Yan Lianke's latest work, Dream of Ding Village, is narrated by Ding Qiang: "I was only twelve, in my fifth year of school, when I died. I died from eating a poisoned tomato I found on the way home from school...I died not from AIDS, but because my dad had run a blood collection station in Ding Village ten years earlier. He bought blood from the villagers and resold it for a profit."
Qiang's narration details how the dirt-poor villagers were coerced into selling their blood at Government-sanctioned collection stations and even, literally, "in the field": the flattery or the appeal to patriotism that formed not the soft or hard sell, but the hard buy. Interspersed throughout the narration are the dreams of his Grandpa, Professor Ding Shuiyang: seemingly surreal but increasingly accurate and premonitory, from them we learn how, in the midst of abject poverty, bitterness and increasing hopelessness, some people's behaviour sinks to breathtaking greed, corruption and short-sightedness.
Qiang gets to see both sides of the coin as his father, Ding Hui, was a "bloodhead", who used criminally negligent blood collection practices, whilst his uncle, Ding Liang, contracted AIDS in the self-same place. Hui profits initially from buying and selling blood, then from selling Government-issued coffins to the families of the AIDS victims and developing Funeral Parks, then from matchmaking the dead so they will not be lonely in the afterlife. Dream of Ding Village portrays the death of the villagers and ultimately, the death of the village.
Filled with elegant prose, rich imagery, strong characters and allegory, Yan Lianke's work exposes the nepotism and greed rife in China whilst at the same time giving us poignant moments of love, self-sacrifice and humanity between the villagers. It may be difficult to imagine that this subject matter could evoke humour, but the absurdity of certain situations (a free coffin from the Government as consolation for dying from AIDS; an AIDS couple arguing about who should die first so that a nice coffin and a good funeral will be assured; matchmaking the dead) does not fail to raise a chuckle.
Yan claims that Dream of Ding Village is a sanitized version of the documentary he intends to write. If only a fraction of the events portrayed had truly happened, then it would already be a tragedy of epic proportions: it is easy to see why the Chinese authorities have banned this book. The lack of responsibility taken or reparation made would certainly warrant a cover up. Dream of Ding Village is a powerful read: in places it will leave you gasping and it will stay with you long after you turn the last page. It will also make you grateful that you donate blood under conditions so vastly different from these. Cindy Carter's excellent translation deserves a special mention.