Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding village (Review for Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011)

Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village

Bookcover courtesy Grove / Atlantic Inc.

As I started reading Yan Lianke‘s Dream of Ding Village, I was reminded of a favourite novel of mine, Albert CamusThe plague. However, as I read on, the similarity started to fade – or, perhaps it’s just that the particularity of Lianke’s conception took over. Both books explore a community living with a highly contagious, deadly disease, and both can be “read” through the lens of a wider political interpretation, but the two stories are told differently. For a start, Camus does not make his political “reading” literal while Lianke closely intertwines the political with the personal in his novel. No wonder this novel was published in Hong Kong and banned in China!

The story was inspired by the fallout that occurred from Henan Province‘s plasma economy, 1991-1995, in which Chinese were encouraged to sell their blood plasma. According to the Wikipedia article, it is estimated that over 40% of the blood donors (sellers) contracted AIDS, due to the low health and safety standards applied to the campaign. It’s a tragic story and Lianke uses it to tell a cautionary tale about a rush to progress that seems to cast humanity to the winds.

So, how does he tell it? The story is narrated by the dead son of “blood kingpin” Ding Hui. Qiang was poisoned in an act of revenge for his father’s role in bringing “the fever” (HIV/AIDS) to Ding Village. In the clear, non-judgemental voice of a child, Qiang proceeds to chronicle events in the village as the disease takes hold, using occasional flashbacks to fill in the gaps. His is not a schmaltzy or sentimental voice. It’s simply the voice of an omnipotent narrator who happens to have also been part of the story, before the novel starts, and whose “existence” initiates its dramatic denouement. It’s an interesting device that nicely balances involvement with distance. We get close, but not too close, to the people and events.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

The novel is told in 8 Volumes, and progresses chronologically from the appearance of the fever to when its impact on Ding Village is complete. Qiang tells his story primarily through the actions and behaviour of his grandfather, a man who hangs onto his ethics throughout the crisis while trying, mostly against his better judgement, to remain loyal to his two self-centred sons. A difficult task for the hard-working man entrusted with caring for the school and being its teacher when qualified teachers couldn’t be found. While Grandpa does his best to support the villagers in their darkest time, his oldest son Ding Hui engages in scam after scam (such as selling the government’s “free” coffins and organising “marriages” between dead people) to feather his own nest and further climb the greasy pole of bureaucracy.

Along the way, the stories of other villages are told, such as that of the adulterous couple Ding Liang and Lingling who, having uninfected spouses, decide to find affection in each other’s arms. It’s hard to feel they deserved the disapprobation they received (from most, though not all, in the village), but, speaking novelistically, they usefully represent the breakdown in normal codes of behaviour. Early in the novel, there is a respite from the horror when Grandpa invites all infected villagers to live at the school – and for a while a real community develops among the sick and dying. It doesn’t last of course and, as in The plague, bad things start to happen as the villagers respond to their disastrous situation. Graves are robbed, buildings ransacked, and, in a terrible scenario, the village is denuded of all its trees by villagers needing to make coffins. Black humour is never too far from the tone, and this tree-felling scene provides a perfect example.

It’s all powerful stuff and is conveyed through strong writing that uses physical description to underscore the devastation occurring in the village. I particularly liked the paradoxical use of the sun, gold and yellow throughout the novel to convey on one hand, warmth, prosperity and harmony, and on the other drought, desiccation and oppression, with the latter becoming precedent as “the fever” and associated corruption take hold:

Translucent, pale yellow and green leaves shimmered in the sunlight like golden offerings.


… leaving Grandpa standing in the middle of the road, beneath the blazing sunshine, like a small clay figure of a man that someone had left to dry in the sun. Like an old wooden hitching post bleached by the rotting wood that no one wanted any more.

Other colours also pervade the book such as blood-red suns and green leaves and grass, continuing the disconnect between life and death that characterises Ding Village in the throes of “the fever”.

There’s something about the form though that puzzled me and that’s the use of italics. Sometimes they are used for Grandpa’s dreams – dreams that are often prescient, occasionally surreal – and sometimes they are used for flashbacks. But sometimes I couldn’t quite work out the reason, other than that they were possibly for ideas or events slightly out of kilter with the narrative point at which they occur. I’m not sure that the differentiation, except perhaps to delineate Grandpa’s dreams, serves the novel well.

This is a minor quibble though in a book that explores how greed leads to skewed values (“I spent my whole life doing philanthropy” says the serial scammer Ding Hui) and provides an opening for political corruption. Fast economic progress, Lianke seems to be saying, cannot be simply or easily pasted over cultural traditions that have taken centuries to build … but his vision is not, I think, completely hopeless. “A cool breeze”, he writes near the end, “carried the mingled scents of rotting plants and newly sprouted grass across the plain”. Let’s hope that “newly sprouted grass” gets the upper hand.

For reviews by other members of the Shadow Man Asian Prize jury, please click on my Man Asian page.

