The men who gave Aids to rural China

The scandal that saw 'blood merchants' infect thousands of people with HIV has always been a taboo subject. But a new film hopes to change that

In Gu Changwei's star-studded new film, Love for Life, a beautiful Aids sufferer, Qinqin, explains how she sold her blood to buy expensive shampoo. "Another girl in the village had it," she says, shrugging. "I wanted my hair to be as shiny as hers." Qinqin now suffers from the "fever", a mysterious illness sweeping the region following a visit from a "blood merchant", with whom the villagers had hungrily traded their blood for cash.

Opening in Chinese cinemas last week, the film marks the first time the blood-selling scandal of the 1990s has been featured in mainstream Chinese culture. Set in a remote village during the period, it is about a love-struck couple, Shang Qinqin and Zhao Deyi, who are struggling to come to terms with the fever. It is the result of four years work for the 53-year-old Gu, a cinematographer-turned-director who has worked on some of the biggest films in Chinese movie history, including Farewell My Concubine (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award). Starring two of Asia's hottest pinups – the actress Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Aaron Kwok, a huge Cantopop star – it's set to be one of the biggest Chinese films of 2011.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Love for Life is that it is backed by the Government, marking a U-turn on a subject that has, until now, been rigorously censored. Aids itself has been touchy, but most sensitive of all has been the blood-selling scandal, an episode that infected tens of thousands of people in rural China with HIV and in which the Government was implicitly involved.

In the 1990s, entrepreneurs known as "blood heads" started collecting blood from peasants. They extracted the plasma and returned the blood to the donor. In the interim, however, the blood was mixed in contaminated pools and equipment was reused. Aids swept through rural parts of Henan, Shanxi and Anhui provinces, killing people, as the narrator says at the beginning of the film, "like leaves falling from the trees". In an office above one of Shanghai's oldest cinemas, Gu explains the rationale behind the movie. "In contemporary China, people still turn pale at the mere mention of Aids," he says. "You know there is an old saying in China that people 'turn pale at the mention of a tiger' [people grow fearful if something bad is merely mentioned]. This film is attempting to get people over that fear."

Its release could not be more timely. Last month, the Ministry of Health announced that deaths from Aids were peaking in China. Total Aids deaths have increased more than eightfold since 2005, from fewer than 8,000 to 68,000 in 2011. Last year alone there were 7,700 deaths, the most recorded in a single year. This peak, a senior health official told the China Daily last month, was because "those infected in the 1990s [are now] developing full-blown Aids. So the number of deaths has surged".

China has about 740,000 people living with HIV/Aids, although it is estimated that 400,000 are not aware of their condition. "We don't know where this other half is," Gu says. "They are probably just ordinary people around us. When we were shooting the film, several people left the production, for they thought it would be dangerous to work with HIV-positive people. They lacked even basic knowledge about Aids."

This widespread ignorance is largely down to the official choking of media reports and the suppression of activists when Aids broke out in the 1990s. Books on the topic, such as Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village, remain banned.

"The Chinese Government has never stood up and explained things to the public," says Zhang Beichuan, the director of the China Sexology Association, who has been honoured by the United Nations for his Aids work in China. "Not a lot of people in China are aware of the [blood-selling] scandal. Sadly, nobody seems to be taking responsibility for the disaster. If nobody is responsible, then there was never a problem."

It's not just the nature of the disease that Love for Life dramatises, but the acute discrimination against HIV/Aids sufferers in China. In the film, the villagers with Aids are social outcasts. When Aaron Kwok's character, Zhao Deyi, buys some fruit, he is given his change with pincers. Qinqin's husband says she is too "filthy" to be buried next to him.

Released alongside Love for Life is a documentary called Together, co-produced by Gu, which acts as both a "making of" and a spotlight on contemporary Aids sufferers. It includes the story of a 12-year-old boy who is not allowed to put his chopsticks in the communal hotpot for fear of infecting his family. In another scene, a 30-year-old drug user known as Duckweed recounts how she sprinkled her son's rice with rat poison. "I couldn't see the point in living any more," she tells the camera, sobbing. Her son was four and, like Duckweed herself, infected with HIV. "My boy wanted to eat the rice straight away. But then I thought, 'How can I let him leave the world after only a few years of life?' I changed my mind."

One of the biggest challenges for Together's director, Zhao Liang, was finding Aids sufferers willing to be filmed. "They were very protective; they really didn't want other people to know," Zhao says. After trawling online chat rooms for several months and conducting 60 interviews, he found six people willing to join the production. But only three agreed to their faces being shown.

"I asked Gu: if people don't want to show their faces, what should I do?" Zhao says. "He said: 'If it's like that it's no problem. If no one wants to reveal their face, if no one dares to stand up, it shows how serious the discrimination is'."

Back at the cinema, Gu says: "Together and Love For Life have different prerogatives. Together is informative, while Love for Life works on an emotional level. I just hope that audiences share in the emotions of my characters, and that the film helps cut down discrimination in China. When you only have a short time left in the world, your core humanity is magnified. I want my characters' humanity to shine through; to show that everybody fights for life, everybody loves, and every individual has the right to live with dignity."

Additional reporting by Luxiang Li

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf