As Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village opens, the Yellow River basin fades into view as an almost Martian landscape: “The dusk settles over a day in late autumn. The sun sets above the East Henan plain, a blood-red ball turning the earth and sky a deep shade of crimson … The trees are all bare; the crops have withered.” But the landscape is only the beginning of the devastation: the human inhabitants of Ding Village are also drying up and dropping like autumn leaves.

A decade after the village escaped a cycle of poverty by mobilizing its population to sell blood, it is in the throes of an AIDS epidemic, the result of careless needle sharing by untrained amateur “bloodheads.” Nearly the entire population has what villagers call “the fever”; no family is left untouched by the disease.

If this sounds bleak, that’s because it is—extremely so. But the book has its moments of gallows humor, and it’s hard not to be moved by the villagers’ will to survive—and even find love—as their world crumbles around them. The lyrical beauty of the work is also apparent in Cindy Carter’s translation, which renders its many dream sequences in epic, flowing prose and its dialogues in terse, blunt staccato.

Dream of Ding Village is based on the author’s research, conducted alongside a Beijing anthropologist in a real-life rural epidemic zone in his home province of Henan. Yan originally intended to connect the local “blood plasma resource centers” with the foreign money that drives the trade in a more direct social critique, but stopped short, fearing the work would be “harmonized.” It was anyway.

Regardless, what we get is a picture of a community dealing with the consequences of its get-rich-quick scheme in near-total isolation. As social mores collapse and the afflicted gather together in a “utopian” community based in the local school, what unfolds is something between Lord of the Flies and The Magic Mountain.

Throughout the narrative, the fever flares up following pursuit of material wealth, first by the “bloodhead” merchants driving the trade, and then by the unsuspecting villagers who fall for the scheme. Sometimes, the depiction of the villagers’ tragic innocence is a little heavy-handed. When one character asks a patient in her 20s why she started selling blood, she mentions a girl whose hair turned silky-smooth after using a certain brand of shampoo: “I wanted to try it, too, but it was expensive.”

Quoted in The Guardian in 2006, Yan speculated that the Henan AIDS epidemic could be “a warning from God that we are developing too quickly.” The book sometimes alludes to the Bible, including a direct quote from the dreams of the Pharaoh in Genesis. Considering the list of others who have looked skyward to explain AIDS (a roll call that includes bigoted religious leaders and Muammar Qaddafi), such statements give pause.

But in the end, Yan’s obvious compassion for the victims of the disease shines through and dispels these doubts. His work is a fearless account of the AIDS pandemic in miniature as it tears through an isolated community.

This article was published in April 2011 in City Weekend Beijing. Click here to read the original.