Dream of Ding Village
(New York: Grove Press, 2009)
Serve the People
(New York: Grove Press, 2007)
Review by Jim Feast
Not knowing the histories in great detail, I would say that it seems Russian communism differs from the Chinese version as pessimism differs from optimism. Stalin didn’t trust the kulaks, didn’t trust old line Bolsheviks and didn’t trust the army. He was a pessimist about human nature. Mao and his associates were more optimistic, thinking the masses could do wonders, and fruitfully combine the collectivization of agriculture with the quick development of industry. The results of these two beliefs of the leadership were the same: millions dead. In the Soviet Union, with its concentration camps and executions, under Stalin reign, scholars estimate 60 million killed. In China, through mass starvation from 1958-1962, which followed the agricultural loss due to the country’s hare-brained economic program, the deaths have been recently estimated at 45 million.
I bring this up in relation to two novels by much-censored Chinese author Yan Lianke (Dream of Ding Village and Serve the People) since both concern the highhanded manipulations of upper-rank party cadres of the poor and lowly, who willy-nilly and for their own benefit (or so they think) participate in the entrapping schemes of their superiors.
Dream, based on a real-life, well-documented case, is Yan’s tragic version of this scenario. (Yan is his last name.) Ding Village is an impoverished hamlet in Henan province. The government gets the bright idea that it can improve its economic picture by having its citizens sell their blood to plasma collection centers. The government collectors did have scruples concerning hygiene, but then a bunch of middlemen (“bloodheads”) step in and begin tapping the supply, even going into the fields where the peasants were toiling and siphoning off blood from them during their breaks. But these entrepreneurs cut corners by reusing needles and other supplies, with the end result that a huge swath of the village contracted AIDS.
The story takes places after the fact, that is, at the point where many in the village have already died, and is told by the dead son of Ding Hui, the town’s most prosperous bloodhead. The boy was poisoned by irate, dying villagers, who couldn’t get at Ding directly. Undaunted, though, Ding goes on to new money-making schemes, such as selling coffins; and the novel moves between tales of his successes, the tribulations of a pair of AIDS-infected lovers, who have been ostracized by their spouses and family, and of grandfather Ding, who lives in a broken down shack, refusing to accept anything from his increasingly wealthy father Ding Hui.
Don’t get the impression, though, that the dying villagers are objects of Yan’s sentimental pity. As you’ve heard, they killed Ding’s son, and even as they are dying, it seems, due to their greediness, they want to take the rest of the world with them. Trying to make money off supplying wood for coffins, they chop down every tree in the village, with the result that the ecological system breaks down and crops die in the field. Moreover, they pillage the school, chopping up desks, chairs and blackboards for wood to sell, so spoiling the surviving children’s chance for an education.
Not everyone in this drama is a scoundrel, and both the grandfather and the barely coping lovers are honest and true. Still, the center of the book is the knife of satire which cuts away at this bizarre version of carpe diem: Enrich yourself today for tomorrow (quite literally) you will be dead.
It’s a mordant enough tale though told with so much exuberance, black humor and panache that much of the inherent darkness of the piece is eclipsed by the fine writing. Further, given the unpromising setup whereby most characters are marking time till they die (though still able to feebly launch get-rich-quick schemes), the density and complexity of the plots and counterplots surprises and enthralls the reader.
If this is the tragic take on Chinese conditions, Serve the People is the comic version. The title refers to a sign, which the wife of the commanding officer of a military post puts out when she wants the orderly, Wu Dawang, to come upstairs and help with the chores. It sometimes appears unexpectedly. “As the affair went on, the Serve the People! sign seemed to grow legs. … it would lodge itself in a blossoming shrub as he weeded a flower bed, or, as he pruned the vines, it would suddenly appear hanging from a branch, nudging his shoulder.”
The chores, the Candide-like orderly soon finds out, are mainly to be carried out under the sheets, for, he learns, the social-climbing wife has an impotent husband. Now, she has the best of both worlds, the position that goes with her husband’s post and the carnal refreshment that can be taken frequently with her willing subordinate, all the more easily obtained as her husband leaves him in charge on his frequent long trips.
It seems that thematically this novel is quite different from the first. However, without revealing too much of the plot let me note that once, after a few joyous months, Wu finds himself cashiered both from this job and the army, he realizes that even his lovemaking was not what it seemed. It was part of a Machiavellian, successful strategy of the wife, Liu Lian.
The humor here is broader than in the other book. The double entendres fly fast and furious, especially ones drawn from the framed communist slogans that are found in every room, including the bed chamber. These are so well done, that it may seem to the dazzled reader as if the Quotations from Chairman Mao is the second volume of the Kama Sutra.
To give you a taste of the humor, I refer you to the seduction scene. As first, the hero rebuffed Liu’s advances, but, the next day, thinking better of it (in consideration of the possible chances for advancement), he tries to make it up to her. He promises to serve the people;
“And how exactly do you propose to Serve the People?” she asked.
“However you want me to.”
“Run naked three times around the drill ground.”
He looked up at her, unsure whether she was playing with him, or seriously testing the sincerity of his pledge. … His hand travelled up to his collar.
“Serve the people,” she said. “Take it off.”
Off came his jacket, the buttons popping one by one, revealing an undershirt emblazoned with the message Serve the People!
“Serve the people,” she said. “Take it off.”
Off came the shirt.
“On you go. Serve the People!”
In sum, judging by these two novels, Yan can turn his hand with equal skill to biting comedy and biting tragedy. In neither case, looking at his subject matter, do the materials seem promising. The AIDS story tempts bathos and tear-jerking while the romance is dealing with a hackneyed, much-tried story, which goes back (in the West) from The Red and the Black to commedia del arte to Meander. Yet, in both cases, Yan makes it new, writing robustly humorous, politically acute, unflinching stories of a society in which nearly everyone, including those with one foot in the grave or in the boudoir, is on the make.