Zhu Wen’s book of stories, I Love Dollars, established him as a pivotal figure in Chinese literature of the 1990s. As a part of the New Generation, these writers seek to produce a new literature in the post-Mao era, one that conveys nihilistic characters in a hedonistic society and reflects the capitalistic society of China—writing for money, knowing what kind of literature sells and what does not.
Zhu Wen started writing fiction while working in a thermal power plant, a job he eventually quit to become a freelance writer. Zhu Wen’s writing developed during a transitional phase of Chinese authors in the post-Mao era: from the 1980s intellectually elitist to the 1990s commercialism. These writers embraced the Chinese ideal: wang qian kan (“look towards the future,” where “future” can be replaced by “money”).
In the title story “I Love Dollars,” the narrator’s father comes to visit him, just to check up on him and his brother, for whom they spend much of the story in search. While the narrator’s father is visiting, his son takes it upon himself to give his father a visit he won’t forget, which involves getting his father laid. One might find it rather shocking for a son to be concerned with his father’s sex life, but this narrator knows no boundaries. While out with his father, he sets about on the task of finding a woman to please him. His plans do not always work out in the end, whether it is due to the lack of money or his father’s own refusal.
The narrator of “I Love Dollars” represents the writers who embraced the money-centric ideal described above. The narrator of this title story is also a writer, paid to write his stories, and as long as he continues to get paid, he’ll continue to write the kind of fiction that sells. “Keep the dollars flying at him, and inspiration will never dry up,” he says. His father, on the other hand, does not agree with the kind of material he uses in his writing. “A writer ought to offer people something positive, something to look up to, ideals, aspirations, democracy, freedom.” The narrator claims, “It’s all there in sex.” This spat between father and son is similar to the political orthodoxy that was forced upon writers in the early 1990s. The establishment apostles of political correctness called for “cultural works that reflect socialism, give expression to communist ideals and the spirit of the social age . . . and that can fill people with enthusiasm and create unity among the masses.” The narrator’s father wants his son to write something inspiring; not mind candy. Perhaps when the narrator says democracy and freedom are there in sex suggests that this society is obsessed with sex. A novel from another Chinese writer might support this idea.
The Ruined Capital by Jia Pingwa (1993) is a sexually explicit novel about a male writer’s “spermatic journey through the spiritual corruption of contemporary China.” It was a best-seller, showing that sex and sensation made high sales. So perhaps China’s capitalist nation—with its slogan of always working to make a profit—perhaps the idea of writing salable fiction is a part of the freedom allotted to a nation that is about making a profit. The narrator of “I Love Dollars” might then have a point when he says democracy and freedom and ideals are in the sex he writes about and are what help him gain a buck.
The narrator may have a point, and it may be easy to write him off as unappealing—he is a self-involved, sex-obsessed man. “Whenever I met a woman I’d set about getting her into bed immediately.” He claims his libido is a “sickness,” (not to worry, “the symptoms are never anymore intrusive than those of a common cold”). As unlikable as he may be, he is completely harmless, and Zhu Wen’s sardonic tone adds an amusing note to the stories.
In “A Boat Crossing,” the narrator is waiting at a dock for his boat to arrive and take him to another island. While there, he is in the presence of two men whom he cannot get to leave: Qi and Chen. When he finally gets on the boat, he finds himself in another uncomfortable situation where his sketchy cabin-mates leave him feeling mistrustful and paranoid. Throughout the rest of the story, there is one uncomfortable situation after another with curious encounters from characters that the narrator finds to be most obnoxious, and from whom he cannot escape. The ill fortune of Zhu Wen’s narrator in “A Boat Crossing” is given a bit of Kafka-esque paranoia. While there is an irritated tone to the narrator’s voice, the reader feels a bit of sympathy for him, while still chuckling to himself.
With a humorous and entertaining style, the narrator of “Wheels” tells about an incident that happened to him six years ago when he was riding his bike to work. A mob of men claim he knocked into their old man, paralyzing his left arm, but they barely fool him as the old man often forgets which arm is hurt, let alone that he is in pain. The old man and his “bloodsucking relatives” insist on a hospital checkup. “Not just a regular checkup, a full checkup, in which it was discovered the old man had a tumor in his stomach the size of a broad bean.” The narrator does not get rid of this mob as easily as he would have hoped, and even after the checkup, there is a ransom of 3,000 yuan “and the whole thing’s out of his hands.” In the end, the narrator is on his last nerve and he releases his pent up aggression from this mob out on a restaurant owned by one of them.
