There and back again

Out of the Gobi by Weijian Shan

Review of Out of the Gobi by Weijian Shan. Wiley, 2019.

Weijian Shan is one of China’s most accomplished financiers. But like many of his generation who have led China’s renaissance of the past 40 years, his path was far from assured. His formal education was halted after elementary school, when Shan became one of the millions of young people exiled to the countryside as part of the Cultural Revolution. In his remarkable new memoir, Shan relives those years of constant hunger and crushing labor, and the historic twists that would transform his life while China reformed.

Part of what makes this memoir special is simply the fact that it has been written. Like veterans of war, Chinese rarely talk about the Cultural Revolution that upended their country, even more so now that it has again become taboo in the Xi Jinping era. So much potential was wasted, yet Shan would keep the flame of his talent and ambition alive, teaching himself from any book he could get his hands on. Shan writes with a simplicity and directness of language that, while not elegant, is consistently powerful and, at times, unexpectedly funny. In describing his unrelenting drive to make something of his life, even when powerful forces were arrayed against him, Shan has captured the spirit of a generation.

Shan was born in Beijing in 1953 to parents who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Among his earliest memories are of neighbors attempting to smelt metal from household objects as part of Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward in economic production. (A lesser known concurrent campaign was meant to eradicate the “Four Pests” of mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows: neighbors banged drums, gongs, and pans, preventing birds from landing until they fell out of the sky from exhaustion.)

By 1966, the first winds of the Cultural Revolution began to blow. In nightmarish scenes, Shan recalls skipping school with a roving group of elementary classmates, encountering the chaos of older students denouncing and torturing supposed enemies of the Revolution. The worst he acknowledges personally participating in was smashing an art teacher’s statue of Venus de Milo because it was a “capitalist object,” recalling that “we all felt excited and proud” to be a revolutionary. (In 2014, many former Red Guards publicly apologized for far graver crimes, including murder.) That fall, Shan would join tens of thousands of young people who piled onto trains in a mass pilgrimage to famous sites in Communist Party history.

Three years later, as chaos continued to consume the country and with schools closed, Mao would give the order to send urban youth down to the countryside. At thirteen years old, Shan was assigned to the Inner Mongolia Construction Army Corps, beginning years of labor in the Gobi Desert. Shan and his peers toiled to scratch arable land out of the desert. It was an exercise in pointlessness: in one season, the weight of the seeds they sowed was greater than that of the harvest, and most of what grew rotted before it could be collected. Over the years, their assignments of folly would range from agriculture, to construction, to preparation as the frontline against a Soviet invasion. Hungry all the while, “if we caught a stray dog, we ate it. If we caught a stray cat, we ate it.

Shan makes sense of a bewildering sweep of events in a manner that is gripping for those unfamiliar with China’s history and newly revelatory for those who are, as Inner Mongolia was one of the rarer destinations for sent-down youth. (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, published in 1991 by Jung Chang, may be the most widely read account of that era among English-language readers.) Shan is acutely aware of the absurdities of Mao’s whims and their horrific human cost. Instead of propelling economic development, the Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of millions from famine; the Cultural Revolution traumatized the country, depriving a generation of Chinese of an education and ransacking the country’s rich cultural heritage. In acknowledging the sexual abuse of sent-down youth, Shan joins Xinran’s The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, an oral history which grimly states that the perpetrators were young women’s “teachers, their friends, even their fathers and brothers, who lost control of their animal instincts.”

The years in the Gobi were not all bleak. Vivid, often hilarious, scenes with his squadmates dot Shan’s recollections; romance with neighboring female divisions, however, was prohibited as counter-revolutionary. Daydreaming aloud about food, one squadmate named Zhou declared he would call anyone who could secure an extra portion for him “grand-uncle.” “To our great amusement,” another classmate, Cui, “stood up, turned toward the women, and began to walk over. When we realized that he was not just pretending, we were shocked. He was going to ask the women for a piece of [food]!” Horrified that he would have to call Cui “grand-uncle,” Zhou declared he wasn’t hungry anymore. Cui eventually gave the food to him, telling Zhou he could just call him grand-uncle when out of the earshot of others. But harsh realities could only temporarily be repressed by laughter: as Zhou devoured the extra portion of food, “all of us were swallowing hard, too, salivating in sympathy.”

