“Out of the Gobi: My Story of China and America” by Weijian Shan

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Of the many books about the Cultural Revolution, this memoir by financier Weijian Shan might be one of the most detailed accounts. Out of the Gobi focuses on the author’s harsh years as a “sent-down” youth in a work camp in the Gobi desert, as well as how he eventually makes it out and goes to study in the United States.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, violence and unrest exploded around the country. Shen recounts walking past public “struggle sessions” in his hometown of Beijing where people were denounced by crowds as well as walking past and seeing an old couple being beaten by a group of schoolgirls in a dark room inside a school.

One major policy during this time was, as part of Mao Zedong’s attempt to shake up Chinese society, the sending of millions of urban youth to the countryside to live and work alongside peasants for years and supposedly learn proletariat ideals. Shan writes that this mass upheaval of urban youths was also due to the suspension of classes in schools that had resulted in lots of idle and violent students in the cities.

In 1969, Shan, then 15, was sent from Beijing to a work camp in the Gobi desert. There, he became a cadre in the Construction Army Corps. Alongside other “sent-down” youths, as they were called, Shan dug ditches, harvested grain, and even cut river reeds for making paper.

In painstaking detail, Shan describes the harsh weather and living conditions, backbreaking work, and the senseless political developments. Conditions were very spartan: food was scarce and doled out in precise amounts. Sometimes, the details overwhelm in their almost encyclopedic recounting of seemingly every moment of Shan’s work camp years.

At the start of every chapter, which are in chronological order, Shan gives an explanation of major developments, including political events as well as such economic and social policies as the “barefoot doctors,” people trained in basic medical knowledge who were mainly sent to serve rural communities across the country.

Shan himself also served as a barefoot doctor for his unit. Even basic medical training was tainted by Communist dogma; the author recounts an instructor saying during a surgical workshop:

 

A revolutionary isn’t afraid of risks… As for technical problems, Chairman Mao guides us to the answer in his teachings on capturing the principal contradiction.

 

Shan is unsparing about the futility of the work of the Construction Army Corps and of the tremendous wastage of the Cultural Revolution. The corps “did not help in any way to develop or transform the impoverished countryside for the better,” while “consuming three to four times the amount of food” they produced.

In one particularly affecting chapter, Shan describes how the commander of his platoon extorted a female cadre for sex and was eventually arrested for attempting to do the same with another. He ends with the sad revelation that exploitation and rape of young women was widespread among officers nationwide, including a political instructor who was arrested for having slept with “practically every young woman under his command.”

Out of the Gobi is both a remarkable life story and an important historical document of the Cultural Revolution.

Out of the Gobi: My Story of China and America, Weijian Shan (Wiley, January 2019)
Out of the Gobi: My Story of China and America, Weijian Shan (Wiley, January 2019)

After six years, Shan eventually escapes the work camp by being selected to attend university in Beijing. From that point on, his life takes a turn for the better. He marries, applies for a university exchange to the US, then finishes both a graduate program and a PhD program there. While this part of the book is nowhere as turbulent as the China chapters, there is considerable interest in Shan’s experiences of American society and academia as one of the first Chinese graduate students in the US.

Out of the Gobi is both a remarkable life story and an important historical document of the Cultural Revolution. While what Shan and other Chinese youths had to endure during the Cultural Revolution seems unbearable, it should be noted that many other Chinese suffered worse. Given that China is still yet to fully come to terms with the Cultural Revolution, more in-depth individual stories like this would be welcome.


Hilton Yip is a writer currently based in Hong Kong and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.