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Reading the World 2008: Serve the People! by Yan Lianke

This is the seventeenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

One of the best selling points for Yan Lianke’s Serve the People! is the quote on the back from the 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.

This kind of negative attention is a publisher’s dream . . . As explained in the flap copy, when this book was written in 2005, it was deemed “unpublishable by China’s state-run publishing houses.” Thanks to the interview, this quickly became a cult classic.

Sexual insinuations in the jacket copy doesn’t hurt either:

Serve the People! is a beautifully told, wickedly daring story about the forbidden love affair between Liu Lian, the young, pretty wife of a powerful division commander in Communist China, and her household’s lowly servant, Wu Dawang. Left to idle at home while her husband furthers the revolution, Liu Lian establishes a rule for her orderly: whenever the household’s wooden “Serve the People!” sign is removed from its usual place on the dinner talbe and placed elsewhere, Wu Dawang is to stop what he is doing to attend to her needs upstairs.

E. J. wrote a long review of this back some time ago, ending with:

And much of that first two-thirds feels pretty familiar, which left me wanting Lianke to just get Wu Dawang and Liu Lian together, so he could get on with the rest of his story. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy and gets to the part when misunderstandings-or-outside-forces-are-temporarily-driving-
the-lovers-apart-which-makes-their-eventual-coupling-more-
satisfying knows what I’m talking about, but in this case with a lot more sex once they get together.

Once he gets them together however, Lianke’s story does take on a more elegiac and, to me at least, far more interesting tone. And the book does have a few powerful moments toward the end, when the current of criticism that runs through the plot—how constricting these communist slogans, once internalized, have become, and how they are used and twisted by all and sundry just to get by—affects the plot and the characters most directly and more deeply.



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