The Gunners of Shenyang Synopsis
In Yu Jihui’s memoir of his life as a university student in China as the nation starved during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, carrots are decadent luxuries and flatulence is the people’s true common language. “Soapy,” the author’s nickname during his college days, has been dubious about the benefits of the socialist revolution sweeping the country ever since his father was exiled to a desolate town in the middle of nowhere for daring to question the wisdom of trying to industrialize overnight. As a young adult, Soapy and his dorm-mates attend classes, chase girls, and attend endless political meetings, always struggling with the need to maintain a cheerfully patriotic outlook despite that pesky urge to faint from hunger from time to time. When Big Zhang, an older boy from the provinces, dares to be a nonconformist, openly mocking the system, the dangerous silliness of the day turns to literal, life-or-death danger.
The Gunners of Shenyang is at once hilarious, revealing, informative, thought-provoking, and sometimes college-boy vulgar — a memoir of the horrors of the times from a boy still young enough to enjoy himself and a man now wise enough to see the big picture for what it was. (Signal 8 Press)
BOOK REVIEW by Tony Ziemek
The Gunners of Shenyang is a memoir dedicated to the author’s parents and it is recounted sparingly and with poignancy. It is a tale of friendship, love, humanity and hunger. I found it fascinating because it is an unfamiliar world but one peopled with characters that are universal in their lives, loves, friendships and the many (often ribald) jokes that defy the austerity of the times.
This deceptively simple memoir casts some deep shadows on the modern world. The story follows the lives of Chinese students during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961. Of course, like almost all communist rhetoric, the ‘Leap Forward’ was the exact opposite, resulting in the deaths of millions as forced collectivisation destroyed centuries of more productive peasant practices.
The people that survived, existed on the brink of starvation which is at the core of the book. To the well-fed modern Westerner, the focus on food seems almost obsessive and it is difficult to imagine that a ‘feast’ could be had from a bag of stolen carrots or that a waste product of food-processing could be so important as described in the plain, understated prose that is typical of this book:
While waiting for the results of the National University entrance examination, I visited one of my relatives in Anshan. He had contacts in a tofu factory and gave me an opportunity to go there and buy bean curd dregs to make up for my family’s grain deficiency. Bean curd dregs are what remains after the soy milk has been squeezed from the beans. They are usually fed to pigs, but at that time they appeared on human tables despite strong protests from the pigs. Bean curd dregs were cheap but difficult to get. Even though Northeast China was the main area of production, there was a shortage of soybeans in the markets. The only way you could get them was to have connections in a tofu factory.
It is equally hard for many of us to imagine a country where speaking out just once, can destroy lives. Jihui’s father (an engineer) was exiled to a remote region for one such remark.
Speaking the truth is a central theme of The Gunners of Shenyang. In particular, the fact that nearly everyone in China is close to starvation cannot be discussed. As an aside, I remember whilst visiting family in East Germany that comparing the food in a workers’ canteen to that provided to Olympic athletes was enough to make someone simply disappear. This was in the 1970’s and for me, brings the events of the book a little closer to home.
However, this book is not about the triumph of capitalism and the failure of communism and that simplistic view of history. China is now a world power, nominally a communist country and a cornerstone of world prosperity. The Gunners of Shenyang is about having a society, where some people strive to speak the truth despite repression and recrimination. It is about a celebration of humanity and the unequal struggle to resist by those with courage.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
~ Tony Ziemek is the lead editor of Ed Fresh Editorial Services.
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Author Information: Yu Jihui, a former university professor, taught English for more than twenty years in China. Born in Qingdao, Shandong province, he travelled extensively with his family when he was young. In 2001, he migrated to Australia, and he now lives in Melbourne.
* Receiving this title free from Signal 8 Press did not impact the expression of honest opinions in the review above.