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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Serve the People !

Yan Lianke

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To purchase Serve the People !

Title: Serve the People !
Author: Yan Lianke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 227 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Serve the People ! - US
Serve the People ! - UK
Serve the People ! - Canada
Serve the People ! - India
Servir le peuple - France
Dem Volke dienen - Deutschland
Servire il popolo - Italia
Servir al pueblo - España
  • Chinese title: 為人民服務
  • Translated by Julia Lovell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective tale of Communist China

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian A- 22/9/2007 Bei Ling
Financial Times . 19/5/2007 Craig Taylor
FAZ A 5/10/2007 Mark Siemons
Independent on Sunday . 29/7/2007 Laurence Phelan
The LA Times A- 23/3/2008 Natalie Moore
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/5/2008 Liesl Schillinger
Prospect . 7/2007 Tom Chatfield
Sydney Morning Herald A 11/8/2007 Ed Wright
Welt am Sonntag . 14/10/2007 Sophie Von Maltzahn

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed -- and very funny

  From the Reviews:
  • "(O)ne need not care or even know much about its political and cultural background to be drawn into its heartfelt -- and loin-felt -- plot, and then be thrown into bellowing laughter, over and over again. (…) Looking past its political implications and its unlikely origin, this book stands shoulder to shoulder with familiar masterpieces of satire such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22. (…) Under the pen of Yan, so much lofty Maoist propaganda has been transformed into bedroom dirty talk, and by way of underground circulations of the novel, the Chinese public has caught on. Serve the People! is not the best of the prolific Yan's works. Aside from the plot, excessive commentaries are inserted at various points, so that a reader's immersion in the suspenseful narration, with its sultry atmosphere and vivid sexual hilarity, is often interrupted." - Bei Ling, The Australian

  • "Yan barbs the text with enough social criticism to receive a priceless blurb from the Central Propaganda Bureau, which banned the book on the grounds that it "slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex". With censors like that, who needs a book reviewer to rave on ?" - Craig Taylor, Financial Times

  • "Es ist kein Thesenroman, sondern eine Erzählung, deren Kern hinter dem funkelnden Witz traurig ist. (…) Der Roman verbirgt das Konstruierte dieser Konstellation nicht; er streicht es durch Querverweise auf Psychoanalyse und moderne Literaturtheorie sogar heraus. Aber das Wunder ist, mit wie viel Leichtigkeit und Komik Yan Lianke diesem künstlichen Amalgam Leben abgewinnt. Er schafft es, den politischen Jargon der Zeit als poetisches Mittel zur Verfremdung noch des kleinsten Details zu gebrauchen. Alles hier ist Ironie, aber eine Ironie, die sich nicht selbst genügt, sondern nur eine Verkleidung der Melancholie ist, die darunter liegt." - Mark Siemons, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "A very funny, and sexy, satire, only slightly marred by the self- consciousness of the narrative and its frequent direct addresses to the reader." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday

  • "The simple fact that this novel was written is proof of remarkable changes in China since the revolution (the ban aside). Lianke skillfully skewers Mao's revolutionary vision at every turn. (...) Serve the People! is a wonderfully biting satire, brimming with absurdity, humor and wit. Although not flawless -- Lianke's comedy is occasionally heavy-handed -- the novel is exuberantly drawn in several shades of revolutionary (or should that be Revlon ?) red." - Natalie Moore, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Can fiction be graded on a curve ? Are there extenuating factors that ought to be brought to bear ? This book is a chapter from living history that the world beyond China is only lately beginning to glimpse. (...) Serve the People ! taps the politico-satirical vein of an Orwell or a Zamyatin but leaves their reserves of subtlety untouched." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Much of Lianke's ire in this novel is directed at how in Mao's China, the convergence of Confucianism and communism produced a conflicted system where the ideology of egalitarianism was saturated with nepotism and an excessive (though sometimes ironic) reverence for hierarchy. (…) (T)he action unfolds into a sexy farce whose lightness and structural wit made me think of Oscar Wilde. It's a wonderful satirical confection that maintains its comic tension to the very end. Furthermore it does this with a powerful human warmth. It's a comedy of predicament, of human nature negotiating an absurd system and it's hard not to feel for Wu and Liu Lian as they try to make the best of their lives without falling foul of the system. Serve the People! is a great opportunity to dip your head into a very different cultural space. It's sharp, fresh, sexy, funny and highly recommended." - Ed Wright, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Der maoistische Leitsatz Diene dem Volke wird ins Absurde gezogen, sind doch die meisten Taten auf die Annehmlichkeit Einzelner gerichtet. Yan Lianke provoziert durch die Entfremdung maoistischer Staatsparolen." - Sophie Von Maltzahn, Welt am Sonntag

