Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Gunners of Shenyang

I had no clue.  Although I'd read the synopsis, this book was not at all what I'd expected it to be.  In fact, I was completely surprised by the contents of The Gunners of Shenyang, a memoir by Yu Jihui, published in 2013.

The Gunners of Shenyang presents a vivid portrait of China through the eyes of the author as a college student, during Mao's Great Leap Forward (1958–1962).  During this period, hunger was a serious problem for the much of the nation, because Mao's regime brought severe changes in farming which prohibited farm ownership and created famine in China, which led to millions of deaths.  A very sparse diet, consisting mainly of bean-curd dregs and "Small Millstones" left everyone hungry and dreaming of food, and caused substantial--and often embarrassing--gastric issues.  This debilitating hunger and desire for food are omnipresent in the book, and shape the lives of Yu and others at Shenyang University.

The characters in The Gunners of Shenyang have marvelous, evocative nicknames, such as Soapy (the protagonist, named after an American actor), Donkey, Bread, Red Rooster, White Swan, Plump Doll, Hot Pepper, and of course, Big Zhang.  These characters are not your average, everyday "gunners".  Consequently, this is a memoir that I'll definitely remember.  Although it's funny much of the time, it also has a clear and somber message.   It depicts the struggle for survival during a very difficult period in China, a time when 36 million people starved to death (according to Wikipedia).  Powerful, personal, and political--all at once--Yu Jihui blazingly brings to life his difficult past as a university student in China.  The Gunners of Shenyang is an absorbing, one-of-a-kind memoir that took me on a historical and emotional journey. 

Special thanks to Cherry from Signal 8 Press in Hong King for sending me a copy of this book.

18 comments:

  1. I love memoirs and this one certainly sounds fascinating!

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  2. The Gunners of Shenyang sounds like an interesting and powerful memoir!

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    1. It does sound like a memoir to read about this unhappy period in China's history.

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  3. I have been reading books about war, political upheaval in Asia and its aftermath. The Third Son by Julie Wu is excellent but heartbreaking, set in Taiwan during the Communist Revolution in China. I am in the middle of a memoir, Bend, Not Break by Ping Fu about her survival of the Cultural Revolution. Both books are about immigrants who escaped for new lives in America. Highly recommended.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Harvee!

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  4. This sounds very good.

    As you mention this was a really bad time in China. Interesting that the author has infused humor into his memoir. Of course one can find humor in most situations.

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  5. A beautiful book and an interesting subject. How difficult years for people !

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  6. I know someone who would adore this book. Thanks so much for your great review!

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  7. I hadn't heard of this one -- sounds like a somewhat tough memoir to read,

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  8. Loving those nicknames. Definitely a book I'll make a note of as whilst I did not enjoy the last book I read based on this era (it was a fictionalised account of the life of Madam Mao) it certainly left me wanting to know more.

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  9. This sounds fantastic. The Girl read a different memoir from the same period as one of her summer reading books...wish I remembered the title off-hand.

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  10. Wow - this book sounds like it is a disturbing, but very informative read. I just added it to my ever growing "to read" list. Thanks for the great review!

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  11. I'm glad you enjoyed the book. It sounds like a rather sad book to read.

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  12. I'm glad you enjoyed this memoir. I haven't read non-fiction in awhile. This sounds like a good one to read. I've added it to my to read list. Thanks for your great review.

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  13. This sounds like an interesting but difficult read. I think that it would be interesting to read/learn more about China during this time period but I'm sure it wasn't an easy read. I'm definitely adding this one to the TBR list for someday....thanks Suko!

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  14. I've heard stories of people starving in this time period, having only one small nut or something a day. The cover is most intriguing seen in this light, because at first one thinks its a knife. Yet the wielding of food is just as significant as weapons, isn't it?!

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    1. Thank you for your insightful comment, Bellezza.

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