Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Serve the People!

A Novel

by Yan Lianke Translated from Chinese by Julia Lovell

“Yan Lianke’s Serve the People! is a scathing sendup of life in 1960s China during the chaos of the country’s Cultural Revolution. . . . a wonderfully biting satire, brimming with absurdity, humor and wit . . .the novel is exuberantly drawn in several shades of revolutionary (or should that be Revlon?) red.” —Los Angeles Times

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date March 18, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7044-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Banned in China, Serve the People! is the sexy, satirical sensation chronicling a love affair between the wife of a powerful Communist army commander and her household’s servant—a remarkable, profound, and deliciously comic satire on Mao’s famous slogan and the political and sexual taboos of his regime.

“This novella slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex. Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from, or report on it.” —Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau

When it was written in 2005, Yan Lianke’s Serve the People! was deemed unpublishable by China’s state-run publishing houses. Despite the ban, Serve the People! found an underground audience via excerpts and in chat rooms on the Internet, where commentators praised its subversive critique of the hypocrisy and madness of the Cultural Revolution.

Set in 1967, at the peak of the Mao cult, Serve the People! is a beautifully told, wickedly daring story about the forbidden love affair between Liu Lian, the young, pretty wife of a powerful Division Commander in Communist China, and her household’s lowly servant, Wu Dawang. Left to idle at home while her husband furthers the revolution, Liu Lian establishes a rule for her orderly: that whenever the household’s wooden Serve the People! sign is removed from its usual place on the dinner table and placed elsewhere, Wu Dawang is to stop what he is doing and attend to her needs upstairs. The orderly, an exemplary soldier, vows to obey.

As life is breathed into the illicit sexual affair, Yan Lianke brilliantly captures how the Model Soldier Wu Dawang becomes an eager collaborator with the restless and demanding Liu Lian, their actions inspired by primitive passions that they are only just discovering. The two-month sexual affair culminates in three days of ravenous lovemaking, the peak of which is an evening in which the lovers compete to see who can prove themselves the most counterrevolutionary by destroying the compound’s most sacred Communist icons.

Lianke tramples on the sacrosanct taboos of the army, the revolution, sexuality, and political etiquette in this funny, subversive critique of official corruption, the hypocrisy of leadership, and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. His first work to be translated into English, Serve the People! brings us the debut of one of the most important authors writing from inside China today.

Tags Literary


“Yan Lianke’s Serve the People! is a scathing sendup of life in 1960s China during the chaos of the country’s Cultural Revolution. Serialized in the Chinese literary magazine Hua Cheng in 2005 and then banned by the Central Propaganda Bureau, Lianke’s novel takes aim at one and all, from impotent leaders and their scandalous wives to amoral People’s Liberation Army soldiers scheming their way up the ranks, peasant farmers plagued by drought, and even the great Mao himself. Lianke spares no one . . . Serve the People! is a wonderfully biting satire, brimming with absurdity, humor and wit . . .the novel is exuberantly drawn in several shades of revolutionary (or should that be Revlon?) red.” —Los Angeles Times

“This passionate satire of clandestine, intimate privilege in an ostensibly classless, egalitarian society is exceedingly carefully written, so that it is at once funny, sad, and bitterly ironic on nearly every page. Oh, and sensual, too.” —Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)

“Yan’s work certainly contains its share of double entendres and may even be perceived as comedic at times, but on a deeper level, it offers a sociopolitical commentary on a way of life generally unfamiliar to Westerners.” —Library Journal

“Yan’s satire brilliantly exposes the emptiness of Maoist ideals and the fraudulent ends for which they were used, but also relates a sorrowful tale of compromised relationships and modest hopes left unfulfilled.” —Publishers Weekly

“Steamy and subversive . . . Lianke [is] one of China’s greatest living authors and fiercest satirists.” —Jonathan Watts, The Guardian<

“Yan Lianke’s slim novel drips with the kind of satire that can only come from deep within the machinery of Chinese communism. Eschewing broad comedy, Yan barbs the text with enough social criticism to receive a priceless blurb from the Central Propaganda Bureau.” —Craig Taylor, Financial Times

“Not just sexy, but also tender . . . Lianke peppers the book with useful passages on the art of writing itself, and makes his readers aware of semantic manipulation and the power of words, their ability to brainwash and erase thoughts.” —Waterstone’s Books Quarterly (UK)

“An exhilarating comedy of misunderstandings . . . Yan Lianke is one of the most popular and controversial writers of his generation.” —La Repubblica (Italy)

“It is Ionesco in full. And the last pages of the book, melancholy and mysterious, make it possible to measure the variety of the talent of the novelist.” —Le Figaro (Paris)



The novel is the only place for a great many of life’s truths. Because it is only in fiction that certain facts can be held up to the light.

