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

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2 Responses to Masters of Subservience: China’s ‘Bureaucracy Lit’

  1. Javed Mir says:

    To a villager, all politics are strictly local, especially in China, with its vast distances. The capital is far away.

    This village attitude is the same almost in all the Asian countries – even in Pakistan villagers are hardly concerned with the urban politics.

  2. Will says:

    Yet Mo Yan has risen far higher in the Party’s cultural bureaucracy than anybody else in his entire province: Vice Chair of the Party-supervised Chinese Writers’ Association. For a long time, he has hardly been an ordinary villager or “peasant,” to use that anachronistic term so many journalists and academics seem unable to relinquish, no matter how poorly it meshes with the realities of China over the past 2000 years.
    Some like Buruma find Mo Yan’s tall tales giddily entertaining, while others find them mostly rather crude and predictable once you have read the first several pages of the latest yarn.