Serve The People

In the March 13, 2005 issue of YZZK (see ChineseNewsNet), there are two articles about this banned story in China.  The story is written by Yan Lianke (閻連科) and is titled <<Serve The People>> (為人民服務).  The original story contained more than 90,000 words.  The manuscript had been circulated among various publishers, most of whom shied away from this provocative treatment of a sensitive subject.  Finally, it was the bi-monthly literary magazine Hua Cheng (花城) which took the plunge, after excising about 40,000 words down to 50,000 words.  The manuscript was submitted to the 'evaluation' process during which another 10,000 words were excised to leave 40,000 words.  The article was then published in the first issue of Hua Cheng in 2005.

It was at that moment that the nine-person evaluation group of the Central Propaganda Bureau caught wind of this story and realized that it was a major problem.  An emergency order was issued to recall all 30,000 copies of Hua Cheng magazine that had been distributed.  No sooner had the word got out when that issue became hot property among the culturati.  There was even a carry-over effect in that the second issue of 2005 of Hua Cheng experienced greater demand.

At this time, the author Yan Lianke has not been questioned by anyone.  He is currently in Beijing working on a television script.  While he has experienced no personal problems, he regrets that the publishing company and his editor friends may be in trouble.  No punishments have been meted out to anyone as yet but an investigation is going on.

What is in this story?  Here is a synopsis:

Wu Dawang is a soldier in the People's Liberation Army.  He is a dedicated soldier who can recite all the famous Mao Zedong's essays such as The Three Old Essays including "Serve The People."  His greatest skill is that he can cook a meal of four dishes and a soup in less than half an hour in the field.  For this reason, he was selected to act as the cook at the commander's household.

The commander was recently married to a young female nurse Liu Lian from the army hospital, and their marital life was not exactly blissful.  When Wu showed up for work, he followed principle that "to work at the commander's home is to serve the people" and "not to say what should not be said and not to do what should not be done."  So Wu was careful and meticulous in his work.

So there came a time when the commander had to go away for a two-month-long conference to discuss plans for army force reductions.  The sex-starved Liu attempted to seduce Wu.  She pointed to the big posted sign "Serve The People" in the home and told Wu that it was his duty to serve the people by taking off his clothes and getting into bed with her.  Wu, whose wife had stayed behind in his rural village, was terrified, hesitant and wavering but finally gave in to the temptation.

For three days, the naked lovers stayed indoors.  When they got hungry, they ate; when they got tired, they slept; when they woke up, they made love.  When making love got boring, Liu set up Wu to tip over a statue of Chairman Mao which broke.  Liu then pretended that she was going to report him to the military police immediately, thus terrifying him.  Then Liu ripped up portraits and books of Chairman Mao and challenged Wu to see who was more reactionary and counter-revolutionary.  So the lovers raced around the house, destroying all the revolutionary objects that they could find and making ardent love.

Later, the commander returned and Wu went on leave to visit his wife.  When Wu returned, he heard the news that the commander had asked for his unit to be disbanded.  At the camp, everything was in chaos.  The soldiers knew about the disbanding, but they did not know the details.  Their were signs all over the blackboards saying things like, "I fuck your mother!  I don't want to leave this camp! ..."  The soldiers had enlisted under the slogans of "Protect the Motherland" and "Serve the People", but they harbored hopes that they might be promoted or transferred from the countryside into the cities.  As it turned out, they would all be sent back home with one exception -- Wu Dawang was accorded Class 3 honors and was therefore a model soldier who would be given work in the city with his farmer wife.  This was arranged by the now visibly pregnant Liu.

Such is the sketch of the story, which will be published overseas in the full version soon.  Is this literature or pornography?  Yan Lianke is a respected prize-winning author and Hu Cheng is an established literary magazine, so there is no reason to think this is cheap pornography written solely to titillate.  And what about the defilement of revolutionary objects?  That would be a matter of social norms.  In the United States, one can make a movie like The Exorcist in which a young girl masturbated with a crucifix, but that should be held as the global standard.  Meanwhile, people should reserve these types of judgment until they have read the book.

