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Serve the People!: A Novel Paperback – February 18, 2008


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This spare, enigmatic novella of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution tells the story of the brief love affair between Wu Dawang, general orderly for a local division commander, and Liu Lian, the commander's bored wife. An ambitious model soldier of peasant origin, eager to move his family to the city, Wu Dawang is repeatedly instructed by his superiors that to serve the Division Commander and his family is to Serve the People. While the commander is away in Beijing for a two-month conference, Liu Lian initiates the affair with Wu Dawang through her subversive take on that Maoist slogan: whenever a sign saying Serve the People is moved from its accustomed place in the household, Wu Dawang is to attend to her needs immediately. Their delirious sexual liaison culminates in an orgiastic desecration of the images and words of Chairman Mao. Yan's satire brilliantly exposes the emptiness of Maoist ideals and the fraudulent ends for which they were used, but also relates a sorrowful tale of compromised relationships and modest hopes left unfulfilled. It was banned in China in 2005 for slander and for overflowing depictions of sex. (Mar.)
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Review

"Yan Lianke's "Serve the People!" is a scathing sendup of life in 1960s China during the chaos of the country's Cultural Revolution. Serialized in the Chinese literary magazine Hua Cheng in 2005 and then banned by the Central Propaganda Bureau, Lianke's novel takes aim at one and all, from impotent leaders and their scandalous wives to amoral People's Liberation Army soldiers scheming their way up the ranks, peasant farmers plagued by drought, and even the great Mao himself. Lianke spares no one . . . "Serve the People!" is a wonderfully biting satire, brimming with absurdity, humor and wit . . .the novel is exuberantly drawn in several shades of revolutionary (or should that be Revlon?) red." —LA Times

“This passionate satire of clandestine, intimate privilege in an ostensibly classless, egalitarian society is exceedingly carefully written, so that it is at once funny, sad, and bitterly ironic on nearly every page. Oh, and sensual, too.” —Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)

“Yan’s work certainly contains its share of double entendres and may even be perceived as comedic at times, but on a deeper level, it offers a sociopolitical commentary on a way of life generally unfamiliar to Westerners.” —Library Journal

“Yan’s satire brilliantly exposes the emptiness of Maoist ideals and the fraudulent ends for which they were used, but also relates a sorrowful tale of compromised relationships and modest hopes left unfulfilled.” —Publishers Weekly

“Steamy and subversive . . . Lianke [is] one of China’s greatest living authors and fiercest satirists.” —Jonathan Watts, The Guardian

“Yan Lianke’s slim novel drips with the kind of satire that can only come from deep within the machinery of Chinese communism. Eschewing broad comedy, Yan barbs the text with enough social criticism to receive a priceless blurb from the Central Propaganda Bureau.” —Craig Taylor, Financial Times

“Not just sexy, but also tender . . . Lianke peppers the book with useful passages on the art of writing itself, and makes his readers aware of semantic manipulation and the power of words, their ability to brainwash and erase thoughts.” —Waterstone’s Books Quarterly (UK)

“An exhilarating comedy of misunderstandings . . . Yan Lianke is one of the most popular and controversial writers of his generation.” —La Repubblica (Italy)

“It is Ionesco in full. And the last pages of the book, melancholy and mysterious, make it possible to measure the variety of the talent of the novelist.” —Le Figaro (Paris)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 217 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat (February 18, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802170447
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802170446
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #555,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

It is well written like a lot of Chinese literature.
thewindfrombelow
Here in the last few pages, it seemed that the novel became something much deeper than a clever sex comedy, and much more than a satire of authoritarian behavior.
Reader in Tokyo
Written in 2005 in a relatively more open China, this book certainly did little to endear author Yan to his country's party and leadership.
Steve Koss

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By thewindfrombelow on March 29, 2008
Format: Paperback
Serve the People is a great book. It is well written like a lot of Chinese literature. The words are smart, sparse and full of emotion. The story is one that is both political and a love story at the same time. Apparently, according to the book jacket, this book was banned in China because it made fun of Mao and was sexual. The writing reminds me of Ha Jin in that it gets to the point by using few words and not using a bunch of big words just to fill up the pages. Once I got into it I couldn't put it down because I wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters next. It kept me on the edge of my seat and didn't necessarily take the path I thought it would to get to the end. I recommend this book because the writing is so good. The writing makes you feel at home, it makes you feel comfortable, not like you need a masters degree to read it. Also, the story is a good love story and the politics of it all is subtle and nuanced. You do not feel as if you are being preached at.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Steve Koss VINE VOICE on June 24, 2008
Format: Paperback
While there's doubtless no worse governmental regime under which to live than totalitarianism, there is also no other easier (and more dangerous) to skewer with satire. Such is indeed the case with Yan Lianke's marvelously spot-on short novel, SERVE THE PEOPLE! Written in 2005 in a relatively more open China, this book certainly did little to endear author Yan to his country's party and leadership.

