Sickly Community in the land of The Red Gold

In Dream of Ding Village the poor community bearing the same name is suffering from “the fever”, an outbreak of AIDS that was spreading through the Chinese countryside as a result of the state-sponsored blood-collecting anxiety that took place a decade earlier; an incident that can be considered as a social disease that led the way to the literal pathogens that would later kill these villagers.

To some selling blood became an addiction, as described by the woman of the wealthier Cai county:

“It [i.e. selling blood]’s more like once every ten days or a fortnight. If you don’t sell at least that often, your veins start to feel swollen. It’s like being full of milk and not being able to nurse your baby.” (pg 37)

… To others the blood industry was a testimony to their greed, such as Ding Hui, who kept exploiting his countrymen, who disrespected the memory of his dead mother, and who built a three-story house just to prove his superior wealth and power to the rest of the village.

But it’s too easy to say that Ding Hui was the only corrupt member of that society. There’s also Li Sanren’s wife, who got jealous of her friends’ new homes and bullied her husband into donating blood, which led to him getting infected as well. In addition, the taboo of selling blood was broken by the entire society: the blood comes off as a metaphor of health that the villagers were initially reluctant to give up, but their avarice was able to defeat their previous beliefs, accurately portrayed in the following quote:

“For decade the villagers had come to the temple to burn incense and pray for wealth, but when they started getting rich from selling blood, they tore down the temple. They didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more: they believed in selling blood.” (pg 24)

Can the disease be thus interpreted as punishment for the villagers’ previous actions? Since individuals chose to donate their blood in exchange for money, what responsibility do the different members of the Ding Family have in the spread of the disease in their village? What about the government officials?

Another issue to be raised from these first volumes is the issue of behaviour in the face of death, a topic we’ve already addressed in Pushkin’s A Feast during times of plague. Ding Liang’s dialogue on page 78 argues in favour of abandoning previous social norms, since there’s no longer a reputation to maintain.

“Family, older brother, younger brother… what does any of that matter now? You and I are going to die soon.”

However, if Ding and Lingling can yield to pleasures, why can’t the thief that was disrupting their utopian society also indulge to the impulses (or reasons) that motivated him? Is there any way to tell how individuals will react when facing their end; will they follow the norms or disintegrate into anarchy? If so, what is such determining characteristic? Do the thresholds of right and wrong remain unchanged during these times  of suffering?

Ding Liang’s argument echoes another subject from Pushkin, which is the new community of those dying. Grandpa Ding also makes reference to the new and stronger bonds that tie these people together, stronger then the ties of blood with their family members who abandoned them or condoned their exile in the village school:

“But I never thought you’d steal grain from people in the same situation as you, people who are dying” (pg 101)

Ironically, this new relationship is also made up of blood (and contaminated one, at that). But the sick are as happy enjoying the rest of their lives.

In what ways do the sick cope with the looming presence of death better than the healthy? Are the sick exempt from the usual social norms due to their claim to “enjoy the rest of their lives”? 

Rafa, Vlad and Liam


 Add your comment
  1. In your post, you ask whether the people who are infected can exclude themselves from the norms that society pressures them to obey, since if they will die anyway they have nothing to risk in breaking the ‘rules of the game.’. I would like to reflect on this question in relation to a scene in Volume 4 where the dreams of Grandpa about the ‘murder’ of every tree in the village become reality: “ From the moment the sun rose, it began beating down upon the village, scorching people’s flesh. In the days to come, the villagers would wake from their beds, stand at their doors and gaze blank with surprise at the world outside. They would gaze at the barren landscape and wonder what had happened.” (p.198)
    What does the demolition of every tree (the symbols of life), by people in desperate need of coffins, represent? In my interpretation, the novel seems to warn us that even though sick people confident about their imminent death have the right to behave in any way they would like, in their selfishness they mustn’t forget about the generations that succeed them, since, for example, by destroying the natural landscape of the village they have subjected consecutive generations to the ‘caprice’ of the scorching sun and the barren landscape. I wonder, what is the Dream of Ding Village’s general attitude of our responsibility towards posterity? Do the sick people in the novel truly act selfishly by putting their own needs first in the shadow of certain death? What does selfishness really mean in a society that is about to collapse?

