Man Asian Prize finalist: Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding Village

March 14th, 2012 § 2 comments

Chinese writer Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, first published in Chinese in 2005, stands out from the other Man Asian Prize finalists in its scathing social commentary.  Set in a fictional village in China’s Henan province, Dream of Ding Village reveals several tragedies that have fallen upon millions of Chinese over the past thirty years as the country suffered the consequences of political corruption at the local level.  Families/clans became divided as one branch would rise to local (and perhaps eventually regional) power and in their attempts to make profit off of their government mandates, people such as Ding Hui would view crises such as the spread of AIDS through tainted blood supplies sold by and for local villagers as yet one more opportunity to profit.  Dream of Ding Village reveals the nightmares behind these corrupt deeds and how so many suffered as a result.

Dream of Ding Village reminds me of two acclaimed novels, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.  He, like Pamuk, utilizes the voice of a murdered person, in this case, the twelve-year-old son of Ding Hui, Ding Qiang, who was poisoned by the villagers in response to Ding Hui’s blood-selling project infecting them with “the fever,” their name for AIDS.  Unlike Pamuk, however, Qiang’s role is not to be part of an unfolding mystery but instead to give voice to the afflicted villagers of Ding Village.  Qiang had a close bond with his grandfather, the village’s schoolmaster, who comes to represent the living witness to the dying villagers’ love and hatred, their triumphs and their shortcomings.  In that regard, the narrative as seen and told through the father and murdered son of the main antagonist resembles in theme, if not quite in tone or style, wa Thiong’o’s dissection of Kenyan strongman politics and political corruption.

There is a lyrical quality to the writing.  Lianke utilizes climate conditions to serve as a metaphor for the “fever” that was burning up the villagers of Ding Village.  One passage very near the end of the novel underscores his ability to create memorable images of death and suffering:

Summer had passed without a drop of rain.  Now it was midway through autumn, and there hadn’t been a rainstorm for more than six months.  The dry spell had lasted for 180 days.  It was the worst drought seen on this plain in nearly a century.  All the grasses and crops had died.

The trees were gone, too.  Unable to resist the drought, the paulownia, scholar trees, chinaberries, elms, toons and rare honey locusts quietly passed away.

The big trees had all been chopped down, and the smaller ones had been lost to drought.  There were no more trees.

Ponds congealed.  Rivers stopped.  Wells ran dry.

When the water disappeared, so did the mosquitoes.

Cicadas shed their skin and left before it was time.  Their golden yellow corpses littered the trunks, branches and forks of dead trees, and clung to the shady side of walls and fences.

But the sun survived.  The wind lived on.  The sun and moon, stars and planets were alive and well.

This scene is the culmination of all of the suffering witnessed and experienced throughout the novel.  There is something of the cicadas and their short yet noticeable lovemaking adult lives in the doomed romance of the infected brother of Ding Hui, Liang, and his new wife, as both deserted their AIDS-free spouses for a brief yet passionate romantic life.  There are betrayals abundant in the narrative, as villagers scheme for access to food sold to them at outrageous prices by Ding Hui.  The trees had to be chopped down to supply the ever increasing number of coffins necessary to bury the dead who died from “the fever.”  As the narrative unfolds, the value of the tree/coffins and people switch in value, as the dead tree trunks become more valuable than the human chaff that is left to be blown away by the wind to rot, forgotten by nearly all those who remain, benumbed by “the fever.”  Lianke’s imagery is arresting because he forces the reader to take notice of the cruelties that are the offspring of political corruption.

Ding Hui makes only a few fleeting appearances until the penultimate section of Dream of Ding Village.  When we do encounter him directly, we see that he is the spider occupying the center of the web of corruption, deceit, and callousness.  He plots on how to make even more yuan after exhausting the avenues afforded by blood-selling and coffin manufacturing.  He strikes upon an idea that at first seems so strange that it actually makes an even deeper connection with traditional Chinese practices and the transformations that modernization had made:  selling the rights to posthumous “marriages” in order to restore dignity to families who had unmarried children.  When contemplated further, it truly is a monstrous corruption of popular practice to serve the moneymaking goals of Ding Hui:

How much is there?’ Grandpa asked.

Dad smiled. ‘I’m not sure.’

What do you need with all this money?  It’s more than you could spend in a lifetime.’

My dad seemed embarrassed.  ‘Is it my fault this fever never ends?  If it keeps on like this, I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I just opened five new factories for the county, and we still can’t make enough coffins to keep up with demand.  All the trees on the plain are gone, so I have to ship timber in from the northwest.  And this month, I sent a dozen matchmaking teams into the villages to gather statistics and arrange posthumous matches.  It’s been two weeks, and we’ve only managed to find matches for a third of the families who signed up.’

And this matchmaking business is more of your philanthropy?’

I’ve spent my whole life doing philanthropy,’ my dad smiled.

Ding Hui’s cupidity is repulsive, yet Lianke does not settle for a simple caricature of a greedy and corrupt political official.  Instead, he shows Ding Hui in action, snubbing his avowed enemies by showing just how readily people can be bought with the issuance of just a few filtered cigarettes and the promise of a new, greener land away from Ding Village where their families can be buried in a park-like setting.  The casual, contemptuous manner in which this is one serves to reinforce the notion planted earlier in the novel that corruption is an endemic outcome of unequal power and that those who are not in control are susceptible to its insidious influence.  Ding Hui is not extraordinary in any fashion; he merely is one of a long line of similar bureaucrats who have profited off of the suffering and credulity of those over whom he governs.

Lianke’s portrayal of local Chinese officials as being corrupt petty quasi-lords led to Dream of Ding Village being censored in China for being too direct in its criticism of the local and, by implication, national governments.  It is an evocative novel, where the effects of very real practices during the 1980s and 1990s are shown in their full, horrific qualities.  Dream of Ding Village pulls no punches; it squarely hits the reader repeatedly between the eyes with its narrative and characters.  It is one of the more moving novels I’ve read this year, second only to fellow Man Asian Prize finalist Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, and its biting commentary on Chinese local politics is first-rate.  Dream of Ding Village is perhaps my favorite of the finalists read to date because it uses vivid images and dreams to conjure visions of just how horrible corruption can be to those who suffer under such rule.

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