Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke is the Man Asian Literary Prize nominated story of a small village in Henan as it is ravaged by the AIDS epidemic that spread through central China nearly a decade ago (and continues to devastate communities to this day). Even though it is a work of fiction, the author is a respected anthropologist who did a large amount of field work prior to writing this book. It is a tale of the gov’t’s failure to prevent/control the spread of the disease and inability to provide basic assistance to those afflicted. It is also an interesting view of how village life is portrayed in Chinese literature and the ways in which extended families operate in rural life.
The story focuses on the Ding Family, which at this point as been reduced to just a few members- Grandpa, one of the few likable characters, who struggles to right the wrongs of his blood-selling eldest son, Ding Hui; Ding Hui, a detestable man who sees nothing but opportunity in the midst of tragedy; and Ding Hui’s brother, who is infected with AIDS, but still wants to enjoy the life he has left. (you can read more about the story itself in these other reviews, but I think they include far too many spoilers).
Over the past five years I’ve had the opportunity to visit AIDS villages in Henan, Guangxi, and Hunan and felt a personal connection to this tale. In each place the story is roughly the same: the disease begins to spread, the local gov’t denies it, and then when a large number of villagers are on the verge of death, the old leader is tossed out and a new one is brought in. Aid to the families is minimal, and those infected are ostracized from the community. Furthermore, the disease destroys the family structures that make village life work, and will take generations to repair.
In a small town near Ningming, Guangxi I met a man whose family had forced him to live in a tent outside of their home out of fear of his disease. In Henan, I met grandparents struggling to raise orphaned grandchildren in their crumbling houses, the generation responsible for income had died a few years earlier. The gov’t officials wouldn’t let us eat in that village, out of some irrational concern that we would get AIDS from the interaction. In Hunan, I met with activists trying to educate the public about the disease, but found themselves limited in what could or couldn’t be said due to China being a “traditional” country. For me, the story of AIDS in China is a sad tale of denial, misinformation and needless suffering; Yan Lianke captures it very well in this novel.
As critical as Dream of Ding Village is of the gov’t’s initial indifference to the disease, it is also a strong reminder of another crucial factor in the epidemic – poverty and the desire to get rich quick. In the novel villagers are disgusted when the local cadres come encouraging them to sell their blood, but they change their minds when they hear that they can earn an extra 80RMB (~$10 at the time) each month. Other scams to cheat villagers are often over amounts that will seem trivial to western readers and readers in China’s urban areas (my co-workers were), but to the characters in the story they seem like small fortunes. There has been a sixty year pattern in China of officials jumping from scheme to scheme to transform their village/county/province from a poor backwater, to a moderately wealthy place in just a few years. This has had disastrous consequences time and again for the villagers, but rarely effect those who initiated the policies.
At times the writing suffers from being overly descriptive and heavy handed with imagery, but from my experience, this seems to be a cultural difference in story telling as poetic Chinese is often far more adjective heavy than English. Some of the villagers in the story are also treated as simple-minded bumpkins, which is an unfortunately common trope in Chinese stories and movies. These flaws however did not keep me from enjoying (if that word can be used) this book.
If you have an interest in China’s AIDS epidemic or rural life, then I would recommend reading Dream of Ding Village. If you have an aversion to foul language though, this book may be grating for you. The F-word in English is much harsher than it is in Chinese, and in translation creates a rather coarse cast of characters.