Here is Yan Lianke explaining his creative process in an interview with YZZK (3/26/2005) via PeaceHall:

"I don't always know what a novel is supposed to mean, but it is definitely full of meaning.  Expressing emotions and anger is the drive force for my creativity.  To confront history and the current reality, it is impossible to write anything good, especially long novels, without emotion and anger.

"Did I consider beforehand whether juxtaposing Chairman Mao photos with sex would lead to a ban?  When I write, I don't think about publishing issues until I have finished.  Writers all aim high and finish lower.  If you aim for 100 percent, it is not bad to end up with 70 percent instead.  But if you don't even want to go for 100 percent and all you think about is what can or cannot be published, then you should not bother to write.  If it cannot be published after I write it, I can leave it in my drawer or get it published outside the country.  This depends on the writer.

"In China, the real people are not living in extreme situations.  During the past few decades, all the typical big movements did not involve the masses.  The anti-rightist campaign, the cultural revolution and the economic reform did not have the common people as the principal players.  The masses were neither suffering nor benefiting.  During the past few decades, as far as novels are concerned, none treated the masses as the principal actors.

"Writers should pay attention to emotional lives of the masses, births and deaths, and intolerable humiliation the desperate situations of their existences.  They are the majority, but our literature happened to have abandoned th em.  Our so-called "Realist Literature" has dropped this whole social stratum from sight.

"Realism is misunderstand.  When people speak of realism, it is actually a false realism which has assumed the central position in literature.  When people speak of the reality of life, they tend to fall along the lines of false realism.  These literary works do not come from the souls of the writers, but just from the superficial surfaces of life.

"Realism comes from the inner selves and the depths of the souls of writers, whether it is ugly or pretty.  The economic reform has brought about huge social changes, but a few hundred million people still live difficulty lives and struggle to survive.  Who is going to care about these people?  We don't see them on the television or in the newspapers, because they have been covered by "the reality of life.

"As for the descriptions of sex, if there is a deeper meaning, then the writer should go and treat this in detail.  But it is a different thing if the sex is there just to sell a few more copies." 

What does this episode tell us about the censorship system in China?  Thousands and thousands of articles are published around the country every month, so the Central Propaganda Bureau could not go over every single one of them with its nine-person group.  At some point, authority has to be distributed and delegated.  Occasionally, some problematic works will slip through the net, either by intent or accident.

The Central Propaganda Bureau can punish people who work in formal organizations such as publishing companies or newspapers.  The media are still state-owned, so these employees can be dismissed, demoted or re-assigned by the leadership in their work units.  A case like this has already served as a deterrent to others.  Yan Lianke had another short story that was due to appear in a bi-monthly literary magazine in Henan province, but all printed copies of that magazine have been destroyed by the publisher.  The subject of this other story by Yan is not known.

It is harder for the Central Propaganda Bureau to go after individual authors, beyond banning their works.  At this point, prosecuting Yan Lianke in court would actually generate much greater notoriety, so it is easier just to pull the magazine back from circulation and pretend that it never happened.

Last year, during the period between the two Congresses, two books were famously banned.  One of them is The Chinese Peasants Study by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.  The publishing house was ordered to discontinue printing and distributing, although it is estimated that seven million copies exist in circulation and the book can be bought on the streets.  Nothing happened to Chen and Wu in China beyond an as-yet unresolved civil lawsuit, but they gained international fame by winning the 2004 Lettre Ulysses Award for which they were allowed to travel to Europe to accept in person.

The other famous banned book last year was Zhang Yihuo's The Past Is Not Like Smoke about what happened to the Chinese democrats during the anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950's.  Zhang continues to work today at Cultural Department Art Research Institute.  When the Central Propaganda Bureau wanted to speak to Zhang, her work unit reportedly rejected that request.  Zhang is the editor for a series of similar memoirs of which at least half a dozen have been published overseas since.

Someday, the publishing industry will be privatized.  But how can it be truly privatized if the Central Propaganda Bureau is going to insist on making decisions about worker dismissal, demotion or assignments?  And they cannot just suspend the business permit of a large publishing house, because tens of thousands of people would be out of work.