For some time now I’ve been eerily fascinated by the Great Leap Forward. Because most modern Chinese literature set in the 1960s takes place during the Cultural Revolution–a time when kids were told by the state to turn against their parents and all things western were deemed evil–I’m always on the lookout for something new. The Great Leap Forward.
Last year I reviewed some non-fiction treatises that chronicled the Great Leap Forward. Lisa See has recently written about it as has Gail Tsukiyama; both of their books were novels. Now Yu Jihui has come out with a memoir set in 1962, the year after the Great Leap Forward ended. The Gunners of Shenyang (Signal 8 Press, 2013) addresses the number one issue of the Great Leap Forward–hunger.
When 45 million people die of starvation, it should be news known world over. But that wasn’t the case with the Great Leap Forward. It’s only been in recent years that details from this period have emerged. The Chinese government kept these records locked away until the late 1990s. So a memoir like Yu’s is important because it gives a first-hand account of the conditions in China as the country slowly crept out of this very dark period.
Yu Jihua is a university student in Shenyang, way up in northeast China. He rooms with a number of other male students, include one Zhang Da Li, a giant of a man who is perpetually hungry. Memories of hunger and starvation are still very fresh in these students’ minds, and for Zhang, going hungry is not something he’s willing to endure again.
Although the memoir is Yu’s, the story is mainly about Zhang and events that revolve around his quest to fill his stomach. Zhang not only goes out of his way to forage for food, he also speaks out against the government. This is still four years before the start of the Cultural Revolution, but this next scene is slowly being set and certain classmates wield more power than others.
Apart from the political atmosphere, this book is precious because it tells of a time when university students were still innocent and jovial despite the poor conditions. It was a good four decades before students would be caught up in the iWorld, forever changing their means of communication and the way they related to one another. In 1962, Chinese university students didn’t even have the luxury of calling their families by telephone because few people had phones in their homes.
The book reminds me of my first trip to China, 26 years after this story took place. Even in 1988, students in China were curious and hungry for higher education, not the latest iPhone or imported sports car.