Up into the Mountains and Down to the Countryside24 September 2019
Content warning: intergenerational trauma
On the 19th of June 1976, after three anxiety-riddled nights of waiting, six hours of cross-country travel, and another sleepless night squashed into a single bed with her two parents, Jia was finally ready to say goodbye. Not just to her family, she realised, but the last remnants of her home, her city and her entire life so far. As she stood at the village’s edge and watched the cars dwindle beyond the glassy landscape of soaked rice paddies and distant mountains, she steeled herself against all remaining fear and doubt. For my mother, this was her chance to contribute to Mao’s revolution and the future of her beloved China.
On that first evening, Mum recalls how city kids from all over the province of Sichuan mingled around a big celebratory fire, laughing and drinking until late. Her surrogate family had welcomed her enthusiastically, assigning her a bed in their modest home. When it was time to sleep, Mum recounts with lucidity even now, her horror upon hearing the rats scampering across the straw roof. She barely slept the first week, convinced they would fall squealing onto her bed during the night.
At 4am, Mum was shaken awake by her new auntie, who appeared over her, smiling gently with a bowl of rice and pickles. She dressed and ate quickly before following her new family out to a section of land to start harvesting. Around her small frame, Mum describes how the water- logged fields caught the sun, and by midday the whole landscape was transformed into a blinding ocean. As she waded through the hours, stooped low and slicing at bunches of rice that clung obstinately to the earth, the strong urge to faint seized her. When she didn’t she wished she would. At least then, she could be carried back to the shade of her dark hut. Her shoulders ached from bending down and the sun’s heavy body had slumped itself over her back, leaving the skin of her neck raw and her head swollen.
At nightfall, work finished, and her auntie cooked up a small bowl of rice with salted pickles. Jia’s stomach grumbled for meat and she suddenly missed her mum’s delicious pork bone soup. Doubt, like an ugly moth, beat its large wings against her stomach. What kind of place is this? Her fingers moved instinctively to the face of her badge, a side profile of Chairman Mao pinned proudly to the breast of her plain cotton shirt. Golden and regal. His pursed lips chided her, reminding her what a glorious thing it was to endure hardship, to purify your heart with peasant values. “We must put roots in the country, to make a revolution.” His voice in the curve of her ear and on her lips and her tongue, stayed with her like a warm taste until she drifted off into sleep, dreaming of softly-cooked rabbit and spiced lamb skewers.
At 16, my mother was one of 17 million urban youths from 1967 to 1978 relocated indefinitely from China’s major cities to neighbouring rural communes and state farms at the rallying cry of China’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong to “go up into the mountains and down to the countryside.” Later, people would refer less optimistically to the period as “the lost generation”, referencing the widespread loss of educational opportunities, jobs and quality of life for much of this generation.1 My mother was sent down in 1976 and was lucky because, soon after, Mao would pass away and the cultural revolution would end. With the re-establishment of Deng Xiaoping in 1979, those who wished to return to the cities had a chance to do so, and a small number of university placements were offered to students based on rigorous academic testing.
