The Gunners of Shenyang by Jihui Yu

A quick rundown… A memoir of life at university in 1960s China – with flatulence, friends and politics.

Strengths: Funny and insightful.

Weaknesses: There is a lot about flatulence!

Why I read it: Sent to me by Signal 8 Press (Hong Kong) – thank you!

Pages: 181 (eBook)

Published: 2013

Publisher: Signal 8 Press

Setting: China

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

China is a country that always seemed far away to me, both in physical distance and also in terms of my knowledge. At school, we had to learn the rivers, the export items and that their government was different to ours. However, we didn’t learn much about the everyday people and how they coped. The Gunners of Shenyang helped to fill in that blank. Set during the Great Leap Forward, this is the memoir of ‘Soapy’ (a character in an English text) as he attends university.

At this time, China was focusing on the production of steel to the detriment of agriculture to feed the people. One of the characters wryly notes that China wasn’t ‘overly good at producing steel’ (note how far they’ve come!) and wonders why it is done. Crops are left to waste and fields lay barren as Soapy and his fellow students endlessly talk about how they are hungry, hungry, hungry. Their diet consists of ‘Small Millstones’ (small bread rolls), turnip soup and not much else. When you compare that to what a university-aged boy eats in Australia, it’s no wonder that food is their main topic of conversation.

Unfortunately, the types of food produce flatulence. There’s quite a lot of it in this book, sure to delight a teenage boy audience. I found it a bit tiring after a while, but it does go to illustrate the effects of the lack of food. Plus, the efforts of the supervisors for the Party to ban breaking wind provide both light relief and insight into what minor things are considered misdemeanours.

This book reminded me somewhat of The Rainbow Troops in its solidarity of friendships, overcoming adversity and trying to change the system from within. The constant struggle of Big Zhang to outwit the officials is amusing, but reminds you of just how difficult life was for the everyday person – stealing some carrots becoming a gaol-worthy offence.

The writing style is easy and transports you into Soapy’s world. The humour is ever present, which is a good thing as otherwise you’d likely be crying at the students’ plight.

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One thought on “The Gunners of Shenyang by Jihui Yu

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  1. Lisa See has a book out called Dreams of Joy, in this book she describes the Great Leap and boy, oh boy, it is a fantastic read.

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