Yan Lianke, Serve the People! (Black Cat, 2008)
A year before China’s Yan Lianke wrote Serve the People!, he was dismissed from his position in the People’s Liberation Army. Employed to write stories that improved soldiers’ morale, it is not surprising that he was shown the door after penning Enjoyment, the 2004 novel mocking the money-making schemes of local government. In Serve the People!, Lianke flips his skills as a propaganda writer in order to strip the party language of its meaning and substance.
Lianke’s primary tactic is linguistic subversion, and his attack on the party is a triumph stemming from the ease of his execution. “Serve the People,” a phrase originated by Mao in a 1944 speech, quickly became one of the most predominant mantras of the party. However, for Liu Lian, wealthy wife of a Division Commander, and Sergent Wu Dawang, the house orderly, it is a code used to initiate their adulterous liaisons.
Censors reacted swiftly and definitively to ban the book, citing the characters’ transgressions against Mao as blasphemous and Lianke’s vivid descriptions of their affair as pornographic. The driving power behind Serve the People!, however, is its piercing mockery of the idea that indoctrination is a successful political tool. Wu Dawang is propelled into the affair partially because he has been taught not to disobey. At the affair’s peak, both characters retain the sense that the tenets of the party are strong, but since neither actually believe them, it is easy to harness that power as the means to an entirely different, and amoral, end.
As members of a democratic, if misguided, nation, we can claim to know of these dangers already. Unlike Liu Lian and Wu Dawang, we immediately identify political buzzwords as vessels of manipulation. In many senses, the novel’s predictable plot line is unremarkable for American audiences.
But Lianke’s experience writing in the Army has bestowed upon him an uncanny ability to show the duality of both language and desire. Both characters are unfulfilled and repressed until the explosion of their affair, which is fueled by the destruction of political paraphernalia. Despite their attempts to feel free, at worst, they feel guiltily rebellious, and at best, they profess hatred and sadness. Neither character is sincerely capable of original thought; their behavior is reactionary, and to an impartial third party, verges on childishness.
Before we pass judgment on these stifled and homogenized Communist party members, we ought to wonder what they can teach us about being citizens of a country in which the government provokes both indignation and indifference. Despite their socialist principles, these characters are no less self-interested than Americans; perhaps more so, because they are set with the task of manipulating the system to get what they want. They use the very mantras that entrap them as tools for escape. The party line is inextricably woven into the minds and bodies of its citizens, even as they scrounge for the individuality that will let them reject it.
Lianke shows us that language is a piercing and potentially destructive weapon, no matter how vehemently we try to shirk its effects and demean its influence. Lianke’s story may not be entirely groundbreaking, but the tricks it unearths ought to make the reader think twice—that we, too, are a people served.
Rachel Balik is not a mommy blogger, but aspires to be a posh 20-something.