During decades of reading and reviewing books on China I have learned a great deal, even from those I didn’t like. Only a few have surprised me. Mao’s Lost Children is such a book, and those like me who believe that the Mao period was bad for China and the Chinese will also be surprised—although, as I note below, some of the surprise is negative. It starts with the cover, which shows laughing girls being drawn on an oxcart. Since I supposed that young middle school graduates, or zhiqing, “sent down to the countryside and up to the mountains” to “learn from the peasants” must have had a bad time, I thought initially that the cover was misleading. But in this book, most of the former zhiqing recall happy, or at least nostalgic, years of rustication.
Much of this book was published in China in 2011, and all the contributors appeared in a later Chinese edition in 2014. The editors, who both live in China, as do most of the contributors, supply a concise and admirably clear explanation of what happened to the 15 million zhiqing, who were sent to the countryside between 1968 and 1980 partly to mitigate the depredations of violent young Red Guards. Sending them “down” would bring them into contact with “the rural masses,” and save the government money for food and education that would not extend to the countryside. It was thought, too, say the editors, that they could help defend China from foreign invasion.
Conditions in the countryside, assert the editors, were “extremely harsh”; this does not emerge in most of the testimonies in the book. There may be other cases, but in these “unfamiliar” or “tough” might be better terms. The entire scheme, the editors conclude, was a “resounding economic failure.” The sent-down youngsters added little or nothing to production and ate up food that was in short supply because of Mao’s economic reforms, which were so ruinous for peasant agriculture. But some of the testimonies show that rural children, for instance, learned a good deal from the zhiqing, and went on to better lives than they would have had without such education.
One of the editors, Ou Nianzhong, was such a sent-down youth who, like all the others who testify in this book, went to Hainan, a large island just off China’s southern coast. He writes, “Some maintain that adversity is the breeding ground for talent. But I believe it suffocates more than it breeds.” His fellow editor, Liang Yongkang, says, “Some maintain that they have no resentment or regrets about their rustication. I resent every minute of it—the fact that I could not do things of my own free will.”
And yet—and here we come again to the picture on the jacket—the editors themselves, despite their own unhappy experiences, conclude that the 50 or so zhiqing who testify in this book could turn hardships to advantage, play the system, find compromises, and “study, laugh or fall in love.” They discovered hitherto unknown inner strengths and encountered “dignity, kindness, and generosity.”
The teenagers had been eager to join in rural labor, far from their urban families, partly to show that they were loyal Maoists, but also, in many cases, to prove that they were unlike their parents, who often were undergoing persecution for their alleged crimes of bourgeois, feudal, counterrevolutionary acts and beliefs. One such youth, 40 years later and living in Hong Kong, recalls that
our family used to belong to the “special class” which enjoyed many privileges but which…was also among the first to be purged…. Children were being denounced as within “the five black categories.”
He knew that if he visited home to see his detained father, his mother “would be condemned for not having made a clean break with my father.” Another zhiqing, following a campaign “to prosecute and eliminate the ‘active counterrevolutionaries,’” was “coerced into making incessant confessions about their ‘problems’ and my own. I was forced to inform and conform,” while receiving letters from home that his father and brother had died in prison. “The last thing I wanted to hear from anyone was ‘You have mail.’”
Another zhiqing dreamed of becoming a master chef. Although he did some cooking on Hainan he was passed over as a possible candidate for a job in the catering industry. Still another Hainan veteran remembers that the zhiqing were much better educated than their officials, many of whom were from rural areas. This caused tension “between the offspring of high government functionaries and their less literate and articulate officials.” An ex-zhiqing from 1968 to 1975 served as a correspondent required to report on “grassroots activities.” This involved, he remembered,
fabrication, stealthy substitution, hyperbole and glorification, plagiarizing, and muddling. To ensure that our writing was sufficiently malicious, fraudulent, bombastic and insubstantial, we took to inventing sensational “news” and infusing our writing with fancy alliteration, elaborate rhyming couplets, parataxis, and doggerel.
But those are the minority negative testimonies in Mao’s Lost Children. 40 years later, most of the Hainan veterans testify that they got a lot from their experiences, especially in friendships with each other and with local people. Their testimonies include nostalgic visits back to where they had once lived with the peasants and found comradeship, laughter, consideration, and even love. Lu Sui, for instance, who worked in a nursery, states, “Throughout my life I have been able to keep a grateful heart, thanks in no small measure to the formative experiences of my zhiqing life.” Another woman insists: “To my certain knowledge, what many zhiqings achieved after their return home had much to do with the mental and physical toughening they had experienced during their years of rustication.”
