Reviews / June 2014 (Issue 24)

Stranger Than Fiction: A Review of Yu Jihui’s The Gunners of Shenyang

by Emma Zhang


Yu Jihui, The Gunners of Shenyang, Signal 8 Press, Hong Kong, 2013. 260 pgs.

The Gunners of Shenyang is a memoir set in China in the early 1960s, in the period after the Great Famine and before the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. L. P. Hartley's famous quote, "The past is a foreign country," captures vividly the elusive nature of history. When one gazes into the past, the truth may indeed be stranger than fiction. In The Gunners of Shenyang, a young man is forced to write a self-criticism for not being able to control his flatulence; a twelve-year-old boy is murdered for half a corn bun; an honest statement can cost a person his life and the petty crime of stealing carrots can eventually unravel into a life-threatening catastrophe. Ultimately, The Gunners of Shenyang is a tale about the terrible price one has to pay for speaking the truth during Mao's petrifying totalitarian regime. Only when finishing the book, can one begin to grasp the depth of the terror buried between the lines of the story and begin to comprehend why it took the writer, Yu Jihui, five decades to break his silence.

In 1984, Winston Smith hungers for a private and personal account of the past, and he buys an old man a beer and asks him about the time before the perpetual war of the novel. After a few rounds of fruitless inquiry, Winston leaves in despair. The past, Winston declares, is forever buried in a heap of useless details, and, in a decade or two, no one would ever be able to question the official version of history. Those who read memoirs for a personalised account of history may feel, like Winston, somewhat frustrated by the opening chapters of The Gunners of Shenyang. The book begins with a stoic account of the persecution and death of Yu's father, who spoke truth to power, and was banished to the harsh mountainous region of Qinghai. There he became a victim of famine and died of malnourishment. What follows is a detailed report of Yu's unfortunate habit of uncontrollable farting and his enrollment in university, where he finds comrades with the same embarrassing habit, leading him to form the league of loud "Gunners." This juxtaposition of the tragic and the absurd is difficult to appreciate, and does demand the reader's patience.

In Bleak House, Charles Dickens' description of a London slum exposes the reader to snowflake-sized black soot and layers of mud sticking out of the blackened pavement; George Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris gives you the sore stench of the refuse-carts and the regiments of bugs found on the ceiling of a cheap hotel. These writers do not flinch when they bring to life the most offensive sights and sounds of lives drenched in the misery of poverty. But neither Dickens nor Orwell go as far as Yu does in this book. From farting to defecating, the most basic of human bodily functions are presented here without restraint. The following scene occurs in the middle of an oral English class:

At that moment a foul odour swirled around me. I gagged and put my hand over my nose. Big Zhang had fired a silent cannon ball. (p. 59)
"Have you got diarrhea?" he [the professor] asked again. […] "I think you must have, and that is why you keep expelling wind." (p. 61)
"But his words were lost on Big Zhang. All of a sudden, his face turned purple, and, clutching his belly, he ran from the classroom, banging the door behind him." (p. 62)

A sibling of this kind of unabashed style of storytelling is Scheherazade's ongoing medieval tales of the Arabian Nights. The difference is, Scheherazade's stories manage to bring a deranged king back to his senses, and thus they celebrate the power of rhetoric over brute tyranny; whereas in The Gunners of Shengyang, the simple act of telling stories proves to be fatal, revealing how political oppression can stomp to death the creativity and integrity of a generation of people living in the clutches of the communist system.

If you happen to be a patient reader and can steel yourself and tolerate the all-too-earthly descriptions of the most private and embarrassing of bodily manners, your effort will be substantially rewarded. Before you get to the end of the story, you will doubtlessly fall for the charm of the lead character Zhang Da Li, learn to appreciate the bizarre combination of tragedy and absurdity and marvel as the beauty of the book's structure reveals itself. The tragedy of the father related in the Prologue sets off the central story of the persecution and destruction of Zhang Da Li. This memoir is primarily about the loss of a good friend, but behind this tale is the untold agony of the senseless loss of a father, which, perhaps, is too painful to be put into words. In the stifling oppression of Mao's China, when speech was twisted into a chorus of lies, when the lackeys of the government were given the power to destroy anyone they chose for the pettiest of grievances, when absurdity ruled the day and truthfulness and honesty were penalised, words became utterly powerless. The art of storytelling not only failed to protect the storyteller from tyranny but could chain him forever to misery. Reading about a world that had spiralled so far into madness and hypocrisy, one is reduced to a petrified silence and cannot help but empathise with the narrator Soapy, who is constantly torn between his loyalty to a friend and the forces of conformity.

Those who read memoirs for their sociological insights will observe that though the story is set before the Cultural Revolution, the infrastructure that led to the violent outbreak of Cultural Revolution was already in place in the early 60s. People were rallied for weekly political meetings, where specific targets were selected for purges. The country was not ruled by a system of law, but governed by an airtight system of party committees with a hierarchical structure that reached from the top of the government down to the very bottom of society. The power to punish was handed down to the bottom level of party committee members, who then insinuated rumours against their target and gathered support from the mass for the purge. The lack of a neutral system of law and the handing down of punitive power lay at the heart of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and this system allowed individuals with limited power to avenge their personal grievances. Unchecked power, however limited, can be lethal. As the chaos of the Cultural Revolution expanded, the leaders of the communist party themselves became the targets of attacks from the masses, unleashing terrible violence and upheaval, which many consider unprecedented. However, Yu's memoir shows that the country was not thrown into chaos overnight. Long before the Cultural Revolution, truth telling was already deadly, and the system of unjust victimisation and purges was already in place.

Another anthropological detail worth observing is that in this memoir, the university students in the 1960s openly discussed flatulence in class meetings. This is unimaginable today, since a habit as socially taboo as farting is simply too vulgar to be brought up among the intellectual elite. The fact that female students in the early 60s spoke of it in public without shame indicates that the culture of the time had been inverted. Communists had relied on the support of the workers and peasants in the early years of communist reign, and the speech and the behavioural patterns of the grassroots class was promoted as pure and good, whereas the more refined behaviour of the cultured class was condemned as bourgeois, and therefore bad. This turning upside down of culture had devastating consequences; the sophisticated literary tradition of classic Chinese was all but lost. Meanwhile, the contemporary Chinese writers, such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua and Yan Lianke, who grew up in the 60s, matured into powerful novelists with their own charms, but their prose is littered with vulgarity and lacks grace.

The Gunners of Shenyang lacks the beauty and eloquence of Jung Chang's Wild Swans and doesn't have the powerful emotional impact of Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai; rather, its plainspoken documentary style more resembles Woman from Shanghai by Xianhui Yang. If the beauty of language were the sole value to be gained from reading, then this book, scattered with grammatical errors, would have little to offer. Yet some books can be read for their ability to record, as immunisation against historical amnesia. The Gunners of Shenyang can be recommended to those trying to grasp a past that is already fading into the shadowland of official history. This is a book about storytelling, and its strongest attraction is its story; its blunt style gives a ragged authenticity to the narrative voice. Those fortunate enough never to have suffered under totalitarian oppression may find the book's events otherworldly and its vulgarity either offensive or perversely entertaining. But those who have lived through similar experiences may still shudder at the horrors beneath the absurdities that this memoir faithfully depicts.

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