    • Laura,
      Thank you for your insightful comment. I think, as you yourself mentioned during class, the novel seems to present a truly profound connection between the villagers, their adversities, lifestyles and nature in form of trees, springs and other natural elements. I find the metaphor of people dying like “falling leaves” especially informative with regards to exploring this almost mythical connection to Earth in the novel. If we extended the metaphor, when the trees lose all their leaves for an unnatural reason, i.e. not the natural metamorphosis of nature during autumn in temperate climates, it is a sign of terminal disease and imminent death. If we picture the Ding village as the ‘tree’, this metaphor seems to make a lot of sense, as it is losing its vitality with the death of every villager. However, the reading of this particular turn of phrase becomes truly fascinating only after we realize that the connection between “falling” leaves and “falling” people goes beyond a metaphor, the inhabitants’ demise physically effects nature, the ‘falling’ leaves of human lives kill the literal trees. I think this physical connection that goes beyond symbolism, between the nature’s wellbeing and the village’s vitality becomes extremely obvious at the very end of the novel, where the terrain’s barrenness and the village’s desolation coincide. I think there is definitely more to explore here, but perhaps this a discussion that can be left for class.
      As for the question regarding the meaning of selfishness in a terminally ill society, I think an interesting aspect to consider would be the issue of how would we define a “collapse.” I think the novel actually seems to suggest that a society can’t collapse; even in the anarchy of continuous deaths we find order in this terrifying continuum of the macabre fever. In other words, I think the book shows that mass-death does not change society; it simply brings out what was already there. What do you think: does the concept of “selfishness” change in the face of the inevitable end? Could we consider the school-thieves and other characters selfish? Or are they just living their lives like anyone would… until the very end.

  2. In response to the question about the sick’s vs. the healthy’s response to death, it appears that sickness actually motivates people to live more fully since their lifespan is cut short. Instead of merely existing passively, being ill causes some of the characters to take risks and pursue what they would not dare to do under circumstances of good health.

    A perfect example of this behaviour is Uncle and Lingling’s controversial relationship. Since they are both sick with AIDS, they understand that death is looming, yet this does not dampen their feelings for each other. Instead, it drives both of them to file for divorce with their respective spouse so that the two of them can live together and get married. In the following passage, Uncle expresses his logic and attitude towards their relationship due to their death sentence:

    “‘Neither of us has much time left… No matter what happens in this life, at least we can be together in death. They can bury us side by side, and we’ll keep each other company.’ Lingling raised her head again, teardrops glistening in her eyes like big bright pearls. ‘What is there to cry about?’ Uncle asked, wiping away her tears. ‘We’re going to die anyway, so who gives a damn what other people say? We should move in together. I’d like to see them try to stop us'” (206).

    Similarly, Lingling unveils her hidden, adventurous nature when she is with Uncle: “When they were alone, her shyness disappeared, and was replaced by a wild, adventurous streak. At times, she was even wilder than Uncle. Because she was still young, barely in her twenties. Because she was going to die soon. Because every day, every second, every bit of happiness mattered” (221).

    How does the disease act positively in other characters and situations, both in this novel and in previous texts we’ve discussed? Can disease be a good thing? What does the sick’s behaviour in the face of death indicate about the fragile balance between life and death? In what ways are the healthy deprived from life more so than the ill?

  3. The idea that the disease brings about good in people’s lives is an interesting one to consider not only in terms of Lingling and Uncle but for other major characters. One should note that the manner in which different characters benefit from the disease varies.

    The father, for example, benefits from a purely financial standpoint. Not only is he able to profit from the rising plasma economy but he is also able to take control of the market for coffins. The father’s opportunism allows him to take full advantage of the outbreak.

    Grandpa benefits in a slightly different way. Unlike the father, who profits financially, Grandpa finds himself a role of responsibility as a result of the disease. His transformation from being the simple janitor of the school to being the leader of the haven set up for those afflicted is a beneficial one and adds to the notion that the disease can be a good thing.

    These are but two examples of ways in which the disease brought about good. It is fair to say that many characters experience good in their lives upon affliction. The construction of the isolated school society allows the villagers to adopt more fulfilling roles. They are no longer attached to the tiring monotony of “real”, healthy life. In becoming sick, they are able to start afresh so-to-speak and build their own, new mini village within Ding village.

  4. The links between Pushkin and Lianke go deeper too, as it is not only the reactions of those facing impending death that are similar. The two writers were also treated in a similar manner by their governments, persecuted due to their conviction of governmental critique. Both have had volumes banned in their home country, but neither have gone to the extreme of being exiled for the texts we have discussed.

    Truth tellers throughout history have had similar, or worse, fates. Who in this book do you feel are the truth tellers? Perhaps this falls on somewhat of a spectrum, the ‘truth’ that Pushkin and Lianke tell is based on some opinions of their respective governments. How do you think perceptions of truth tellers have changed over time: is Edward Snowden the modern day Pushkin and a contemporary Lianke, or is there something very different between these men? After all, in the words of Kurt Cobain, ‘it is the duty of youth to challenge corruption.’

    Apologies for the lateness, it’s been one of those weeks!

  5. Your post addresses the response of the sick versus the response of the healthy, to the disease. I think it is interesting to note that this novel differs greatly from the others in this aspect. Rather than debate over ‘fight or flight’, in other books, the characters in this novel seem to be content where they are. The fact that they have created their own unique community within the school presents a new perspective of looking at disease. Rather than encouraging a negative social behavior, the characters act in a productive way. The way the school is set up is as though it is its own functioning society – undisturbed by the surroundings. The characters live as though they were part of a microcosm. By forming their own society, they acted as though they were exempt from the rules of their surroundings. This behavior is brought about in the relationship between Ding and Lingling. Many of the questions brought up in this post are thought-provoking, and bring up prominent themes that were explored in other works we have studied.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.