Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke is a powerful book: like The Plague by Albert Camus it shows how quickly a society can degenerate under pressure…
Ding Village is a microcosm of society: it has been a small, inconsequential part of China’s backdrop for centuries. Its traditions and ways of being have withstood all kinds of change over time, but the onset of HIV/AIDS means it is doomed.
Here in Australia supplies for our Blood Bank are donated. There is no financial incentive for anyone to give blood and donors maintain our blood supply out of a sense of wanting to help others. But in China, impoverished illiterate peasants were beguiled with payments for blood donations that enabled them to better themselves materially; and under pressure from the ‘higher-ups’ they were induced to donate more than they should because there were quotas to fill. An entire industry erupted to facilitate blood collection, and procedures that are now routine to prevent transmission of blood-borne viruses were not used. HIV/AIDS – with its cruel time-lag of 8-10 years before any symptoms show – became rampant and is decimating Ding Village.
For the past two years, people in the village had been dying. Not a month went by without at least one death, and nearly every family had lost someone. After more than forty deaths in the space of two years, the graves in the village cemetery were as dense as sheaves of wheat in a farmer’s field…Every one of them had died of AIDS. (p9)
The story is narrated by a boy, a narrative device which enables a detached omniscient point-of-view but precludes mature judgement. He observes, but he does not understand, and though late in the story he conveys his own anguish, he lacks the emotional maturity to empathise with others. Most of the time, his presence as a ‘character’ is invisible, and the reader forgets that it is a child telling the story.
Grandpa Ding is the town’s de facto leader, and its moral compass. Like everyone else he had believed at first that AIDS was
a foreigners’ disease, a big-city disease rumoured to affect only deviant people. But now China had it too. It was spreading across the countryside and those who were getting sick were normal, upstanding people. The sickness came in waves, like swarms of locusts descending over a field and destroying the vegetation. If one person got sick, the only certainty was that many more would soon follow’. (p10)
This paragraph encapsulates the blind ignorance and prejudice that hindered funding for research and for preventative programs which in turn led to the spread of AIDS throughout so much of the world. And assuming that Lianke’s story is set in the present, he seems to be saying that in China where shoddy blood collection procedures exacerbated the spread of the disease, there is no effective support for the people affected: no medicines to slow the progress of the disease, and no medical services.
So it is up to Grandpa to organise self-help, and he persuades the villagers to quarantine themselves in the local school. It starts out as a kind of Utopia where since there is no hope of a cure and only a limited time to live, everyone will work together to make the best of their situation. There will be equal contributions to the common pool and sharing of resources – but this turns out to be a dream…
In the claustrophobic world of the school, people’s basest instincts soon come to the fore. There are thefts of food and precious belongings; there is spiteful gossip; there is competition for power; and there is rampant profiteering. Traditional values are upended as Grandpa – who should be revered as an elder – is blackmailed into surrendering his power because of his son’s actions. There is a new social and pecking order, and soon Grandpa finds that ‘school is a different country and Grandpa was no longer a citizen’ (p172). Even when there are some who demur, they feel they have to go along with the new order of things of it ‘will look bad’ but the Chinese concept of ‘losing face’ becomes flexible indeed when established marriages are dissolved as long as the right kind of bribe is paid.
Profiteering takes a bizarre turn when – having exhausted the village’s trees and existing furniture for the manufacture and sale of coffins – Grandpa’s son hits upon the idea of marrying off the dead and collecting matchmaking fees for it. Grandpa is appalled by this and other degradations, but he is powerless to influence anyone any more.
So Dream of Ding Village is not just about the impact of HIV/AIDS, but more broadly about how rapid development in China is subverting traditional values to create a society based on the profit motive. While ordinary people are persuaded to give up long-held values in order to improve their lot, they do not realise that their way of life is becoming irretrievably corrupted.
It’s not easy reading, but Dream of Ding Village definitely deserves its place on the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist.
Update: as you can see from the logo, Dream of Ding Village was also shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Author: Yan Lianke
Title: Dream of Ding Village
Translated by Cindy Carter
Publisher: Corsair, UK 2011
Source: Personal Library