Two decades ago, blood selling became a way of life among villagers in China's Henan province, as well as other rural outposts in the country. Collecting stations sprouted with encouragement from the health department and other government officials. At some stations, the blood was pooled together without any screening for disease. The valuable plasma was extracted and what remained was reinjected into donors so that they could sell their blood again more quickly. HIV, which many of the donors had never even heard of, spread almost immediately. According to some reports, half a million people in Henan province alone were infected with the virus.
Yan Lianke, a writer of fiction and native of Henan province, spent three years researching what took place, assisting an anthropologist in a study of the events in one village. He then wrote a novel, The Dream of Ding Village - published in 2006 in Hong Kong and now in an English translation by Cindy Carter - that traces the withering away of a "tiny village of fewer than 200 households and 800 people." He focuses in particular on an old man called Professor Ding - not actually a professor, but the caretaker at the village school, and an occasional substitute teacher - who has two sons. Of these, one becomes a "bloodhead," a man who buys blood for a living. He eventually moves to the city and lives in a house with a large room full of cash. The other sells his blood and contracts HIV, later dying of Aids ("the fever," it's called in the village).
Lianke has written the story in the manner of a fable or folktale. "On the first day, not a single villager came to sell blood," an early passage reads. "It was the same on the second day. On the third day, the County Director of Education showed up at the gate of the school in his Jeep." The County Director organises a field trip of sorts to a neighbouring village, one made rich by blood selling. Thus encouraged, the people of Ding Village set out on their deathly path. Those that sell blood get sick and begin to waste away. Most of them move into the school to avoid infecting their healthy loved ones, and there Professor Ding resumes his role as caretaker, now overseeing adults instead of children. He organises meals and activities and gently maintains order. Life at the school is briefly utopian - like communism without all the work - until theft and scandal divide and then scatter the sick, who return home to die.
Lianke has said he censored himself to ensure that the book could be published in China. He removed references to senior officials and downplayed the essential context: China's rush to development. He originally envisioned a pipeline that pumped blood from China to countries in the West, bringing wealth to China's leaders. All of that has been pared away.
But the social critique in The Dream of Ding Village is perhaps more powerful for being mostly implicit. The book uses as epigraphs the dreams told to Joseph in the Book of Genesis by a cupbearer, a baker, and Pharaoh. In one of Pharaoh's dreams, seven "fat-fleshed" cattle emerge from a river, followed by seven "ill-favoured and lean-fleshed" cattle that eat the healthy ones. Joseph interprets this to mean that Egypt will have "seven years of great plenty," followed by "seven years of famine," and he tells Pharaoh that he should make sure his people set aside food in the good years, lest they starve in the years that follow.
Like Pharaoh's dream, The Dream of Ding Village may contain lessons on leadership - or at least warnings for the Chinese government, which, despite Lianke's self-censorship, banned the book after it was published in Hong Kong. Also like Pharaoh's dream, the book is full of agricultural imagery: "The sickness came in waves," the narrator says, "like swarms of locusts descending over a field and destroying the vegetation." Lianke is perhaps too fond of similes, a few of which arrive awkwardly in English; "People died like moths to a flame," for instance, a phrase that gets repeated, seems to have lost a few words in translation. But these comparisons establish the points of reference that are familiar to the narrator and his fellow villagers, and they convey both the magnitude of what takes place - the fever is a force of nature - and the perversion of the natural order that results from the harvesting of blood.
Lianke's choice of narrator is a perilous one: the tale is told by Professor Ding's dead grandson, the son of the bloodhead who has helped to destroy Ding Village. He was, he tells us, poisoned in an act of revenge on his father. A writer who speaks through the voice of a dead child risks horrendous sentimentality, but the tone here is level and grave. Professor Ding's grandson seems both omniscient and detached, as perhaps one would be in the afterlife. He does refer to the central characters as Grandpa, Dad, and Uncle, adding to the book's folktale quality and emphasising, again, the natural order - but his emotional distance only really dissolves at the novel's end, when his father moves on from the blood-buying business to an even more troubling profession, one that allows him to exploit the grief of other parents who have lost their children.
The father is a monstrous figure, but Lianke does not depict him as an ogre. He is simply a calculating man who follows the logic of the market wherever it may lead him. And his brother - Uncle, as the narrator calls him - is no martyred saint, but a somewhat shiftless and sly, albeit good-hearted, man. His affair with Lingling, a woman who, like him, has contracted "the fever," forms the heart of the novel. Both are married, she to his cousin, and Lianke persuasively portrays their daily wavering between joy in each other and despair over the short time they have. He uses understatement, and doesn't flinch from the horror of their situation - including the physical ravages of their disease. When the narrator tells us that "they recaptured what it meant to be alive," the line hits with real force.
Lianke's very human characters make an affecting novel out of a book that might otherwise have felt schematic and moralising. His only other book available in English, Serve the People!, also survives a heavy-handed premise: in that slim novel, a young soldier from a small village has an affair with the wife of a division commander, and their sexual pleasure reaches its peak when both begin trashing the Communist Party paraphernalia in her bedroom. The satire may be obvious, but Lianke's wit and attention to detail give the story a vitality one might not expect.
The Dream of Ding Village is a more difficult book, and the opening pages, in which Lianke establishes the dark mood of the story and prepares the reader for what's to come, are slow going. But once the human drama begins - with betrayal and violence alongside love and sacrifice - it becomes gripping. One grows to care about each of the villagers, even those who are deceptive and selfish, haunted as they all are by a frightening and powerful disease.
Both of the books by Lianke which are available in English were banned in China. Perhaps it was this very censorship which inspired Western publishers to make them available. I hope, of course, that both books - and especially The Dream of Ding Village - will eventually be published there, so that Lianke's own countrymen can read them. But I also hope that his other books - some of which have won major Chinese literary prizes and received wide acclaim there - will be translated and published abroad, so that those of us outside the country can discover whether they, too, are as compassionate and engaged as the ones we have, so far, been able to see.
David Haglund is the managing editor of the literary magazine PEN America.