And regarding the questions specific to the novel, I believe that even though some immoral actions might do benefit the society at some level, we shouldn’t do them because eventually unethical acts are wrong and will bring consequences (and selling of blood is one of them). Who is really to blame for the blood selling in the story? I think when usually when something bad or consequences happen, it’s not only the fault of one; many people are responsible for such result. Just like in this novel, I don’t think it’s only the government’s or grandfather’s fault. While they are the ones who gave the villagers the idea and initiated the act, the people in the village are responsible for easily accepting the decisions or ideas without any complaints. We can’t really definitely say that people asked for it, but they do have some responsibility for the epidemic. If the government does something wrong, it’s the citizens’ role or duty to speak up and stand for their right beliefs. This reminds me of the basic idea of dystopia. We shouldn’t be ignorant or merely accepting. We should think, give thoughts to the society, and be aware of our surroundings. The novel also seems to hint the fact that people are selfish in nature. We usually think for ourselves. The villagers only complain when they see the consequences; to some extent, grandfather obeying the government to raise his position in the society. Indeed, being selfish is discourage usually. But, I think it is somehow the reality. It is idealistic for people not to be selfish. But, as much as possible, we should try not to only benefit ourselves but think of the community we are in first.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I like the connection you make to Oedipus and he does, indeed, suffer because of his parent’s actions just like Oswald does in Ghosts and the son in Dream of Ding Village. As stated in the convener’s post, illnesses have the tendency to bring people together especially since plagues affect a large number of people and, as a result, they develop a collective identity because they are collectively suffering. I agree that diseases make people create their own “microcosm” and the characters in The Decameron by Boccaccio do just that. This is, in addition to Oedipus, another good connection to one of our readings. The reason why people come together in times of distress is because they have the same goals and / or are suffering from something similar so they come together for moral support. In terms of the second half of your comment, I believe that immoral acts may arise when attempting to do good. You should check out the Stanford Prison Experiment by Stanley Milgram because even though the experiment was labeled unethical, we learnt how aggressive people can be and how they can quickly act violently when wearing a costume and playing a role. This goes with your last thoughts on how people are selfish in nature (see Thomas Hobbes’ view on human nature). I do agree that it is difficult to blame a specific individual but we can agree that the government plays a major role in the spread of the illness (see my reply to Shereena for more details on why I think they and the blood-heads are responsible). You mention that the people could be at fault because they easily accepted the idea of selling blood but they were ill-informed about the risks of blood selling. Moreover, although I agree that people should speak up and stand up for their beliefs but, sometimes, these beliefs are not heard because don’t have a say in society due to their status.
Thanks & Regards
Mahra Al Suwaidi
Dear Shereena, Jenny and Roshenda,
Thank you all for the thoughtful comments! Regarding the question of whom to blame for the epidemic after all is quite a complex one. It is definitely the result of many factors and decisions including both the government and the citizens. However, I believe that the government carries a much larger responsibility in bringing the disease than the villagers. As Shereena points out, the government inattentively allowed any person to develop a blood bank of their own and begin to draw blood from people without the required training to do so. In addition to that, I believe that the government should be mostly blamed for the outbreak because they also did not make sure that the blood drawing process was done correctly and hygienically. I am not sure if the government was aware that people started to use one needle for more than one blood giver and did not take action or that they did not notice this unsanitary procedure at all. Nevertheless, because the government encouraged this campaign in the first place they should have looked at it closely and monitored the way it was working to prevent any harm.
Indeed, there are many connections that can be made between this novel and our previous readings. I like how Roshenda parallels the characters of the grandfather and the priest in Pushkin’s play. I can see how the two characters seem similar; they both wanted to lead others to do the right (moral) thing but both were disregarded by the “wrongdoers.” The priest, however, was guiding the feasters to reconsider their actions in respect for the dead while the grandfather’s intention was different. He wanted his son to apologize to kind of clear his name (and in turn his father’s name) as the villagers were blaming him (the grandfather) for his son’s actions that have degraded his position/image. The connection to that scene in Camus, The Plague is quite interesting! We haven’t talked that much about the scene of the concert in class so I’m glad you brought it up. When I first read this scene where the villagers just wanted to enjoy their time and forget their pain, I remembered the feasters and Boccaccio’s Decameron. The swimming scene in Camus, The Plague is also a great example of how the sick sometimes need to take a break from the disease and all the negative energy surrounding an infected place just to remember that they are still alive.