Zhu Wen’s narrators have a conversationalist tone that absorbs the reader into the world of the characters. While their actions and beliefs (particularly those in “I Love Dollars”) may be unlikable, the reader is still sucked in to the funny and peculiar world of the characters. They are each faced with some mishap that leaves them searching for a way out of it throughout the whole story. It is one thing after another that leaves them feeling irritable and hopeless, and the reader begins to wonder why and how these characters can have such bad luck. Zhu Wen’s witty and comical voice gives it a light mood, reassuring his audience that the stories are still enjoyable.
Serve the People! is the story of Wu Dawang, a peasant from the countryside who has joined the Red Army, and who, after distinguishing himself in his division as a politically proper soldier, has achieved the relatively privileged rank of Sergeant of the Catering Squad. Wu Dawang is assigned to be General Orderly for the Division Commander, meaning he keeps house and cooks meals for the Division Commander and his wife, the alluring 32-year-old military nurse, Liu Lian.
Shortly after the opening of the novel, the Division Commander, an older man whose first marriage ended in divorce, takes an extended leave from Wu Dawang, Liu Lian, and his Division—his presence is required at a military conference, where he will spend the next two months drafting plans to modernize and streamline the Red Army.
While he’s away, Liu Lian, lonely, bored, married to an older, impotent man, attempts to seduce Wu Dawang, but Wu Dawang’s sense of military order and thoughts of his wife and child—who remain in the countryside awaiting Wu Dawang’s promotion to officialdom and life in a Chinese city—cause him to hesitate:
Wu Dawang also decided not to go straight to bed. He wound his way around those companionable clusters of drinkers to the deserted, southernmost end of the ground. There he sat, alone. To any casual observer, this deep moonlight contemplation might have suggested an inquiry into the fundamentals of existence, into the ethics of love, desire and revolution, into the conflict between honour and self-interest, into duty and hierarchy, human nature and animal instinct. But in reality these thorny abstractions slipped by him like smoke, leaving behind only two considerations: one, Liu Lian’s extraordinarily seductive body; and two, the probable consequences of entering into the kind of relations that she seemed to be proposing, and the Division Commander finding out. The simple but powerful blade of his mind stripped the issues of all complexity, leaving only these two principal contradictions. Meditating on the former, he was lost in blissful daydreams; thoughts of the latter called up the terrifying presentiment that just around the next corner of his life an execution ground awaited.
Eventually, Wu Dawang gives in to Liu Lian’s advances, and they begin a torrid affair that threatens not only Wu Dawang’s life and Liu Lian’s marriage, but the entire Division as well.
Yan Lianke’s book has caused something of a scandal in China. Serve the People! was originally published in a magazine, where it drew the attention of the Central Propaganda Bureau, who demanded that the entire print run, some 30,000 copies, be recalled and destroyed; the book has since been banned there, as have several other of Lianke’s novels. This translation even uses that fact as a marketing hook, printing some text from the Central Propaganda Bureau’s ruling—it “slanders Mao Zedong, the Army and is overflowing with sex”—on the back of the book.
The novel definitely does all of those things, and you can see why, were you a member of a censorship board in China, it might be banned. However, much of the impact of what was scandalous in its original context—the sex, poking fun at Mao Zedong thought, Mao Zedong’s iconography, the Cultural Revolution, and the naive sloganeering of the average Red Army soldier, and Liu Lian and Wu Dawang’s abuse of the “Serve the People” slogan—is lost on Western readers. These are things, after all, which aren’t sacred cows for any of us. So, once the glamorous glow of the forbidden and titillating is stripped away, what’s left of Serve the People! is an apparently straightforward story of forbidden love, for at least the first two-thirds of the novel, anyway.
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-
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.
Serve the People!
by Yan Lianke
Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell
Paperback, 216 pages, $14.00
Black Cat, a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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