Dream of Ding Village tells the story of a village destroyed by unregulated blood selling. Gloomily enough, the novel is narrated by a 12 year-old-boy who died without ever having sold his blood; instead, the narrator, Ding Quiang, was murdered by villagers with a grudge against his father, Ding Hui, the local blood head. Quiang goes back in time to the beginning of the blood boom in Wei County of Henan province, detailing how government officials first set up blood banks and then, how his father found a niche in the market. Ding Hui bought blood from the inhabitants of Ding Village as well as those of other nearby villages, and sold it for profit. At first this brought great prosperity, although those who sold blood frequently were weakened by the practice, but then, roughly ten years later, people started coming down with what Quiang and the villagers called “the fever.”
Nearly everyone who sold blood to Ding Hui or his subsidiary blood heads, about one person in each household of Ding Village, got “the fever”: AIDS was passed from person to person through re-used needles. This puts an end to the blood boom in Ding Village, though not before Ding Hui’s financial success enabled him to build a three story tile house in a village of one room mud huts. A few villagers who worked for Ding Hui were also able to build tile houses; but after the blood boom most of the villagers were no better off than before, and many had contracted HIV.
Despite the tragedy that resulted from his actions, Ding Hui refuses to apologize to the inhabitants of Ding Village. Instead, taking advantage of government subsidies for those infected with AIDS Ding Hui continues to turn a profit at the expense of those already injured by his actions. First he sells the government-provided food for profit, then coffins (a commodity in high demand), then he begins to profit from matchmaking—helping families find dead husbands and wives for their dead daughters and sons.
Unfortunately, like most stories of corruption and tragedy, Ding Hui cannot be blamed for all of the problems of Ding Village. As Quiang’s story unravels, it reveals the superficiality and selfishness of the villagers who—faced with death after death, whether their own or that of loved ones—come to value coffins and funeral preparations and even the wedding of two dead children over living. Because Ding Hui has sold the government subsidized coffins elsewhere, and straw mats are no longer fashionable containers with which to bury the dead, the villagers strip the local school of desks, doors and window frames and then, needing still more material for coffins, begin cutting down the village’s venerable trees. When they’ve finished, Ding Village has no school and no shade. Having no future themselves, those infected with AIDS cease to think of the future at all.
Despite the pettiness of many of those faced with an early death, two characters, both infected with AIDS, find solace in each other’s love. Of course, they, like all of the other infected villagers, eventually die painful deaths.
Although the author, Yan Lianke, does not end the tale with much if any hope, he does write the story well, weaving poetry throughout and using repetition in a way I’d not previously seen in a novel. The beauty of the poetry somewhat relieves, though in no way diminishes, the horror of the story.
In addition to being well-written and engaging, this book illustrates the real and continuing problem of disease spread via blood-selling in China. And, as the novel shows, the repercussions of HIV continue for decades after an initial outbreak because the virus takes so long to make itself known. Even were blood-selling eradicated today, families, especially poorer ones, would suffer for generations. Indeed, one man interviewed by the BBC in 2001 was in a very unfortunate predicament: his son sold blood to make ends meet and contracted AIDS, in response, the man spent all of his money on medicine leaving nothing with which to send his soon-to-be-fatherless grandchildren to school.
Further, according to a ChinaDaily article from September of last year, the Chinese government banned blood selling in 1998, but the practice continues in the guise of compensated “donation.” Rather than being paid for their blood, the poor and desperate receive a “nutrition fee” and “traffic fare.” The government could crack down harder on blood “donations,” but the real problem is oppressive poverty; for the fictional characters of Ding Village as well as many real people in China—as well as the United States—selling blood is a last ditch effort, something one does out of need. While clean blood for transfusions is an important aspect of modern medicine, taking advantage of the poor is morally questionable and, without strict regulations, dangerous for everyone. However, until the poor are less desperate, those that stand to profit will easily take advantage of them.
Secondly, this novel illustrates important aspects of human nature: Ding Hui becomes single-minded in his pursuit of money, not only is he largely to blame for the spread of AIDS in his county and, as he sold blood wherever it was wanted, in his country, he then profits from the government’s feeble efforts to help those infected with AIDS. Faced with their own deaths, the villagers stop caring for each other and the future of the uninfected, instead, they care only for coffins and “face.” Indeed, one of the only instances of solidarity exhibited by the villagers once the AIDS epidemic is in full force, occurs when a young man, infected but not yet fully sick, is able to marry an uninfected woman because the inhabitants of Ding Village assured her and her mother that the man in question was not sick.
Although literature often examines the short comings of humanity, it is only by constantly reevaluating ourselves and exploring the possible repercussions of our actions that we can avoid becoming monsters. Dream of Ding Village is an excellently executed reminder of the negative consequences of putting financial gain first as well as the long-lasting results of selfishness: when we put ourselves first—whether because we stand to profit or because we have no chance of ever profiting again—we risk robbing not only our neighbors, but our posterity.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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