The book's title derives from one of the Chinese Communist Party's central tenets, "Wei renmin fuwu," a sentiment toward selfless service to the country expounded by Mao himself as the title of a speech he delivered in 1944, five years before his ascendancy to the role of Great Leader. "Serve the People" remains an everpresent admonition for China's current leadership, still inscribed in Mao's brushstrokes at the entrance to the Communist Party's leadership compound Zhongnanhai in Beijing. However, author Yan Lianke takes serving the people to a whole new and decidedly bawdy level in his exposition of Maoist China in 1967.

Wu Dawang is a typical Chinese country boy who joins the Army in order to secure enough promotions to make good on a pre-marital vow to move his wife and child to the big city someday. Finding himself trapped in a loveless marriage to which he strives to be faithful, Wu lives most of his days at the military base where he has risen to General Orderly (primarily cook and gardener) to the Division Commander. In that role, Wu lives with his company comrades but works every day at the Division Commander's standalone residence.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Reader in Tokyo on May 31, 2011
Format: Paperback
SPOILERS AHEAD:

This book was published in 2005 and translated into English in 2007. Set in the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-73), it began as a sex comedy, chronicling the development of an affair between an aging general's young wife (Liu Lian) and the handsome male soldier who was her servant (Wu Dawong).

The book jacket and many book reviews emphasized the sex and romance ("red hot love story," "crackl[ing] with sexual tension"). But ultimately the novel seemed to be about how an authoritarian society distorted relations between people, the ways human nature found to overcome restrictions, the real meaning of self-sacrifice, and the massive gap in China between past and present values. Judging from the book's ending, the author didn't necessarily approve of all changes since liberalization.

Initially there was much humor in the way the affair developed. The author seemed to be poking fun at social characteristics of the old days like permanent mass mobilization in service of national goals, and the need at all times for dedication to something larger than merely oneself, as expressed in an endless stream of national slogans. He seemed also to mock people of the time who paid lip service to national ideals while keenly pursuing self-interest. The woman, for instance, tried to convince her unwilling servant -- a naïve, simple man from the countryside -- that in "serving" her he was ultimately serving the people. (This phrase, "Serve the people!" appeared throughout the book, with multiple levels of irony.) She also tried appealing to his own selfish motives.

The couple's yearning and frustration built up until they could be repressed no longer.
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By Steven Davis on April 9, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Wu Dawang has made a successful career for himself in the People's Liberation Army by remembering the Army's three most important rules: 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 also knows that to serve the Army is to Serve the People. Promoted to Sergeant of the Catering Squad, he has now been assigned as personal orderly to the Division Commander. To serve the Division Commander is to Serve the People, so he joyfully and diligently tends the Division Commander's garden, cleans the Division Commander's house, and prepare's meals for the Division Commander and his wife. And when the Division Commander is absent for weeks at a time, his superiors remind Wu that to serve the Division Commander's wife is to Serve the People.

But the Division Commander's wife, the young, beautiful, neglected, bored and lonely Liu Lian, wants to be served in a manner that shocks poor Wu Dawang. At first he refuses, but a bit of pressure from Liu Lian convinces Wu that his Army career is at stake. Before long the two are enjoying a passionate secret romance straight out of the pages of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Serve the People satirizes the institutions and propaganda of Mao's China, showing that behind all the patriotic slogans the Chinese are no different than anyone else. Everyone wants a little more than he has. The soldiers want to be officers, the officers want promotions, the farmers want jobs in the cities, the low-ranking officials want to be high-ranking officials, and behind every ambitious man is a wife who wants better food and nicer clothes. The dedication to Mao and the slogans of self-sacrifice are a game everyone plays to get ahead but no one eventually believes in.

This is an enjoyable, bittersweet romance. Notwithstanding the satirical purpose of the work, the characters are believable, and their volatile relationship offers scenes that are insightful, moving, and heartrending.
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