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       'Serve the people !' was a Maoist slogan, and Serve the People ! suggests the reality of that ideal in Communist China. Mao's speech from 1944 is included as a Postscript; in it he claims that: "We serve the people and therefore, if we have shortcomings, we are not afraid to have them pointed out and criticized", and:

If, in the interests of the people, we persevere in doing what is right and in correcting what is wrong, everyone in our ranks will thrive.
       Good intentions and grand promises are all well and good, but in practise things turn out differently. What happened in China is well-known by now, and while Yan Lianke's novel tells only a small story from the periphery it nevertheless makes for an effective indictment of the whole Communist system in China -- though also showing a surprisingly human (or lax and laid-back) side to it.
       Set in Cultural Revolutionary times, Serve the People ! is the story of Wu Dawang, a General Orderly for an army Division Commander. He comes from a poor village in the middle of nowhere, where he worked, like everyone there, as a farmer, but because his mother had "insisted -- at great personal cost" on keeping him in school until he was sixteen he is better educated than most, which ultimately allowed for the possibility of escaping this peasant existence. One thing leads to another, including his getting a wife and the beginning of an army career, but he has higher goals to realise, having promised his father-in-law that he would soon become a Party member and then also an official. Once he's made it that far he can get an urban registration permit:
This was every peasant's dream: to leave the uncertain, never-ending toil of farming for the comforts of the city and a state-allocated job.
       Unfortunately, Party-membership is not easily obtained, much less then becoming an official, and Wu Dawang's semi-promising career stalls before it even really gets started. It's only when he finally gets his orderly position that he might find himself on the right track again.
       Wu Dawang gets ahead because he devotes himself to his tasks. 'Serve the people' is the motto he takes to heart, and even when that means serving a single master he doesn't question his assignments: "All he knew was that to serve the senior officers was to Serve the People." He knows better than to ask himself if what he (and so many others) are doing really serves the people in any meaningful way, but Yan Lianke makes sure readers get the message (which is, of course: the people are pretty much the last ones being served by anything in this system).
       The main part of the novel focusses on the events that lead to this and much more unraveling, when the Division Commander is away for an extended period of time and his left-behind wife, Liu Lian, wants Wu Dawang to service her. Wu Dawang isn't sure how to handle the situation at first. Somewhere between seduction, summons, and demand, it's obvious what Liu Lian wants, but Wu Dawang also knows that the ramifications of going ahead are potentially catastrophic -- but the alternative, of not going along with it, could also prove damaging.
       Eventually, he goes for it -- and eventually he really gets into it. By the end, just before the cuckolded husband is to return, they bunker down in the house and let it all loose -- a sex-life in stark contrast to the very limited encounters Wu Dawang has with his wife.
       A sign with the slogan 'Serve the People' is the signal Liu Lian chooses when she wants Wu Dawang's ... services upstairs: "whenever this sign's not in its usual place, it means I need you upstairs for something". There's some resistance to overcome, but eventually she gets her way. What's significant, however, is less the affair than the misappropriation of the slogan. And while the sex may be a bit explicit by the standards of Chinese fiction, it becomes truly shocking when the sign (and its slogan) is not the only Communist symbol that fuels this illicit affair. It all culminates in a scene where they literally trash the house and every Communist piece of memorabilia, beginning with the smashing of a plaster statue of Mao -- leading to an incredible sexual frenzy. Yes, they are incredibly turned on by very figuratively breaking with Communism -- something much more dangerous than merely engaging in extra-marital sex, and something very daring for Yan Lianke to describe.
       What's surprising is also how it all plays out afterwards. Liu Lian sends Wu Dawang home when her husband comes back, but arranges for a transfer to an urban job for him (a gift of the highest order), while her husband draws other consequences (that affect a large circle). The episode affected many lives, and yet remains a small, personal, and almost intimate one.
       'Serve the People' proves to be a relatively empty slogan, as everyone seems merely to be striving for their own advancement, at whatever cost. Even when some look the other way, or help each other out, it is only on the personal level -- Wu Dawang's father-in-law expecting some benefit for his daughter, for example. Surprisingly, though the Party controls the country so completely (even as to who can work in a city), officialdom -- whether in Wu Dawang's village or in the army -- is often fairly lax, with many people able to get away with a variety of things.
       The worlds Yan Lianke describes are -- like everywhere else on earth -- ones where self-interest is the driving force, and connexions, luck, and kowtowing to the right higher-ups (and mouthing the right slogans) are what get you anywhere. He mixes it nicely here with a not-quite-love story, and if the writing and presentation is occasionally a bit rough and tumble he still brings some depth to several of these characters, making for quite an effective human story.
       Even if he makes the subversive elements too obvious -- smashing Mao to pieces, and getting off on that ... -- it's a pretty powerful novel, and really quite well done.

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Serve the People !: Reviews: Yan Lianke: Other books by Yan Lianke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Yan Lianke (閻連科) was born in 1958, and he has won several major Chinese literary prizes.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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