The novel it is, then, for this particular truth.

The story I’m about to tell, you see, bears some resemblance to real characters and events.

Or—if I may put it this way: life has imitated art, re-rehearsing the plot of Serve the People!

Wu Dawang, Sergeant of the Catering Squad, now General Orderly for the Division Commander and his wife, stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a bunch of pak choi in hand, acknowledging a devastating new presence in the room. The wooden sign ordering its beholder, in bright red letters, to “Serve the People!” had moved from its usual place on the dining table and on to the kitchen work top. To the left of the exhortation, five stars gleamed; to the right, a water canteen dangled from a rifle while a luxuriant row of wheat bristled beneath.

The pride of the entire division, an exemplar, a model of political correctness, the Sergeant enjoyed an extraordinarily well-developed understanding of the sign’s symbolic language. The five stars (the Revolution) together with the rifle and canteen (the Party’s history of armed struggle) were reminders of the long, arduous path to Revolution. The wheat pointed to the glorious future: of glorious harvests in the glorious times to come once Communism had been realized.

This sign, its letters burning scarlet against a whitewashed background, its stars, rifle, canteen and wheat emblazoned in red and yellow, had come home one day with the Division Commander. He had gazed solemnly at Wu Dawang as he laid it on the table. “Do you know what this sign means?” he asked, while his General Orderly set down dishes of food before him.

After a long, hard look, Wu Dawang produced a careful critique.

“Good,” declared the Commander, his face brightening slowly into a smile. “Very good, in fact—much better than them.”

Though Wu Dawang didn’t know who the Division Commander meant by “them,” he did know, and better than most, the People’s Liberation Army’s three rules of thumb—Don’t Say What You Shouldn’t Say, Don’t Ask What You Shouldn’t Ask, Don’t Do What You Shouldn’t Do. He therefore went back to the kitchen to prepare soup for the Commander and his wife. And from that moment on, the sign became the most distinguished, most illustrious resident of the dining table, casting its mighty symbolic shadow over the lowly bottles of vinegar, chilli sauce and sesame oil.

The days passed, one after another, as time trickled peacefully, indeterminately through the barracks. Every day at dawn, before reveille, the Commander would come downstairs, immaculately uniformed, and set out for the parade ground—for his daily round of drills, and yet more drills. Every night, long after lights-out, he would return home exhausted, take off his uniform, wash his face, brush his teeth and climb upstairs to bed. Revolution and work were the epicentre of the Commander’s life, dominating his entire being. Since earliest boyhood, he had held up the Great Events in Our Nation’s History—the Sino-Japanese War, Land Reform, the Fight for Liberation—as a yardstick against which to measure the significance of his every day of existence. Even now, on the wrong side of fifty and gazing down the slope to old age, he still relied on the same gauge to calibrate the meaning of his life.

His young, pretty wife Liu Lian, by contrast, led a much less meaningful life. A nurse by training, and seventeen or eighteen years his junior, she hadn’t set foot in a hospital since her marriage. No one knew whether she’d given up work voluntarily, or because her husband had wanted her to, but for a full five years now she had stayed at home, ruling this senior officer’s roost, keeping company only with the four walls around her and the prestige of their master.

Of Liu Lian, Wu Dawang knew next to nothing. Before he’d taken up his present post, he’d known nothing at all. He had no idea where she’d grown up or when she’d joined the army as a nurse. He didn’t know she hadn’t worked for five years or, apart from mealtimes, what she did upstairs all day. He didn’t know whether the army still paid her salary even though she didn’t turn up to work; whether she was from a military family; whether she’d forgotten army protocol in the years she’d been out of uniform. To him, her personal history was a gigantic blank, a mountain range shrouded in impenetrable mist. Beneath the blankets of cloud, the peaks might have been desolate crags emerging from ravines, or carpets of green serenaded by songbirds and festooned with gorgeous flowers and gurgling brooks; but Wu Dawang had no way of telling.

Because these were matters of which he knew nothing, he paid them no attention; and because he paid them no attention, the Division Commander delighted in his choice of orderly. Even though Wu Dawang was a veteran revolutionary of several years’ service, even though his personal file was piled vertiginously high with honours, despite all his commendations, awards and citations, despite the fact that twice a year the brigade’s Head of Management would name him Model Soldier as unhesitatingly as one would hand a narcoleptic a pillow, still he wanted more—much, much more. Wu Dawang was, in short, a man greedy for laurels, an exceptional soldier fixated on promotion. And it was after one particularly exhilarating performance at a Mass Theory and Practice of Frontline Logistics Competition—in which Wu had recited, word-perfect, 286 quotations and three classic essays (“Serve the People,” “Commemorating Norman Bethune,” and “The Foolish Old Man who Moved the Mountains”) by Chairman Mao; had dug a stove, chopped ingredients and presented an immaculate gourmet banquet of four dishes and a soup all within thirty minutes; and had, yet again, been lauded up and down the barracks ranks as Model Soldier—that the Division Commander had selected him as his full-time orderly and cook.

