China was effectively run as an empire and, regardless of what motivated the emperor, it is fairly safe to say that the rank and file had very little firm ground to stand on. Beyond being a tumultuous time, the Cultural Revolution has inspired much literature, most of it written after the fact.
Yan Lianke lived through the period. He was born in 1958, a few years before it got going in earnest, but he did not start putting pen to paper until after it was finished, as a writer for the army in 1978. Since then, he has won two of China’s top literary awards and has seen four of his novels banned by the authorities. A few years ago he was asked to give up his non-combat rank of senior colonel in the army.
Serve The People!, which appeared in translation this year, was one of the banned books. It tells of the love affair between an army corporal and the wife of his commanding officer, which evolves into a private betrayal of the principles the two characters outwardly hold.
Convoluted and ending not in happiness but in a pragmatically beneficial solution for all concerned, it is a very Chinese story – the country’s literature is often realistic and this is no exception.
Lianke’s main characters Wu Dawang and the commander’s wife Liu Lian, begin their affair almost as a way to spite the structure of their lives. They play a dangerous game – discovery would mean a gulag for Wu and a shameful divorce for Liu – but discovery is not the worst possible thing. Rather, Lianke fills the lives of his characters with such a mix of uncertainty and boredom that it seems any result that can provide a bit of solid footing would be a positive outcome – even a western gulag.
The real tragedy that unfolds is not a single event with catastrophic consequences but rather the prospect of a lifetime of unhappiness. The few months of intimacy between the two lovers is, quite possibly, the only happy time for Wu’s farmer-turned-soldier.
Throughout it all, the story provides one more window into China – a half-historical, half-literary view that offers an insight into Chinese people and values.
From early on, it is almost certain that the affair will be impossible to maintain. One of the main obstacles is the different positions of the two participants.
China is very class-focused and position means a lot. The reader can spend a good long time trying to figure out who is taking advantage of whom in this illicit relationship.
Serve The People! is devoid of interesting symbols or impressive narrative tools. It is told with a straightforward approach that is very difficult to find in Western literature and can be almost boring at times.
The characters are also very simple and their motivations are, on the surface, driven by basic needs of food, shelter and security. There is very little nobility here but a lot of practicality. Fear is everywhere and a shared – but unmentioned – understanding that interpreting the rules correctly is far more important than following them to the word. And the interpretation can change from day to day.
It is a nice, light and interesting take on a period of Chinese history that naturally lends itself to heavy, scholarly stuff.