Dream of Ding Village (2005) – YAN Lianke

I’m posting this today, as opposed to a usual Tuesday post, because today is World AIDS Day.

It’s funny that most of the literature translated from Chinese for the West is promoted as being banned in China, as though reading something banned by a dictatorship is some kind of protest, some kind of “Fuck you” to the Chinese government. Fortunately, the phrase “banned in China” is not plastered across this novel, which bodes well for me. Perhaps Yan has written a novel that stands on its own two feet, a novel that doesn’t have to rely on the fact that it has upset the easily offended General Administration of Press and Publication to sell some copies.

A young boy, recently deceased, recounts to us the tale of his village in Henan Province, China, where there has been an unfortunate outbreak of AIDS. He tells us of his surviving family members, as well as the other villagers, and how they deal with the way this horrific incident occurred, and how they must deal with it every day for the rest of their lives. From his young Uncle who has fallen in love with the wrong woman; to his father, who has dreams of making it big in the Party; to his Grandpa, who cannot keep up; this is a novel of people under pressure.

There’s so much going on in Dream of Ding Village that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel so multi-layered, so multi-faceted, so deep. But perhaps the most disturbing realisation arising from this novel is the fact that it is based on a true incident – AIDS spreading through Henan Province due to some horrifically lack standards when it came to blood donation, particularly since it was a cash cow for poor people looking to make some quick and easy money. Why wouldn’t you trust a government agency looking to give you money simply for the occasional collection of blood, which is easily replaceable?

AIDS looms large in this novel, though it is only mentioned by its proper name a handful of times. The physical manifestations of “the fever” are viscerally and vividly described by Yan, and the way in which it wreaks havoc upon the human body has never been more clear in my own mind. The descriptions of tired, battered, pustule-filled bodies throughout the book again and again invite you to realise just how terrible this disease truly is. There are some sex scenes that are deeply uncomfortable, probably more so for those taking part than the reader, and it is in scenes like this, where the physicality of the human body is so intimately and clearly expressed, that you realise just what a truly great writer Yan is.

Arguably the greatest strength of Dream of Ding Village is that, tonally, it manages to remain light, and in some places, humorous. This is not to say Yan does not take his subject matter seriously – but I think it would be easy for a novelist to simply look at the theme, and simply say “I’m going to write the most depressing novel ever.” It is to Yan’s credit that he manages to find the humanity in the victims of these horrible circumstances, and it is the human moments that make this novel what it is. Whether it be two people realising they love each other, despite being fully aware they have only months to live; or an old man wandering the school he has looked after for so many years,

The allegorical nature of the novel needs to be addressed, too. This is not just a novel about AIDS, and the way people deal with such a brutal disease. This is a damning indictment of the shift in modern Chinese society, and the way people are now more willing than ever to do whatever it takes to make a buck, and to get rich quick. This is nowhere more clear than in the relationship between Grandpa and Ding Hui, the narrator’s father. It’s hard not to hate Ding Hui – his seemingly inability to see beyond his own bank balance and ambition, and realise that he is hurting the people around him – not just emotionally, but physically, too. He eats up the scenery each and every time he’s on the page, and every time he manages to weasel some more blood out of a desperate, unsuspecting friend, you want to hate him even more.

It would be easy to dismiss Yan as a traditionalist with dim views of capitalism, but I’m not so sure. Ding Hui can just as easily be read as a symbol of the faceless members of the Chinese bureaucracy, and their inability to see humanity in the face of the rules. With every glimmer of hope Hui provides, he manages to take away almost twice as much with the end result, and the closing sections, where he becomes the ultimate sell-out, are heart-breaking. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, it highlights that a ghost narrator is not just a gimmick. It’s interesting to note that Yan himself professes to self-censorship when writing his novels, though as it turns out, even with that extra step, his satirical take on the blinkered view taken by bureaucracy about the lives of people living in country China is less than kind.

There’s no one word or phrase that can define this novel: love story, political satire, clash of cultures – it’s all happening here. Yan has proved himself as a great novelist, full of ideas and themes that cry out to be discussed. His ability to create true, human characters amongst all this, though, is perhaps his greatest gift. Because without a human face, incidents such as this would be confined to the rubbish bin of history, doomed to be forgotten.

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23 thoughts on “Dream of Ding Village (2005) – YAN Lianke

  1. Ah, sounds like a good read Matt. It’s hard to go wrong with great characterisation isn’t it … A book that is hard to define usually has something going for it too. And, I do like a book that is able to treat a serious subject with some lightness and humour. If I don’t manage all the Man Asian ones, I think I’d like to read this one.

  2. […] reviews from the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team!  Matt Todd reviews Dream of Ding Village at A Novel Approach, and Fay At Read, Ramble has read it too.  Do read both reviews: each has a different slant but […]

  3. Thanks for posting this review at such a relevant time.
    It does sound fascinating and I agree with whispering gums – books that are hard to define are usually well-worth dipping into.

  4. […] Stu) The Valley of Masks – Tarun J TEPJAL (Fay) Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke (Me; Fay) The Lake – Banana YOSHIMOTO (Me) GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

  5. […] Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China) from Matt of A Novel Approach, and Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China) from […]

  6. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for this review. I’ve wanted to read this book for some time — I’ve gone through a real Chinese fiction phase over the past 12 months, my interest fuelled by a three-week trip there last November — and this one was recommended to me awhile ago.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Excellent! What other Chinese literature have you been getting into?

      • kimbofo says:

        I’ve read a real mixed bag — but one that totally blew me away was Ma Jian’s ‘Beijing Coma’. It’s a massive book, but so good, and concentrates on the events leading up to the Tianamen Square massacre.

        I can also recommend two non-fiction titles: ‘Factory Girls’ by Leslie T. Chang and ‘Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal’ by Jan Wong

        All these are reviewed on my blog.

      • Matthew Todd says:

        I shall have to check some of these out!

  7. Great review. I liked your opening point about books being advertised as ‘Banned in China’ to make the reader feel special :)

    I haven’t read this yet, but I will. Re: other good recent novels, I’d recommend Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years and Hu Fayun’s Such is this World@sars.come

    • Matthew Todd says:

      It really does seem like books banned in China are the only one’s we get to read in the West. I’d be curious to know what a novel not banned in China looks like.

      • Now I think about it the two I recommended both had restrictions on their publication… Perhaps Western readers only want Chinese books for a straightforward political struggle (one that’s often pretty black and white) and those books that are ambitious in terms of ‘inner life’ (whatever that means) get ignored because, hey, we can do that better over here.

      • Nini says:

        You should check wolf totem if you want to read something not banned in china!!

      • Matthew Todd says:

        Thanks for the tip! I’ve been meaning to check it out for ages.

  8. […] Matt’s review at A Novel Approach and Fay’s at Read, […]

  9. […] The Valley of Masks – Tarun J TEPJAL (Fay; Lisa) Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke (Me; Fay; Mark) The Lake – Banana YOSHIMOTO (Me; Lisa; […]

  10. […] before Murakami’s 1Q84 – though they share some similar themes. Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village was also first published in 2005. In the grand scheme of things, six years is not a long time, but […]

  11. […] BHATTACHARYA River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke The Lake – YOSHIMOTO […]

  12. […] of Ding Village by Yan Lianke. Reviews by Matt, Mark, Lisa and […]

  13. […] Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke. Reviews by Matt, Mark, Lisa and me. […]

  14. Good review Matt … fascinating how all of us liked it. I love the way you describe Ding Hui as eating up the scenery every time he appears. You can almost see how he rings people in and then runs rings around them (except his father of course!)

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