Dream of Ding Village
Grandfather Ding is the patriarch of the family that founded Ding Village. He dreams of a world that sometimes comes true and sometimes should but doesn't. Both of his sons are ne’er-do-wells, one a crooked, arrogant man who becomes a high level Communist cadre with boatloads of money, the other a layabout who makes nothing of his life. The older son makes his money from being a “blood head," a man who buys and sells blood in the rural communities and ultimately infects an entire Chinese province with AIDS through contaminated blood. As the community dies, the son creates more and more abusive schemes to increase his wealth and moves to an opulent house in the city.
Villagers sell their blood to buy things like a particular brand of shampoo. In the end, all monies are invested in death—buying a casket—and the grandeur of death becomes far more enticing than the reality of living. The future is sold off for the past by blind followers of corrupt leaders.
The grandfather at first follows the directives of the party as much as his son, only he achieves its goals through more humane means: by convincing the citizens it is good for them. Is this better? Does it make his manipulation any less blameworthy? A benign dictator is still a dictator, and is perhaps even worse than an outright hostile one, because the victim doesn’t even know what he's lost and has no way to fight back against an unidentifiable enemy.
Grandfather Ding makes two unsuccessful attempts to convince his son to take responsibility. The more he tries to do good, the worse it gets for him. As the village descends into Lord of the Flies savagery, the one story of true love does nothing to soften the blow. It’s all about money. The grandfather is left with no options to combat evil but a final act of desperation.
While this is a critique of communism, it might as well also be of the U.S. since the “trickle-down” eighties, the “me” nineties, and the “never ending war” of the naughts. At the core of any concentration of power—call it communism or capitalism, patriarchy or religion—is corruption and greed.
The book alternates between the dream states of the grandfather, as told by his dead grandson, and the waking nightmare of a dying village and the shame of his own family. The family conflict illustrates the counterpoint of the extremes of wealth and poverty and the struggle between power and humanity, problems faced in the contemporary U.S. as well as China. The author uses repetition as a rhetorical tool to emphasize the cyclical nature of these problems, but sometimes he uses it too much. Overall, though, the writing is lyrical and often beautiful, with vivid descriptions of the living conditions of rural China.
The village dries up and dies as the people do, and the corrupt son continues to accumulate wealth off the misery of others—in his case blood, death, marriage in the afterlife (in the case of the U.S.—disease, wars, private prisons). The son convinces himself he’s a philanthropist. The father, a janitor, convinces himself he's a professor. What’s real? When is a dream true?