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BEIJING, Apr 15 2005 (IPS) - When Chinese censors axed a novella about steamy sex in the People’s Liberation Army, it was the timing of its appearance earlier this year that proved most crucial in effecting the ban.
When Chinese censors axed a novella about steamy sex in the People’s Liberation Army, it was the timing of its appearance earlier this year that proved most crucial in effecting the ban.
‘Serve the People’, written by award-winning writer Yan Lianke, premiered on China’s literary scene just weeks before Beijing unveiled a new anti-secession law that threatened the use of military force against arch-rival Taiwan should the island’s leaders go too far in their quest for independence.
Assuming the mantle of China’s military chairmanship last fall, President Hu Jintao set out a tough policy for dealing with Taiwan’s ”splittists” and one in which the Chinese army is designed to play a major role. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), he said, must ”prepare for war, and have no fear of Taiwan’s procrastination”.
But ‘Serve the People’ which was penned by a former colonel in the army, undermines the very core of Hu’s mantra. It paints a debauched image of Chinese PLA where the lofty Communist Party goal of ”serving the masses” is carried out through sex and gaining military honours achieved by performing sexual favours for the bored and lonely wives of the upper echelons.
”The timing of the publication was probably accidental but this was not the image of the army that the Chinese Communist Party wanted people to read about,” said one source with knowledge of the workings of the Central Propaganda Bureau – the powerful party body that oversees censorship.
The ban came on the eve of the March annual session of the National People’s Congress, or China’s Parliament, which approved the anti-secession law unanimously. All copies of the literary magazine ‘Huacheng’, or ‘Flower City’, that had published the novella in its first issue this year, were withdrawn.
Yet once word got out about the ban, the novella became a hit with Internet users. ‘Huacheng’, the magazine that took the daring move of publishing the story after numerous other publications had rejected it, saw its limited sales of a typical high-brow periodical soaring.
Contacted by phone, the editors of the magazine based in Guangzhou, declined to comment either on the novella or on its impact. The author Yan Lianke, a native from Henan province who now lives in Beijing, told IPS: ”It has become very difficult for me to talk about my work.”
According to the edict by the Central Propaganda Bureau quoted in the Hong Kong press, the novella ”slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex”. ”Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it or report on it,” the edict says.
But despite the stern ban, Internet chat-rooms and literary circles are abuzz with talk about the book and speculations that ‘Serve the People’ would soon be published overseas.
The novella tells the story of a young peasant soldier, Wu Dawang who is assigned as an orderly to the household of his division commander. The general has pretty and much younger wife who spends her days dressing up and chasing the orderly with demands for dishes that boost her complexion.
While the general never appears as full-fleshed character in the book, numerous hints are dropped suggesting he is impotent – a subversive twist that literati here interpret as an allusion to the frailty of Communist Party’s power.
Not surprisingly, an illicit love affair takes place when the general is called to Beijing for one of his lengthy political sessions. The time is set during the late years of the Cultural Revolution – the country is preparing for a nuclear attack by the Soviets and the army is getting ready to deal a devastating blow to Taiwan’s nationalists.
But the obedient orderly and the general’s wife are oblivious to the challenges of the day. A wooden sign in the kitchen reading, “Serve the People” becomes a coded signal for Wu that his services are required in the bedroom. The lovers spend days and nights naked, making love and coming up with ever more ”counter-revolutionary” ways of arousing their passion.
They enjoy sexual ecstasy after smashing plaster busts of Mao Zedong, ripping up his photos and his Little Red Book of revolutionary quotations and even urinating on the leader’s slogans.
”Did I consider beforehand whether juxtaposing Chairman Mao’s photos with sex would lead to a ban?” mused the writer in an interview published on ‘EastSouthWestNorth’, a Chinese blog, soon after the ban. ”When I write, I don’t think about publishing issues until I have finished. Expressing emotions and anger is the driving force for my creativity.”
The book combines sex and political satire – two sensitive subjects that are routinely frowned upon by Communist Party’s censors, but observers say it is for the writer’s sharp barb at corruption and army’s vice that it got axed.
”The sex scenes are not graphic, it is more about where they take place and about the title of the book,” suggested one literary critic.
”Serve the People” is among the most famous of Mao Zedong’s sayings, a phrase he coined in 1944 as a Communist Party credo. The slogan, written in Mao’s personal calligraphy, now adorns the red gate of Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing where Communist Party leaders live.
Ironically, books that have fallen victims to the axe of Chinese censors tend to become bestsellers both at home and abroad. Five years ago, censors outlawed female writer Mian Mian’s breakthrough novel ‘Candy’ – a depiction of sex and drugs in Chinese cities, but this did not prevent it becoming an underground hit.
Last year, during the same anxious time before the annual session of Chinese Parliament, censors banned two bestsellers – one dealing with purges of intellectuals during the Communist Party’s anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950s and the other one, a study into the plight of peasants in modern China.
Both books however, can be bought on the streets and continue to be circulated around China via the Internet. Cracking down on web subversion has proven harder than expected and Chinese censors feel compelled pouring millions into perfecting Internet censorship.
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