Book review: Serve the People! and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Review of Serve the People! by Yan Lianke and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, first published in Prospect, July 2007

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 he is drawn into an affair with his commander’s wife; her husband, a powerful and revered servant of the state, is sexually impotent. Gradually, we watch Wu’s devotion to the army and the party—the only routes for a peasant to escape the grinding, anonymous misery of life among China’s rural millions—subverted into a ferociously physical relationship. His “people” becomes a person, a process of awakening mapped in the lovers’ translation of the public codes of propaganda into private codes of intimacy and pleasure. The slogan “serve the people” is, in the best communist style, written on a sign that stands permanently in the living room of the commander’s house. In the eyes of Wu’s superiors, this phrase summarises everything that matters about his relationship with the state and the state’s relationship with its citizens. In the hands of the commander’s wife, however, its removal becomes the signal that she requires his attentions, while his screaming repetition of the phrase becomes a manic kind of foreplay. Fittingly, the novel’s climax is a marathon of sexual activity amid the scraps of propaganda posters, pictures and the shards of a bust of Mao—a counter-revolution of the body. Yet there is no lasting victory for the lovers, and after the end of their affair Yan Lianke carefully shows how the state’s massive, indifferent machinery removes the possibility of any permanent change.

In English, this is all rather gentle, even banal, stuff, but it is easy to see why the book was banned: a couple copulating on top of pictures of Chairman Mao is not an image the Communist party is quite ready for. What is more difficult to appreciate in translation is the degree to which, by assaulting its language, Serve the People! assaults some of the fundamental principles of a government that, for all its recent relaxations, still denies basic human rights to tens of millions of individuals in the name of their empowerment. Wu Dawang is a peasant, one of the faceless masses, and his sudden, fantastical potency is a satirical thrust at the heart of a number of brutally reductive assumptions about what it has meant to be “Zhong Guo Ren,” a Chinese person/people over the last 60 years.

Some readers of Serve the People! will have already read Xiaolu Guo’s Orange prize-shortlisted A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a novel that in many ways far better embodies China’s current relationship with the English-speaking world—it is quirkily engaging and politically alert, but in the end gets on with the business of giving its audience what they want, which is a well-crafted tale of east and west. Yet, although it lacks Serve the People!’s anger and historical sweep, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary is also a novel about language and identity, and the slippery business of translating the self into words and actions. Its central conceit is the use of “deliberately bad” English (as the inside cover somewhat defensively puts it), a device that forces readers to focus on the gaping holes in the supposed equivalences offered by all acts of translation. In this, it has found a perfect metaphor for China four decades after the cultural revolution: a country justifiably proud of its economic advances and its emergence as a global power, yet still barely literate in either its recent history or the troubles of its citizens’ lives. It is, after all, both abroad and via a foreign tongue that a modern Chinese literature capable of introspection is in part being forged.

In faltering English, then, Xiaolu Guo conjures the voice of a young Chinese woman, Zhuang Xiao Qiao, studying English in London. Zhuang’s story is as much as anything a battle for new words to explain her unease and loneliness, while her sensibilities occasion a vivid sequence of incidents illustrating the different textures of habit and expectation in east and west: she finds a lover, kindness, fear, alienation, frustration; she travels around Europe, and ultimately returns home. Both her future and her past remain indistinct, however, and as a whole the novel feels like a strangely inverted exercise in nostalgia—a series of gestures towards a time when England and China, like our protagonist’s language, might achieve an articulate harmony. It is both a romantic and a suggestive impulse. Like her protagonist, Xiaolu seems honestly bewildered by the pace at which China is changing, and by the almost unthinkably strange question of what it might mean to be Chinese in ten or 20 years’ time. The question is an open one, but one certainty is that its answer will not be monolingual. On the page, in politics and, above all, online, the world’s two most written and spoken languages—English and Chinese—have already begun to transform each other. The present expansion of Chinese literature into English is just the beginning.