My mother’s determination and extreme studiousness landed her one of these coveted placements, and eventually a scholarship to study physics at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia. Like many children of immigrants, I am keenly aware of the opportunities that have come from my mother’s sacrifices, and accordingly the difference between her worldview and the privileged, western-academic lens I am informed by. To me, the sent-down youths are another historical example of a group’s unjustified exploitation for a larger political agenda, namely Mao’s attempts to re-assert the purity of communist ideology, despite these same coercive, violent tactics causing the ‘Great Leap Famine’ and the deaths of 45 million people only 5 years earlier. What was presented to the public as necessary socialist re-education was mostly about disbanding the Red Guard, groups of students Mao had called upon to fight any dissent to communism. However, as their passion grew into disorder and violence, Mao’s solution was simple: they could be moved to the country. The program was also a solution to growing urban unemployment, with the removal of many soon-to-be employed high school graduates improving the amount of work available and re-asserting Mao’s ability to make the nation wealthy.2
His solutions came at a great cost to a whole generation of young people. And yet, when I talk to my mother she is hesitant to speak negatively about her experiences. I ask her, “Did you struggle?” She tells me, “I was passionate, young and ready to take on anything.” I ask, “Are you angry that your generation lost so many opportunities?” She replies, “It made me strong. Grateful for what I have today.”3 For the most part, she seems to look at the experience with a lot of nostalgia, telling me about the kindness of the peasants in the town and the strong friendships she formed. Her regard for the experience surprisingly fits with the narrative of many Chinese commentators: that the movement created a generation of strong leaders with the ability to endure hardship and understand the sufferings of the common people. The current president, Xi Jinping, a former sent-down youth, is a poster-boy for this, often citing his time in the countryside as deeply enriching and inspiring him to make a difference.4
And yet, it does not take a lot of research to find countless tales of harsh manual labour, violence and deaths. The youths who returned to the city without the education necessary to compete with younger, university-educated generations were left trailing at the bottom of society.5 For Deng Xiaoping, the growth of the nation was the paramount aim and equality traded up for trickle-down economic policies that made no attempts to lessen the burden on the poor. My mother concedes, “Our generation lost our right to education. A lot of my friends never got to go to uni. Some married peasants and never left.” What appears, surprisingly, to have affected my mother most is a loss of faith. “I think my passion saved me going in. I believed and so I really felt I could put up with anything. But the harshness of the situation disillusions you. Everybody had a belief crisis.”6
Therefore, amongst those who experienced it, the situation cannot be polarised as it often is in Western academia, as inhumane, without putting in brackets that the highly-politicised Chinese youth were motivated to take on the challenge. For my mother and her friends this was not a punishment, but a lucky experience. Michel Bonnin in a review of The Lost Generation also remarks that these are the “thoughtful” generation, becoming the force of resistance against the Cultural Revolution and crueller aspects of government policy.7 It is therefore hard to know what China would be without the unfortunate history of the sent-down youths, and perhaps when recounting it, it is best to focus on the passion and bravery of city kids taking up sickles and adopting peasant roles to passionately serve their country.
This attitude of optimism in hardship is reflected amongst immigrant parents from many countries who have overcome difficult circumstances to provide better opportunities for their children. In my own life, I have internalised a strong belief in the character-building role of hardship and resilience, and the rewards of hard-work, and I have these values to thank for my academic and extracurricular successes so far. When I am homesick or doubtful of the decision I made to move from Sydney to Melbourne to live and study (albeit a far easier experience of my own volition), I marvel at my mother and the sent-down youths, who had no experience with hard manual labour, and who didn’t know if they would ever return home. Though she misses me, my mother never complains about my distance. She understands, more than most, a young person’s desire to seek out adventure and independence and to make it on their terms.
1Yihong Pan, “Review: China’s Sent-Down Generation: Public Administration and the Legacies of Mao’s Rustication Program by Helena K. Rene.” China Review Journal 20 (2013), http://www.jstor.org/stable/43818395
2 Yihong, “Review.” 179.
3 Jia Du, in conversation with Nicole Moore, phone correspondence, May 10, 2017.
4 C. Buckley, “Cultural Revolution Shaped Xi Jinping, From Schoolboy to Survivor,” The New York Times, September 24, 2015.
5 K. Hillie, “China’s ‘sent down’ youth.” Financial Times, September 20, 2013.
6 Du, conversation.
7 Yihong, “Review.” 179
- Buckley, C. “Cultural Revolution Shaped Xi Jinping, From Schoolboy to Survivor.” The New York Times, September 24, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/25/world/asia/xi-jinping-china-cultural-revolution.html?_r=0
- Dikotter, F. “Mao’s Great Leap to Famine.” The New York Times, December 15, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/opinion/16iht-eddikotter16.html
- Hillie, K. “China’s ‘sent-down’ youth.” Financial Times, September 20, 2013. https://www.ft.com/content/3d2ba75c-1fdf-11e3-8861-00144feab7de
- Pan, Yihong. “Review: China’s Sent-Down Generation: Public Administration and the Legacies of Mao’s Rustication Program by Helena K. Rene.” China Review Journal 20 (2013). http://www.jstor.org/stable/43818395
- Rene, Helena. China’s Sent Down Generation: Public Administration and the Legacies of Mao’s Rustication Program. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2013.