In the early 1990s, the Chinese Ministry of Health set up plasma stations across Henan province that allowed impoverished farmers to sell their plasma for compensation. This infused cash into small villages, and also became a profit source for Health Ministry officials. When plasma is donated, red blood cells are routinely returned to the donor. But at these stations, red blood cells from multiple donors were pooled, mixing blood samples which were then re-distributed to donors, infecting thousands with hepatitis C and AIDS. When epidemiologists discovered the spread of disease, the government instituted a cover-up, while farmers remained uneducated and uninformed about these diseases and its repercussions.
As a teenager, playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig lived in Beijing, where her father worked with the U.S. Embassy, traveling around China to report on public health issues. While traveling, he met Dr. Wang Shuping, a whistle blower for the rampant contamination of the plasma purchasing stations in Henan province. Cowhig met and interviewed Dr. Wang and was inspired to write The King of Hell’s Palace about these events.
Set in the early ‘90s in a rural village in Henan province, China, The King of Hell’s Palace begins with farmers and families in the small village hearing a rumor that selling their plasma is an easy way to make money to send their children to school, as even modest tuition payments are beyond their budgets. The villagers plan to make a trip to the city of Zhoukou to see for themselves. Meanwhile, in an apartment in Zhoukou, Yin-Yin, an epidemiologist, has dinner with Chen, a bureaucrat with the Ministry of Health and director of the plasma stations. Chen offers Yin-Yin a job setting up plasma stations across the province with oversight of blood screening and disease control. As the bureaucrats grow more excited about the plasma stations, Yin-Yin’s concerns about donor safety grow.
What follows is a decade-long battle with government secrets and corruption as disease ravages rural Henan. The play depicts the villagers as they gain monetary funds, but become crushed when members of their family fall sick. The personal entanglements of government officials are also depicted as they scramble to manage the crisis in the face of Yin-Yin’s information. Cowhig dives into personal repercussions of this massive cover-up from all sides. Her work questions how decisions of this size are made, and how not only one family, but an entire country, can begin to heal from this kind of trauma.