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.