Early in the 1990s, provincial officials in Henan, China, launched the Plasma Economy campaign. Residents would be paid for their blood, which would in turn be sold to biotech companies. Due to high demand on the part of these companies, the blood business boomed. Induced by financial reward and by dishonest local officials, poor peasants flocked to unsanitary blood banks to open their veins and reap their reward. Henan was not a rich part of China, and at first it seemed like a good deal. As Yan Lianke’s sadly beautiful and moving novel about the fate of a poor rural community, “Dream of Ding Village”, so eloquently recounts, the Plasma Economy was a disaster. Blood collectors drew blood with dirty needles, and an epidemic of HIV/AIDS was born.
A researcher and AIDS activist, Yan Lianke has witnessed the devastation of Henan’s AIDS villages first hand. But rather than creating a polemic, he has painted instead a nuanced and compassionate portrait of an entire community. The protagonist is Ding Shuiyang, also known as Professor Ding, a village elder who did not sell his blood, and who is thus uninfected. The story is narrated by Ding Shuiyang’s grandson, who tells the tale from the grave. The grandson has not died of AIDS, but his death is a consequence of the epidemic. His father, Ding Hui, having first made a fortune from selling blood at a hefty profit, has gone on to profit from the ensuing epidemic. Ding Hui’s younger brother, Ding Liang, hasn’t been so lucky. He sold blood and is now dying of AIDS. Yan’s portrayal of Ding Hui is unsparing. A man driven by greed and selfishness, he seems destined to escape the consequences of his actions, despite the fact that many people, including his own father, wish him dead.
The heart of the book is in the relationships among the terminally ill, who move into a hospice at the village school and are looked after by Ding Shuiyang. The kind-hearted and practical old man runs the ad hoc hospice well, but the brief peace of the small community of outcasts is shattered by the scheming of a pair of hospice residents. In what looks a lot like a parable about booming Reform Era China, Yan shows that even the terminally ill may be hungry for power and its petty rewards.
More than a social novel, Dream of Ding Village is also highly poetic, and Yan’s descriptions of the North China landscape and the afflicted village are haunting. Here is the opening:
The dusk settles over a day in late autumn. The sun sets above the East Henan plain, a blood-red ball turning the earth and sky a deep shade of crimson. As red unfurls, slowly the dusk turns to evening. Autumn grows deeper; the cold more intense. The village streets are all empty and silent.
The silence is intense. Yet even in the absence of voices or sound, Ding Village lives on. Chocked by death, it will not die. In the silent shades of autumn, the village has withered, along with its people. They shrink and wither in tandem with the days, like corpses buried underground.
The story is further enriched by accounts of the grandfather’s vivid dreams. He dreams that the villagers are healthy, that the fields are filled with flowers. He also has dreams that alert him to the schemes of the living, but these touches of magical realism never come across as contrived.
For readers unaware of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Henan, Dream of Ding Village will be a gentle introduction, one that is moving without being sentimental. For readers who are familiar with the situation there, this novel gives victims of the epidemic names and faces. It tells a story that many in the Chinese government have not wanted told.