Serve the People!--Yan Lianke

from the Cover Blurbs
Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau

This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the army and is overflowing with sex. . . . Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it.

There you have it, book review in a political blurb.  That the officialdom of the Chinese Government are even mildly concerned about this novel is a deep insight into the paranoia of the totalitarian regime.  The book is "overflowing with sex" in a kind of abstract, cheesecloth-covered lens way, certainly nothing to get the jaded engines of most Western readers revved.  Don't get me wrong--this isn't a novel to hand around to your children--but think D. H. Lawrence and you have about the right degree of heat.  Throughout the central part of the book, the torrid love affair between the ironically named (to Western ears) Wu Dawang and Liu Lian is documented in breezy detail that let's you know a lot is going on without being too clear about what exactly it might consist of.  Except of course when the loving couple is smashing statues of Mao and trampling on excerpts from the collected works and making dinner for one another.

Wu Dawang is a simple country man who has drunk deeply of the font of wisdom that is Mao Zedong and wound up with a job as General Orderly for a powerful commanding officer.  This all takes place in the mid-to-late sixties just prior to the cultural revolution and at the height of the cult of Mao.  We start the novel with the officer quizzing Wu on the meaning and symbolism of a sign that decorates the officer's kitchen.  (Actually, this sign is to become the signal between the lovers).

from Serve the People
Yan Lianke

The sign, its letters burning scarlet against a whitewashed background, its stars, rifle, canteen, and wheat emblazoned in red and yellow, had come home one day with the Division commander. He had gazed solemnly at Wu Dawang as he laid it on the table. 'Do you know what this sign means?' he asked, while his General Orderly set down dishes of food before him.

After a long, hard look, Wu Dawang produced a careful critique.

'Good,' declared the Commander, his face brightening slowly into a smile. 'Very good, in fact--much better than them.'

Though Wu Dawang didn't know who the Division Commander meant by 'them,' he did know, and better than most, the People's Liberation Army's three rules of thumb--Don't Say What You Shouldn't Say, Don't Ask What You Shouldn't Ask, Don't Do What You Shouldn't Do. He therefore went back into the kitchen to prepare soup for the Commander and his wife. And from that moment on, the sign became the most distinguished, most illustrious resident of the dining table, casting its might symbolic shadow over the lowly bottles of vinegar, chilli sauce and sesame oil.

Somewhat later we are privileged to be informed in detail about the meanings of these symbols.  We also learn that Wu has ascended to his exalted position:

And it was after one particularly exhilarating performance at a Mass Theory and Practice of Frontline Logistics Competition--in which Wu had recited, word-perfect,  286 quotations and three classic essays ('Serve the People,' 'Commemorating Norman Bethune,' and 'The Foolish Old Man who Moved the Mountains') by Chairman Mao ; had dug a stove, chopped ingredients and presented an immaculate gourmet banquet of four dishes and a soup all within thirty minutes and had, yet again been lauded up and down the barracks ranks as Model Soldier--that the Division Commander had selected him as his full-time orderly and cook.

And so it goes.  The Division Commander's wife has been making googly eyes at Wu, but being the stolid, naive, and somewhat brainwashed and slow man that he is, he hasn't really noticed.  However, when the Division Commander goes away on exercises, Liu Lian gives an entirely new meaning to "Serve the People!"

The book is smoothly written, well-translated, and a rapid read.  It is interesting from point of view that it is written by someone still living within the communist regime and critiquing it from within.  So far as I'm aware, he hasn't suffered any considerable consequences from these "tweaks on the nose." But the blurb above shows how dangerously close even something as mild as this skates toward disapproval that could lead to disappearance.

The book was a fascinating glimpse into the depths of a brainwashed and totalitarian culture. It was fun and interesting to read, even if a western reader might not be privy to all of the "in-jokes" and satire.  However, much of the satire is sufficiently broad that no one will miss it.

Highly recommended ****1/2


  1. I wonder if the effect of the official critique might be something like the effect of a promo for a book here in the US --Banned in Boston-- used to be.

  2. Dear Fred,

    It was certainly one of the things that attracted me to the book!




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