Skip to main content

China's 'lost generation' recall hardships of Cultural Revolution

By Tracy You for CNN
updated 9:22 PM EDT, Wed October 24, 2012
Hu Rongfen (front left) pictured with her three younger siblings days before she was to leave Shanghai for Anhui.
Hu Rongfen (front left) pictured with her three younger siblings days before she was to leave Shanghai for Anhui.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Millions of young people sent from city to country during China's Cultural Revolution
  • Under Mao Zedong, the Communist Party was purged of "bourgeois" elements
  • Hu Rongfen was a middle school student sent away from her home in Shanghai
  • Hu: "We were told that city dwellers never move their limbs and could not distinguish different crops"

Shanghai (CNN) -- Hu Rongfen had no choice. On November 14, 1971, in the whirlwind of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, the slender and soft-spoken middle school graduate was dispatched from Shanghai to a far-flung village in East China's Anhui Province to work in the country.

This wasn't a punishment for any wrongdoing -- on the contrary, the quiet girl was a top student in class. The migration was an order from the central government to every urban household -- at least one of their teenage children needed to leave the city to work on the farm indefinitely.

The ruthless political command lasted from 1966 until the mid-1970s and intended that the privileged urban "intellectual" youth learn from farmers and workers. As a result, China's "lost generation" emerged -- deprived of the chance of education and the right to live with their families.

"We were told that city dwellers never move their limbs and could not distinguish different crops," says Hu, now 58. "So we were banished to labor and learn skills and grit from peasants." Hu spent four years (1971-1974) planting rice, spreading cow dung and chopping wood in Jin Xian, a mountainous county.

Read: Consuming Cultural Revolution in Beijing

Known in Chinese as "up to the mountains and down to the farms," the urban-to-rural youth migration was part of China's decade-long Cultural Revolution, a social political movement initiated to implement Communism and Maoism in China by eliminating any capitalist, feudalistic and cultural elements.

Together my 'comrade sisters' and I lived through some unimaginably tough times -- learning to live without parents and like peasants.
Hu Rongfen

Hu still remembers the luggage she brought: basic life necessities, the "Little Red Book" explaining Chairman Mao's theories -- a mandatory read for everybody -- and dozens of notebooks with hand-copied chapters from "Jane Eyre" and "Anna Karenina," which she sneaked in secretly -- these books had been banned for their perceived Capitalist connotations.

"I used to read those notebooks in secret under my blanket at midnight."

According to Chinese media, as many as 17 million "intellectual youths" in the country packed their bags and moved to some of the remotest parts of China. There, they transformed from care-free students to farmers.

"I still can't bear to recall my youth spent on the farm," she says.

One of Hu's most vivid memories was working in rice fields in early spring in freezing water, on which lumps of ice still floated. There, she would bend down to seed for more than ten hours. She would slap her legs madly to rid herself of the leeches clinging to her limbs. Blood would ooze from her wounds and mingle with the dirt and water.

Another time, she recalled walking 40 kilometers along mud paths against bone-chilling winds to the nearest bus station on Chinese New Year's Eve to catch a ride to the train station to go back to Shanghai to see her parents.

Hu was eventually elected by her commune to study mechanics at a college in Hefei -- the capital of Anhui -- in 1974. Most people stayed as long as eight years in their commune and only started returning to cities from 1978 onwards. Many did not get a chance to return to their studies.

Hu eventually found a job in Hefei after graduation and lived there until 1986 before moving back to her hometown for good. She worked as an office secretary at a scientific laboratory in Shanghai until her retirement in 2008.

But the memories from her youth still make Hu blanch.

"If the Cultural Revolution came back and I were to be dispatched again, I'd rather commit suicide," she says, noting that the farming days tortured her physically and mentally. "I stayed awake night after night at the commune, worrying if I'd ever return to any city.

If the Cultural Revolution came back and I were to be dispatched again, I'd rather commit suicide.
Hu Rongfen

"After my retirement, I seize every opportunity to travel and exercise my body (to stay healthy)," she adds.

"I live a happy life now. I want to live every day like (I were still in my) youth because I was never able to enjoy my teens and 20s -- the best time of one's life."

However, she confesses she did gain something -- an iron will to live through the toughest conditions and four lifelong friends.

Hu and her four dormmates on the farm have stayed in regular contact for the past four decades. Having experienced similar ordeals in youth, they encourage and support each other to enjoy the present and the future. They write memoirs, travel stories and nostalgic poems to share with each other or post to the web.

"It's a way for us to act out our feelings towards the past," she says.

"Together my 'comrade sisters' and I lived through some unimaginably tough times -- learning to live without parents and like peasants," says Hu.

"And now we want to live our youth again all together."

As Leo Tolstoy wrote in "Anna Karenina": "All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life are made up of light and shade."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:13 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
updated 5:08 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
updated 12:52 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
updated 3:42 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
updated 12:10 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
updated 3:12 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
ADVERTISEMENT