“What is it you must always remember,” the Head of Management had asked, “when you start work for the Commander?”

“Don’t ask what I shouldn’t ask, don’t do what I shouldn’t do, don’t say what I shouldn’t say,” he replied.


“To serve the Division Commander is to Serve the People.”

“More important even than that,” the Head of Management added, “you must mean what you say, unite theory with practice, and make sure your actions speak as loud as your words.”

“Please reassure the Commander that I will speak as I think, and act as I speak, that I will be both Red and Expert.”

“Excellent,” the Head of Management said. “Off you go then, and I’m sure more accolades will come your way soon.”

And with that, Wu Dawang was transferred to the Division Commander’s own household.

For the past six months, he had stuck cautiously, conscientiously, scrupulously to his brief: he had cooked, grown vegetables, kept the floor and the front yard spotless, tended the herbaceous borders and pruned the trees regularly. After a short spell of home leave, he’d barely left his new place of work—Number One in the senior officers’ compound—this whole time. Because of Wu Dawang’s tireless dedication to duty, and because of the Division Commander’s almost obsessive zeal for the tasks of the Revolution and of the Party, during a recent, centrally orchestrated Streamline-and-Regroup Initiative, the Commander had set an example for everyone by cutting his own household staff to one. This meant that now only two people were left rattling around this Soviet-built military residence once the Commander had gone to work each morning: Liu Lian, the Commander’s thirty-two-year-old wife, and Wu Dawang, his twenty-eight-year-old General Orderly—like a single rose and a hoe left abandoned in a vast, bare flower bed.

As to how the whole thing began, Wu Dawang had no idea. He was unaware how many times in the last six months the Commander’s wife had looked him over at the dinner table. Or how she had stood at the window, never taking her eyes off him, as he hoed the vegetable patch at the back of the house. He didn’t know that, while he’d been pinning back the grapes in the front yard, she’d found herself compelled to draw him closer, magnifying his image through the Commander’s telescope, because the vines—as densely fruitful as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist study meeting—were obscuring her quarry. Over the days and months, she had studied him. Just as a jeweller would scrutinize a diamond or a chunk of agate through an eyeglass, she studied the pearls of sweat on his forehead; like a connoisseur appreciating a piece of rare, purple-threaded jade, she perused the veins in his neck and along his bronzed shoulders. But he—just as a wild pagoda tree is oblivious to the scent of a garden-bound peony—remained insensible, unknowing. Beyond the Division Commander’s gated compound, time passed as unstoppably as water flows to the east and the sun sinks in the west. Outside, the furnaces of the Revolution raged, the great rivers rolled and billowed, but within—within, all remained as peaceful as a valley of fragrant peach blossom, of gentle streams and lush, undulating hills, swaddled in a poetic mist of desire.

It was against this idyllic backdrop that, three days ago, as dusk was falling on whichever secret meeting had been scheduled for the second day of the Commander’s all-important two-month study-and-discussion conference on streamlining army administration and performance in Beijing, after Wu Dawang had taken dinner with Liu Lian and begun clearing the table, she had sent in his direction a glance beneath whose coolly decorous exterior burned a seething fire. Taking the Serve the People! sign from its place against the wall, she set it down on the mahogany dining table—as lightly, nonchalantly and guilelessly as if she were asking him to fetch something from the yard, or pick something up from the floor.

“Xiao Wu,” she said, tucking the diminutive xiao in front of his surname in a casual, blandly affectionate kind of way, “whenever this sign’s not in its usual place, it means I need you upstairs for something.”

Her communication concluded, she knocked the wooden sign meaningfully against the table—a cool, darkly enigmatic sound, like that of jade on agate. Then, just as she did after every meal, she glided sedately up the stairs.

He stood there, dazed, not sure what was next expected of him, a hint of pleasurable disquiet percolating through him. He gazed at her retreating figure as if it belonged to a woman he’d never seen before, following it with his eyes until she turned the bend in the stairs and her shadow disappeared like a tree’s evaporating at sundown. He then returned the sign to its proper place, and set about his usual washing of the dishes and other richly revolutionary chores around the house.