Yan Lianke
Dream of Ding Village
(trans. by Cindy Carter)
New York: Grove Press, 2009 (2005, orig. Chinese ed.)
ISBN: 9780802145727

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week January 8-14

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 9 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 project and the shortlist has now been announced, as I reported earlier this week. However, we are still reading and reviewing in preparation for announcing “our” Shadow winner in early March, just before the announcement of the winner. This week’s reviews are:

  • Amitav Ghosh’s River of smoke (India) by Matt of A Novel Approach. Like me, Matt has not read the first book (Sea of poppies) in the planned trilogy, but he says he is now sold on the trilogy. Can’t think of higher praise than that I reckon.
  • Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She describes it as a “powerful book” that shows “how quickly a society can degenerate under pressure”.
  • Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth (India) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. Lisa calls this “a superb novel” and said she “enjoyed reading it the most”.

Shortlist news

Matt and Fay bravely posted their shortlist “picks” before the announcement, and Mark and Lisa discussed theirs in comments on Lisa’s blog. Stu and I did not have a go at shortlisting. Here is a summary of their selections:

  • Only one book was selected by all four – River of smoke – and it was selected by the judges.
  • Only one book was selected by only one, Matt, of the four – The lake – and it was selected by the judges, too!
  • Three books were selected by Fay, Mark and Lisa – Wandering falcon, The good Muslim and The sly company of people who care – and the first and third of these were also selected by the judges.
  • Please look after Mom was selected by Matt, Fay and Mark and by the judges.
  • Dream of Ding Village was selected by Matt, Fay and Lisa and by the judges.
  • The folded earth and The valley of masks were selected by Matt and Lisa but not by the judges.
  • Rebirth was selected by the judges but by none of our four, but then only one of them had read it due to limited availability for this title.
  • The colonel and IQ84 were not selected by our four or by the judges.

There’s a fair degree of unanimity regarding the shortlist, but this doesn’t mean that picking “our” Shadow winner will be straightforward. There are some strong feelings about some of the differences … Let’s just hope there won’t be blood on the floor! We’ll keep you posted!

Meanwhile, if you want a succinct rundown on the shortlisted books, you can read team member Mark’s article, “Your guide to the Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist”, in the online magazine, The Millions.

Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Shortlist announced

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

… And my preferred two books – those by Ahmad and Yoshimoto – of the three I’ve read are in the final seven books. Woo hoo … but I have a lot to read to catch up to the rest of the team.

The shortlisted books are:

  • Jamil Ahmad’s Wandering falcon
  • Jahnavi Barua‘s Rebirth
  • Rahul Bhattacharya’s The sly company of people who care
  • Amitav Ghosh‘s River of smoke
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mom
  • Yan Lianke‘s Dream of Ding Village
  • Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake

You can find our  Shadow team’s reviews by clicking the team logo in the blog sidebar or by clicking on the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 page.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 18-24

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Happy Holidays everyone who is celebrating this weekend … May you receive many books and the time to read them!

I have taken a quick break from my festivities to bring you Week 6 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project. It has been quiet on the reviewing front this week, for obvious reasons. And yet, I have bumper crop of reviews for you because of the addition of a new member to our team, Mark of Eleutherophobia. Welcome Mark. We discovered that Mark had read and reviewed several of the books on the longlist so it seemed sensible – if not downright useful! – to ask him to join us. And so, here are this week’s reviews – all Mark’s:

  • Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon (Pakistan). This book has been loved by all our reviewers so far, and Mark is no exception. A pre-Taliban story that sounds like a must for all of us.
  • Rahul Bhattachariya’s The sly company of people who care (India). A debut novel that follows an India cricket journalist to Guyana, and Mark calls it “bewitching”.
  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The colonel (Iran). Mark describes this as an important book that represents “a despairing and as yet unheard plea to the Iranian people”.
  • Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China). Although it’s a gruelling tale, says Mark, with perhaps some contrivance, he also thinks it is “a remarkable and unforgettable book”. Hard to go past that eh?
  • Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth (India). Mark liked this more than the rest of us to date, though we did all enjoy much about it, particularly the writing. Mark calls it “a beautiful book that will not leave you until long after the final page”.
I had hoped to bring you my review of Banana Yoshimoto’s The lake, but that will have to wait until next week … Meanwhile, on with the festivities!

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week November 27 to December 3

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 3 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project brings you …

  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The colonel (Iran) from Lisa of ANZLItLovers. This sounds quite different in style and structure, but worth reading, particularly since it’s from a country whose literature is little known to me.
  • Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China) from Matt of A Novel Approach, and Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China) from Fay of Read, Ramble. Matt and Fay have inspired me with their reviews to put this on my high priority list.

Ad hoc Man Asian News

kimbofo of Reading Matters advised us earlier this week that Wandering falcon won  the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2011. Does that suggest it might be a high contender for the shortlist?

PS: My promised review didn’t eventuate this week as I’ve been in Sydney for the weekend. But I’ve nearly finished my first book, so my review is not long coming!