Respected by his peers and company commanders for his work ethic and intelligence, Shan was nominated to become a “barefoot doctor” and be trained in the basics of primary care. His clinic hours would expose him to the petty corruption of those in charge, and soon Shan’s sense of integrity would lead to his demotion. When word came from Beijing that the colleges would reopen, Shan’s blacklisted status kept him in the desert. Some were even unluckier than he: one female classmate was denied entry because “she was two centimeters too short of the height requirement for college.”

His ambitions delayed for two years, Shan resolved that “I had already been through so much, but I would not lose myself in despair. To give up was to commit a sin against myself, I reminded myself time and time again. And I would never give up.” Transferring his unrelenting work ethic from hard labor to study, Shan transitioned quickly from a student of English at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade to one of its faculty.

He would soon meet the woman he would marry, Shi Bin, who was then studying in Harbin. “I was impressed by her personality – open, unreserved, confident, straightforward, and no-nonsense,” Shan writes. “I thought, ‘what a happy girl,’ very different from many of the girls I had met who looked to have suffered too much in life and wore their miseries on their faces.” Bin, and eventually their children, play limited roles in Shan’s narrative, their separation for the first few years of his study in the United States a burden that barely registers compared to all that preceded it.

As the US and China re-established ties, Shan was among the first Chinese sent abroad to study. From Voice of America broadcasts and his friendship with a pilot who had been exiled to the Gobi, Shan had already been shaken from the propagandistic fantasy that the Chinese masses were more prosperous than the oppressed people of capitalist America. He recalls with good humor that he and his adviser decided he should decline offers from both Stanford and UC Berkeley because they had not heard of the former and believed the latter to be a lesser “branch” school instead of California’s flagship university. They settled on the University of San Francisco, taking the literal Chinese translation of the city’s name, “Old Gold Mountain,” as a sure sign that this school was the best. Shan did just fine there, earning an MBA, and soon after a PhD at Berkeley, where his adviser was the future chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, who provides the memoir’s foreword.

As readers experience the US through Shan’s eyes, the dark ironies that mark his time in the Gobi are replaced by the occasional comic misunderstanding, and, above all, his profound humility and repeated underestimation of his own tremendous talent and work ethic. He is unsparing in his gratitude to the Americans who saw his promise and did all they could to help him achieve it. It is a poignant reminder of the hopefulness that once marked China’s opening, a hopefulness at risk of being lost to the antagonism that is again defining the US-China relationship. Seemingly everyone, from Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, to Jon Huntsman Jr., would make cameos in Shan’s life, with Shan predicting correctly that the latter would one day become ambassador to China.

Some Chinese look back on their time as sent-down youth with a complicated sense of appreciation. Shan pointedly does not – on his first return to the Gobi in 2005, he refers to the place “where we had buried our youth.” After a short stint at the World Bank, Shan taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School before realizing that he wanted to play an active role in China’s development. Shan elides his successful – and in his varied life, longest – career in private equity. As he rightly suggests, that part of his story merits a book of his own, one that hopefully would retain this book’s frankness and moral clarity. While Shan briefly acknowledges that he felt “sad and angry” watching the Communist Party’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests 1989, he quickly reverts to the preoccupations of his own career. If he writes that second book with the same level of candor, it will be one of the most revealing about how business is done in China.

Out of the Gobi deserves to be widely read in its own right, and one hopes will inspire a great many others to share their stories of this transformative period in history. In an era of strained ties between the US and China, Shan offers a timely perspective from someone who knows the promise and disappointment of both countries best. Most importantly, it is a testament to what is possible when people are free to fulfill their innate potential.

This review was originally published on China Channel.