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From people to person

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 China

By Tom Chatfield   July 2007

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…

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