Go to the Countryside
In December 1955, Mao Zedong wrote that the countryside was a wide place where people could fully develop themselves. This was Mao’s first call for a move to the countryside. This relocation program was practiced first on a limited scale before the Great Leap Forward Movement, resumed in the early 1960s, and accelerated sharply by the late 1960s.
What really decided the fate of other young people was a statement released by Mao on December 22, 1968. On that day, the People’s Daily carried Mao’s words on its front page. "It is very essential for intellectual young people to go to the countryside to receive re-education from impoverished peasants. We should persuade cadres and others in the city to send their children who graduated from middle schools and universities to the villages. Let’s have a mobilization – all people in the countryside should welcome them."
Since then, millions of urban educated youth (high school graduates and students) were mobilized and sent "up to the mountains and down to the villages", i.e. to rural villages and to frontier settlements. In these areas, they had to build up and take root, in order to be reeducated by the poor and lower-middle peasants.
After Mao’s call, the movement to the countryside reached a peak. While some 1.2 million urban youths were sent to the countryside between 1956 and 1966, no less than 12 million were relocated in the period 1968-1975; this amounts to an estimated 10% of the 1970 urban population In 1969 alone, 2.6 million young people left their homes in the cities and moved to the countryside.
In principle, the program called for lifelong resettlement in the rural areas, but toward the end of, and in particular after the Cultural Revolution, many were finally able to find jobs or to be transferred back to the cities. A great number of them, however, had resigned themselves to their fate and decided to remain.
According to the official media, in the countryside with idyllic rural scenes, the youngsters all enjoyed the wholesome life there, and thrived under the stern but correct ideological guidance provided by the peasants. All this should transform them into "new-style, cultured peasants". The young intellectuals were also seen as conveyor belts for technology transfer, as bringers of new knowledge. At that time, much of the youth felt moved to dedicate themselves to the emancipation of humankind and the realization of communism, believing that indulging in urban comfort would disallow them from this lofty cause.
In reality, and similar to the May 7th cadre school program, however, many peasants living in the areas where urban youths were resettled resented their arrival. They often saw the youngsters from the cities that did not amount to much in terms of labor power, as a threat to their own survival. Many students could not deal with the harsh life and died in the process of reeducation.
The main reason behind the acceleration of the relocation program in 1968 was an attempt to bring the Red Guards under control and to halt the intense factional struggle and civil strife. With the schools still closed, the government did not know what to do with the millions of urban young. One way to solve the problem was to send the students away to the rural areas and let them fend for themselves. Over the years, many of those who were sent away slowly started to realize this.
The relocation, ordered by the central government, deeply affected a whole generation. In literature, movies and art, many who experienced the life of an "intellectual youngster" in those days think of it as a time which cost them a large part of their youth. The nostalgia exhibited by many of them emerged as a form of cultural resistance against the changing conditions of Chinese modernity. After enduring great hardships, many returned to the cities to find they had missed out on the process of national reform. As many of them had a large gap in their education, they had problems fitting into urban society.
Although my brothers and I escaped the "sent-down movement," I grew up witnessing the plight of many people caught in that massive exile, including my sisters. For me, the memory of the sent-down movement registers the most haunting aspect of the Cultural Revolution, its dehumanizing nature matched by few other events of history.