In China, collectivist ideals are enshrined in the very language, so it is not surprising that rebellion often takes a linguistic form. These two novels examine the struggle for self-expression in modern Chinaby Tom Chatfield / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
Serve the People!, by Yan Lianke (Constable, £6.99)
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto and Windus, £12.99) The five characters spoken “Wei Ren Min Fu Wu” are among the most reproduced and recognisable in Mandarin Chinese. Their literal translation is “act people citizens submit must,” but the phrase is invariably rendered in English as “Serve the people!” It was coined by Mao Zedong in a speech in 1944, and at his command was blazoned in scarlet and gold on a huge screen in the heart of Beijing when the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. It’s still there today, watching over the headquarters of both the central people’s government and the Communist party of China.
Contemporary Beijing being what it is, however, the characters also serve as a cutely ironic logo on bags sold to western tourists (ideal for carrying novelty saluting statuettes of Mao) and have been adopted as a tongue-in-cheek moniker by a rather good Thai restaurant in Beijing’s trendy San Li Tun district. These are the contradictions that increasingly abound in modern China—entrepreneurial spirit and individualism poking through the cracks in the old Communist and Confucian orders.
A conflict between collectivism and individualism is enshrined in the Chinese language itself. The characters “Zhong Guo Ren”, for example, can mean both “Chinese person” and “Chinese people,” depending on context. In the most populous nation in human history, you are rarely far enough away from others to stop feeling the weight of “the people,” either literally or linguistically. The cash in your pocket is “the people’s money”; the country you inhabit is, literally, “the Chinese people’s shared harmony nation”; every bank is “the people’s” bank.
Mao’s most famous phrase has now been appropriated by the Chinese writer Yan Lianke, as the title of a satirical novel. Serve the People! is the fourth of Lianke’s works to be banned in China. In 2004, every state publishing house refused to print it. In 2005, tens of thousands of copies of a literary magazine that dared to reproduce bowdlerised extracts were destroyed by government order. This July, it is released in English translation, having already attracted a cult following on the internet. Increasingly, China’s contradictions are a global business.
Set in 1967, at the height of the cultural revolution, Serve the People! follows the fortunes of Wu Dawang, a peasant soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, as…