Masters of Subservience: China’s ‘Bureaucracy Lit’

At The New York Times, NPR’s Louisa Lim examines China’s popular ‘bureaucracy lit’, focusing on former official Wang Xiaofang’s Civil Servant’s Notebook. The genre has recently attracted increased attention from censors, but the difficulty of keeping pace with reality may pose an even greater challenge.

In China, “bureaucracy lit” is a hot genre, far outselling spy stories and whodunits as the airport novel of choice. In these tales of overweening ambition, the plot devices that set readers’ pulses racing are underhanded power plays, hidden alliances and devious sexual favors. The current craze began in 1999 with “Ink Painting,” by Wang Yuewen, and has become so intense that last year a deputy bureau chief who writes a series under the pseudonym Xiaoqiao Laoshu was named China’s 17th-richest author. “Officialdom lit” is hugely popular, not just as a peek behind the curtains, but also as a go-to guide for aspiring cadres in search of their own sycophancy strategies.

[… But t]he trifling plots of bureaucracy lit look positively petty compared with the grand crimes surrounding the downfall of one of China’s highest-flying politicians, Bo Xilai, formerly the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, whose wife was found guilty of murdering a former British business partner. Bo’s wife — or a woman rumored to be her plumper stand-in — was given a suspended death sentence, while Bo’s former police chief got 15 years for abuse of power, corruption and defection. Bo himself is facing a criminal investigation into charges including abuse of power, corruption, improper sexual relationships and possible involvement in covering up a murder. It’s hard for any novelist to compete.

Lim goes on to describe the “gargantuan irony” of official celebrations of Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Also at The New York Times is a spoiler-laden review of Mo’s Sandalwood Death and Pow! by Ian Buruma, who concludes with a sympathetic assessment of the author’s widely criticized politics:

Perhaps Mo Yan really is in tune with the current Communist regime. Perhaps he simply wants to play it safe. But the political perspective of his fiction is also a reflection of his peasant spirit. To a villager, all politics are strictly local, especially in China, with its vast distances. The capital is far away. National politics aren’t the peasant’s concern. What counts is food on the table, fertility, sex and staying out of trouble, if necessary by appeasing the powerful, be they local or foreign.

[…] To demand that Mo Yan also be a political dissident is not only what the Dutch describe as “trying to pluck feathers from a frog.” It’s also unfair. A novelist should be judged on literary merit, not on his or her politics, a principle the Nobel committee hasn’t always lived up to. This time, I think it has. It would be nice if Mo Yan were more courageous, but he has given us some great stories. And that should be enough.