A zhiqing who had been criticized at home for selling books volunteered, at the age of 15, to go to Hainan “owing to an instinct for survival.” He testifies—and there is no evidence here that any of the zhiqing who spoke positively years later were forced to do so—“I learned from those nine years that as long as you make a proper effort, it will be recognized no matter how humble your roots or your role.”
Che Zhiming didn’t see his imprisoned father, a veteran of the revolutionary army under Deng Xiaoping, for many years. At 14 years old, Che, who became a Red Guard, traveling around the country, free “to spread revolutionary ideas,” came home to discover his father in political disgrace. He soon found refuge in rustication to Hainan like the other zhiqing whose parents had been persecuted. Like the others, too, he expresses no bitterness. He describes his time before arriving in Hainan as “an enviable and cosy ivory tower” and is grateful for the “workaday world” into which he was dropped, which “enabled me, with a humble heart, to develop a friendship with my peers from all backgrounds…. My tough experiences made me into [a] strong and sanguine man.”
There is one singular account in this collection. He Weixian was rusticated to Hainan when he was 15, and remained there for over 40 years. He always dreamed of going home, he says, and never gave up struggling to do so. His mother and younger brother, who had emigrated to Hong Kong, tried to get him there as well, but he had fallen in love and married a nurse on the island and could not leave her behind.
But it was more than devotion that kept him on Hainan. In 2010, now in his fifties, He was told that he would be allowed to leave the island. During the process of arranging his departure he found a letter politically defaming his father. “I feel strongly that the utterly groundless remarks…had shut all doors to my return home. That paper had tied me to Daling [on Hainan] for a good forty-one years!” Once home he was able to have his father’s case annulled, which enabled him and his wife to be registered in his hometown on the mainland.
I found this collection fascinating both for what it says and for what is largely missing. The grateful, tender, even happy memories of most of the zhiqing are striking. Most of those whose memories and opinions are recorded here regard their pasts in Hainan as strengthening, even romantic. Being hungry is the most common complaint.
But what is missing is significant. Neither the editors, who hated their zhiqing experiences, nor any of the contributors make any mention of how people who went to Hainan in Mao’s name reacted in 1976 when they heard of his death. More puzzling yet is this: in 1981, a Party “Resolution” overseen by Deng Xiaoping—who had himself been sent to the countryside to do factory work—stated:
The “cultural revolution,” which lasted from May 1966 to October 1976, was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic. It was initiated and led by Comrade Mao Zedong.
This is the very period in which 15 million zhiqing were rusticated, including those whose largely favorable testimonies from Hainan are quoted many times in Mao’s Lost Children. That some million people died as a result of the Cultural Revolution is not made clear.
Perry Link has reminded me that the great reporter Liu Binyan
used to say that the generation of Chinese who were best at thinking for themselves was precisely the sent-down generation, and it was precisely because they had been sent down, could see the falsity of the regime’s ideology and could learn the actual living conditions of ordinary Chinese.
Link has also told me of other accounts of urban people being “sent down.” Of these, the most notable is the autobiography of the astrophysicist and human rights champion Fang Lizhi,1 who after Tiananmen escaped with Link’s help to the U.S., where he died. Fang was sent to the countryside in 1957 during the anti-rightist campaign and was constantly dismayed and amazed by how different peasant life was from Maoist fantasies. There is no sign in their reminiscences that any of the Hainan zhiqing in Mao’s Lost Children understood that Maoism had failed the rural poor. I do not assume, however, that this guarantees official pressure on the editors, who make plain their own dislike of what happened to them on Hainan. But while the relatively straightforward Huacheng publishers were involved in the Chinese versions, even they must operate within the Party’s guidelines.
Here we have an example of how some Chinese still deal with their pasts. A fog, through which they see only partially, hovers over even quite recent times. Today’s elite Chinese students in the U.K. and U.S., for example, unless they are lucky enough to attend classes like the Harvard freshman seminar on Tiananmen, often refer to what happened on June 4, 1989, as “an anti-police riot.”
Fortunately, although it is patrolled by the security services and periodically shut down, there is hope in the Internet. Millions of Chinese consult it to see what foreigners have to say about China. Often this is believed simply because, like clothing fashions, foreign is better. The Maoist rustications, however, “down to the countryside and up to the mountains,” await shafts of light. While certain truths flicker over this unique book, many of Mao’s children remain truly lost.
- Fang Lizhi Zizhuan (Taiwan: Commonwealth, 2013). An English translation by Perry Link, The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State (Henry Holt) has just been published.↩