The Cultural Revolution has been a taboo subject in China, but confusing and forgotten to Westerners. The political upheavals instigated by Mao Zedong between 1966-1976 were baffling to those who observed and participated. Mao ostensibly sought to create a new, permanent revolutionary China, doing away with old ideas, old customs, and old culture, but his main aim was to purge all political rivals and enshrine himself as a godlike figure, which somewhat continues to this day. It is during this tumultuous era, that the novel Serve the People! by Yan Lianke takes place.
Set in 1967, to be exact, the story deals with a soldier within the People’s Liberation Army (the military force of China which, technically, is part of the Chinese Communist Party and not a separate entity), named Wu Dawang. Wu is a cook and assigned as an orderly to a general (technically a “division commander” since traditional rank was abolished just before the Cultural Revolution). Wu is also a committed Maoist, whose memorized sayings and quotations from the Little Red Book, the Bible of the Cultural Revolution. Good-hearted, but simple-minded.
He quickly catches the eye of the Division Commander’s wife, Liu Lian, frustrated by her impotent husband and the age difference between them – she’s thirty-two whereas he’s over fifty. Wu, however, is only twenty-eight, the perfect age for this bored housewife. Complicating things further, Wu himself is married, to an even more simple-minded peasant girl from the countryside, but if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with.
At first, Wu resists Liu’s seductions, but then she manipulates the Division Commander, ensuring Wu’s submissiveness. To serve Liu Lian is to serve the Division Commander, which is to serve Chairman Mao, which is, in essence, to serve the people.
Wu and Liu begin a whirlwind escapade of nonstop sex, but when he begins to tire, he finds a new form of arousal. Smashing a bust of Mao Zedong perks him right up, a mortal sin in the Cultural Revolution, where every man, woman, and child was expected to perform a “Loyalty Dance” in front of Mao’s portrait to prove how much they loved the Chairman. This climaxes in Wu and Liu defacing Mao iconography to prove their commitment to each other, a reckless, fever dream of passions.
Of course, reality comes back tenfold, but in the insane, distorted reality of the Cultural Revolution, it won’t be what you expect. Serve the People! is a very satirical novel, making fun of an era that caused so much pain and damage, not only to individual Chinese people but Chinese culture as a whole. Even today, many mainland Chinese are unfamiliar with customs, folklore, and habits that were burned from the national consciousness during this era. Not to mention the million Chinese people who died during this time.
Yan Lianke has written many novels satirizing Chinese culture and politics but Serve the People! is perhaps his most biting and most well-known. Unsurprising that the Chinese government has banned the book in his native country.