The Gunners of Shenyang by Yu Jihui, Signal 8 Press, ISBN 9789881554024, Available now.
In the West we’ve become used to a diet of memoirs from Chinese writers of life under communism. Most often they are depressing, scary and almost unbearably sad, which isn’t that surprising when they cover events such as The Great Leap Forward (“Estimates of the death toll range from 18 million to 45 million”), the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square.
What we don’t often get is fart jokes. The Gunners of Shenyang is an interesting mix then of stoicism and slapstick, flatulence and famine.
Set in 1962, just as The Great Leap Forward is coming to an end, The Gunners of Shenyang is the author’s memoir of his time at university, where the students are starving and attending endless rounds of political meetings. The narrative is told in first person by the author, “Soapy” (his college nickname) and revolves around himself and his dorm-mates and their various quests to talk to girls, find extra food and amuse themselves in a time of no amusement.
Eventually the stories coalesce around Big Zhang, an older boy who takes delight in telling tales and baiting fellow serious students. There is a certain inevitability in The Gunners of Shenyang; the angry nonconformist who is eventually forced into conformity is not exactly a new story.
It’s an interesting read, if one that could do with a better edit, and the endless talk about farting does wear thin. Yu Jihui also seems to suffer from a crisis of confidence in his ending – I’m not entirely convinced it got where it wanted to go.
If you’re interested in personal histories from China this is another worthy addition – with only a few caveats.