China has banned a new novel by an award-winning author on grounds that the title satirizes the slogan "Serve the People," coined by late...

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BEIJING — China has banned a new novel by an award-winning author on grounds that the title satirizes the slogan “Serve the People,” coined by late Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, publishing-industry sources have said.

Censors found the plot, in which a peasant soldier provides sexual services to his commander’s young wife, insulting to the dead leader’s motto.

China has loosened up in the past two decades, but sex is still a taboo subject and the combination of sex and politics was bound to be explosive.

“It uses low, vulgar and obscene description to vilify the lofty aim to ‘serve the people,’ ” said one industry source, who saw a copy of an urgent government notice issued to publishing houses, newspapers and magazines in late February.

The medium-length novel by Yan Lianke was the first work of fiction banned in years by China’s censors, who disallowed reprints of two best sellers last year — one a recollection of the 1957 Anti-Rightist campaign against liberal intellectuals and the other an investigation into the plight of farmers.

The banned novel is set during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when Mao was deified. The soldier and the commander’s wife enjoyed sex more after smashing statues of Mao — a crime punishable by death then and even today viewed as subversive by some.

The State Press and Publication Administration declined to confirm that its edict forced a publishing house to drop plans to print 50,000 copies of the novel. The Chinese literary world and the Internet have been abuzz with talk about the book.

“In China, fiction is rarely banned … This is the first in years,” said a second source, who requested anonymity.

Mao placed the slogan on a pedestal in a 1944 speech, five years before the Communists swept to power in a revolution. But critics said the phrase has become obsolete, with many officials mired in corruption and the party in power for more than five decades.

The slogan “Serve the People” in Mao’s calligraphy is inscribed in gold on a red screen wall at the main entrance to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing.

One of China’s top four literary magazines, the bi-monthly Hua Cheng, or Flower City, published excerpts of “Serve the People” in January.

The magazine, based in southern Guangdong province and with a circulation of up to 40,000, was ordered to recall the issue.

Novelist Yan and Xiao Jianguo, president of the magazine founded in 1979, have come under fire, the sources said.

Contacted by telephone, Yan declined to confirm or deny the ban or comment on whether there have been any repercussions.

“My intention was not to satirize the phrase, but those who fail to serve the people,” the 47-year-old said, speaking Mandarin with an accent from his native Henan province in central China.

“Sex is a taboo subject in China and the hardest to write about,” he said. “Without aesthetics, it becomes pornography. It’s a test of an author’s craft.”

“Passion and anger are the driving force of my novels,” said Yan, who until last year was a senior colonel who held a noncombat position in the People’s Liberation Army.

Yan won a government award named after China’s literary giant Lao She (1899-1966) last year for his novel “Shou Huo.”

That novel portrayed a group of disabled villagers who go on tour, performing freak stunts to raise money to buy Lenin’s remains, which they plan to then put on public display to boost tourism and make their county rich.

China’s 500-odd publishing houses, all owned by the state, have been warned against printing the new novel, the sources said.

Magazines, newspapers and portals have been told not to carry excerpts, review or write news reports on the novel, they said. It cannot be adapted into a movie or TV series.

Yan is working on his next book, which will prod another sensitive subject, the AIDS crisis in Henan province.