Reds baited

Natalie Moore is a critic and freelance writer.

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.

One amoral comrade in particular is at the heart of this tale. For Wu Dawang, life in the army is lighted not by the fires of revolutionary fervor but by the range on the kitchen stove. Armed with bunches of bok choy and a garden hoe, Wu, the sergeant of the catering squad (recently promoted to general orderly for the division commander and his wife), spends his days among “lowly bottles of vinegar, chili sauce and sesame oil,” preparing meals. He’s fixated on promotion, hoping to move closer to fulfilling the dream of every Chinese peasant -- for his family “to leave the uncertain, never-ending toil of farming for the comforts of city life and a state-allocated job.”

Wu’s peaceful routine is shattered one afternoon when Liu Lian, the division commander’s beautiful, young (and extremely bored) wife, makes it known that, while her husband is engaged elsewhere, Wu’s duties will be extended beyond the realm of kitchen and garden to include her bedroom. Ever the stickler for rules, Wu eventually decides that Mao’s exhortation to “Serve the People!” will just as well be obeyed in this manner as in any other. The affair not only rapidly engulfs the couple in an ever-increasing parade of lust and debauchery but also has serious consequences for all those stationed in the barracks.

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. The star-crossed lovers, for example, struggle with a silence between them “as interminable as ‘The Collected Works of Mao Zedong’ ” while the garden in Wu Dawang’s care is heavy with vines “as densely fruitful as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist study meeting.” Wu accidentally destroys a bust of Mao in front of Liu Lian -- allowing Lianke the iconoclast to delight in his hero’s inadvertent iconoclasm -- which in turn sets the lovers off on a frenzy of Mao-defacing sexual antics around the commander’s house.


“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.