A dark reimagining of Chinese blood-selling scandal

YAN LIANKE YAN LIANKE (Phillippe Picquier)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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Pop quiz: Name a contemporary Chinese novelist. No credit for Chinese-born authors who now live elsewhere, like Ha Jin, Anchee Min, or Dai Sijie. I mean one who still lives and writes fiction in China.

This should be easy — after all, there are more than 1.3 billion potential novelists to choose from. Yet even dedicated fiction readers may find themselves drawing a blank. The problem is not just that foreign works make up a tiny sliver of books sold in the United States. It is also that Mao Zedong both stifled China’s cultural traditions and cut his country off from the literature of the rest of the world.

Since Mao’s death in 1976, the number of books being published has skyrocketed, but state censors ban many titles each year. As a result, Western readers often hear less about Chinese writers’ literary merit than their struggle for free expression — as with jailed poet and activist Liu Xiaobo, awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in absentia.

Yan Lianke, whose 2005 novel “Dream of Ding Village’’ has just been published in English, is simultaneously one of the most successful and controversial of China’s contemporary novelists. (Another novel was published here in 2008 as “Serve the People!’’) Though he has won China’s top two literary honors, “Dream of Ding Village’’ appeared in stores only briefly before being yanked by the authorities.

It’s not hard to see why. “Dream of Ding Village’’ is set in Henan Province, which in the 1990s became the center of a giant blood-harvesting operation. With government support, frequently corrupt “bloodheads’’ encouraged impoverished villagers to sell huge quantities of blood, which were resold to international pharmaceutical companies. Not only were needles frequently reused, but, to counter anemia, those who sold plasma were sometimes reinjected with blood cells from a pooled supply. When the collection stations closed a few years later, an estimated 1 million people had been infected with HIV.

“Dream of Ding Village’’ is Yan’s scathing, operatic novelization of this disaster. You might call it a Chinese retelling of “The Plague,’’ but it is more poetic, full of drifting leaves and windswept plains, and more melodramatic. With its rural setting and archetypal characters, it reads like a fable, unmoored from time except for the appearance of a few modern innovations — a karaoke machine, a county task force on HIV.

Ding Village is named for the family at the heart of the book, whose members play all the roles in this drama: villain, victim, apologist, and collateral damage. As our narrator, the son of a man named Ding Hui, candidly explains:

“I was only twelve, in my fifth year at the school, when I died . . . from eating a poisoned tomato. . . . Someone must have put it there, knowing I’d see it . . . I died not from the fever, not from AIDS, but because my dad had run a blood-collection station. . . . He wasn’t just a blood merchant: he was a blood kingpin.’’

A brazen profiteer, Ding Hui adapts seamlessly to the changing economy. When the blood trade dries up, he finds a career as a coffin kingpin. In a final grotesque twist, he becomes a matchmaker to the dead, accepting money from grieving relatives in exchange for arranging “marriages’’ for deceased loved ones.

Yan makes no attempt to establish Ding Hui as a psychologically rich character; he is merely the face of the callous authorities. Even his son agrees that “the sooner my father died, the better.’’ Hui’s younger brother Liang, however, is quite another sort — a charming, feckless romantic who sells his blood and suffers the consequences. Quarantined with other infected villagers in the local school, Liang propositions a beautiful young newlywed, Lingling. Together, they brave the scorn of their families to live out their last days as a couple, finding release in a torrid sex life even as their bodies deteriorate. These tragic lovers share a story as irresistably sentimental as a Victorian romance, complete with a florid death scene: “The hem of her skirt, soaked with his blood, bloomed with bright red flowers.’’

As the village is stripped of tradition, industry, order, and even its stately trees, one central figure endures: the two brothers’ father, Professor Ding. This conscientious old man struggles to accommodate all who surround him — his sons, the dying, the exploitative authorities — but loses more and more of the life he knew. After committing one final, cathartic act of violence, he returns to a Ding Village “as silent as death, empty of man or beast.’’ Only Professor Ding and the ghostly soul of his grandson remain to bear witness.

Translator Cindy Carter has found a commanding English voice to accommodate Yan’s fluent dialogue, lyrical descriptions of nature, and melodramatic turns. To a Western ear, the only flaws — which, given my ignorance of Chinese, may reside in the original — are minor: some repetition, gratuitous simile and cliché (“His eyes were twin pools of despair’’). Though overheated at times, Yan’s prose amply captures his outrage. Above all, it offers a window into a world American readers rarely see — in which, for example, AIDS sufferers defy death by boasting of how many steamed buns they can eat.

In the end, “Dream of Ding Village’’ works both as a horrifying social critique and, strange to say, as a perversely gripping Gothic tale. This novel delivers not only a front-lines message from Henan Province but also news of Yan Lianke’s skill as a messenger.

Amanda Katz is a writer, editor, and translator who lives in New York. She can be reached at

By Yan Lianke
Translated, from the Chinese, by Cindy Carter
Grove, 341 pp, $24