Stuck in the post of deputy director in a municipal government for three years, Zhu Huaijing longs to climb one step higher on the official ladder. Lucky for him, the man crucial for his future - General Secretary Liu - has accepted his "humble gift". But when Zhu shouts, "See you later", loudly, Liu's smile freezes and he shuts the door without a word.
Why does Liu turn a cold shoulder on Zhu so suddenly? This detail in Chinese author Wang Yuewen's novel "Painting" (Guo Hua) has fired up readers into heated discussion.
The most accepted explanation is that Liu's neighbors in the apartment building are his colleagues. When Zhu bids farewell loudly, the others know that someone has visited Liu, possibly with a present.
Zhu, a rookie in the official circle, has yet to learn the intricate rules of being discreet. And an expert like Liu would shun such novices to avoid trouble.
There are many such hidden rules in official circles, and a special genre titled the "Officialdom Novel" (Guanchang Xiaoshuo) revealing such secrets has been gaining popularity in the past few years, reflecting an "artistic reality" the country is going through.
In the first quarter of this year, 123 such novels have mushroomed. The number of these type of novels totaled 118 last year, according to The Beijing News.
These novels take up prominent shelf space in bookstores like the Beijing Books Building at Xidan, attracting a steady flow of readers everyday. Yan Ying with the bookstore's sales department says that officialdom novels are among the most popular genres, appealing to white-collar workers the most. And considering there are millions of Chinese government officials working to get ahead, the readership base is huge.
Online portals like Sina.com even offer "top 10 must-read officialdom novels for aspiring readers" with free downloads. There are also websites devoted to officialdom novels.
Chen Zhitao, a literary critic, says modern officialdom novels probe the social system, daily life and human nature as they focus on power struggles in official circles.
Ancient Chinese used the word huanhai (sea of officialdom) to describe the unfathomable knowledge of official circles.
As the classic novel "Dream of the Red Mansions" tells: When an official took up a post in a new place, he would obtain a little pamphlet noting the heavyweight families in the networks of power.
But the first officialdom novel, according to Chen, is "Revealing the Original Officialdom" (Guanchang Xianxing Ji) by Li Baojia.
The 1903 collection of short stories discloses the tales of corrupt officials who pursued their own interests as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) tumbled.
The formal name of Officialdom Novel surfaced when Wang Yuewen's "Painting" made a huge stir in 1998. With several novels on the theme under his belt, Wang is considered the founder of modern officialdom novels.
Wang, 47, disagrees that his works simply echo Li's novel a century ago.
"I don't like disclosing the dark side only. What's the point? You can get all the negative stuff from social news," he told The Beijing News.
What prompted Wang to pick up this subject and excel among competitors is his love of writing and his own experience.
Like Zhu Huaijing, the protagonist in his work, Wang also worked in a municipal government. For some 15 years, he witnessed changes in official circles as the country's economy took off.
"I gradually learned that it was hard to gain promotion with talent or hard work," says Wang, who describes himself as a "straightforward man who prefers a simple life".
Wang says that although Confucianism is the mainstream culture in China, he had a taste of the "sub-culture in officialdom" and didn't like it.
When a leader entered the office, all would jump to their feet to show respect, even though the leader worked next door. Wang was always the last one to stand up.
As he said in a novelette, Wang felt like he was standing outside a glass dome, observing the scheming of his colleagues inside. In 2001, he called an end to his official career and became a professional writer.
Wang Bing, general manager of Zhimei Lida Books Company, which has published many officialdom novels, says as China increases efforts to crack down on corruption, hard news of fallen officials cannot satisfy readers' curiosity.
Readers are also intrigued by stories that reveal secret deals between power and money, even though it is fiction and "artistic reality".
"Director of the Office in Beijing" (Zhujingban Zhuren) has remained the best-selling officialdom novel since its debut in 2007.
Many readers are glued to it when they find out the author, Wang Xiaofang, was the secretary of Ma Xiangdong.
Ma was the former deputy mayor of Shenyang, capital of Northeast China's Liaoning province. He was sentenced to death in 2001 for corruption, taking huge assets from unknown sources.
Wang recalls that once a local mafia boss invited Ma to dinner and casually tossed a package to Wang. It contained $20,000, Wang later found out. After Ma's fall, Wang had a hard time proving his own innocence and resorted to fiction writing to salvage his wrecked life.
"My years of experience in the official circle laid a solid foundation for my literary creations," Wang told the Southern People Weekly.
"The purgatory I had to go through due to the corruption case might be the most precious treasure of my life."
However, besides the pleasure of seeing corrupt officials being caught and punished, some readers also seek to learn the "hidden rules" from such novels.
A blogger once hailed Wang Yuewen's "Painting" as "a classic that could save college graduates 10 years' efforts". Wang Xiaofang also says that some officials have read his novels.
Despite its popularity, officialdom novels are caught in a "bottle neck", says critic Chen Zhitao.
Most novels read the same: A protagonist with a conscience is posed against a group of corrupt officials in a powerful network; the fight between good and evil is spiced with attractive women, and good always wins.
"If they pay little attention to language, creation or humanity, what's their value?" Chen asks.
"China needs more writers with a critical mind who are mature in politics and sharp in perceiving society and history."
Xiao Renfu, an official-turned writer based in Hunan province, points out that officialdom novels are popular because of existing problems with the official system.
"It would be great if no one read officialdom novels, which means that our official system is getting better," says Xiao, who recently published a three-volume novel "Official Career" (Shitu) after five years' work.
(China Daily June 30, 2009)