Exhibition on ‘sent-down’ youth reignites debates over meaning of past movement

By Liu Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-14 20:38:01

A visitor looks at photos at an exhibition about the "sent-down youth" in Beijing on Friday. This section shows dozens of zhiqing who died whole putting out a grassland fire in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1972. Photo: Liu Xin/GT

Xiao Ri (pseudonym), a 62-year-old Beijinger, heard about the opening of an exhibition in his hometown about the "educated youth," also known as zhiqing. But despite being a zhiqing sent down to the countryside for "reeducation" three decades ago, he never thought about visiting it.

"I will only go to an exhibition that displays the contributions as well as the suffering of the zhiqing," Xiao Ri said.

In 1969 when he was 16, Xiao Ri was sent to work in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, known as the Great Northern Wilderness in those days. He returned to Beijing in 1975.

Zhiqing were young people who were "sent down" from urban areas to live and work in remote areas as part of the "Up to the Mountain and Down to the Countryside" movement initiated by then Chinese leader Mao Zedong. The movement started in the 1950s and ran until the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

According to a chronicle published by the People's Daily, more than 17 million young people who had yet to go to college were moved to remote regions where they undertook agricultural work and participated in development projects.

"Some zhiqing died in the rural areas. I nearly died in Heilongjiang several times. I barely escaped with my life after an explosion when another zhiqing and I were asked to blow apart frozen earth for a water conservancy project. But the other zhiqing was badly hurt and become disabled," Xiao Ri said.

According to zgjnzqw.com, a website set up by former zhiqing, a total of 25,690 zhiqing died from unnatural causes in the places where they were sent from 1974 to 1979.

"Some zhiqing and I had to steal feed for horses and cows to eat when we were asked to hand all our food in order to cover up a decrease in crop yields due to a natural disaster. We were so hungry," said Xiao Ri.

Xiao Ri's memories represent one side of a discussion centered around the newly opened zhiqing exhibition.

Carry forward the zhiqing spirit

A museum about the "sent-down youth" in Heihe, Heilongjiang Province opened an exhibition titled "Share the same destiny as the nation" in Beijing on July 1 to tell the stories of the zhiqing by displaying pictures and artifacts from that time.

"We launched this exhibition to bring back the history of the zhiqing, to pass down the culture and carry forward the spirit of the zhiqing," Pan Zhonglin, who is managing the exhibition, told the Global Times.

Pan said that the exhibition, held near the National Stadium, talk about the historical background of the zhiqing, their contributions to rural areas, stories of sacrifice and their lives after they returned home.

It also features statues of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, who used to be zhiqing.

According to Pan, many former zhiqing have called to thank him for holding the exhibition, and most of them said they do not regret those years as they helped them grow.

An elderly woman came to the exhibition to see her daughter's photo featured in the section about the dozens of zhiqing killed in a grassland fire in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1972, according to Pan. The woman told Pan she is grateful that her daughter can still be remembered, and she decided to donate some of her daughter's belongings to the museum.

Sins or achievements

The exhibition became controversial when He Weifang, a professor at the prestigious Law School of Peking University, said the exhibition turned "the crime into a great achievement."

And the furor accelerated as more zhiqing or scholars chose a side and began participating in the discussion since the beginning of July.

He said on his Sina Weibo on July 2 that the exhibition seemed to praise the Cultural Revolution and totally neglected the suffering of the zhiqing.

In a post on July 6, He suggested the exhibition explain the anti-intellectualism of the period and clarify "false" reports about heroes that were designed to encourage enthusiasm for the movement.

"It is inappropriate to criticize the zhiqing movement in this way and the movement was not the same as the Cultural Revolution," Pan said.

The campaign began in early 1950s, a decade before the Cultural Revolution started and it was implemented to transfer surplus labor from urban areas to rural areas, according to Pan.

"The zhiqing helped bring knowledge to people in remote areas and contributed to local development. This experience imbued them with a determined spirit, which helped them build their own careers later," said Pan.

Hard to persuade others

Whether the campaign brought more suffering or personal development to the zhiqing is difficult to say since every zhiqing led a different life after returning home, but most of them missed their opportunity to get a higher education, according to Xiao Ri.

The movement made many young people lose the chance to receive a higher education, which widened the gap between the nation and the developed world, Zhang Hua, a research fellow at the Party History Research Center of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, was quoted as saying by the news portal, ifeng.com.

Pan admitted that some bad things happened during the campaign, but he said he wants to focus on the bright side in an effort to influence the public in a positive way.

"Zhiqing who grasped opportunities to become successful are likely to praise the experience while others who became malcontents are likely to attribute their suffering to the movement," an expert from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee who asked for anonymity, told the Global Times.

"Both sides hold one-sided opinions and could not persuade the other. We should admit that the zhiqing did make sacrifices for our country, but the movement did do some damage to the nation's development. We should not embellish it," the expert said.

Xiao Ri said that there is a need to build a museum to record the history of the zhiqing but it should respect the facts including the mistakes of the movement.

"Only in this way could the later generations learn the lessons of this time," he said.

Newspaper headline: Sending a signal

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