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Private collector cherishes memory of Mao's "educated youth"

By Cheng Lu, Zhou Yan and Jiang Chenrong (Xinhua)

20:46, May 14, 2013

YAN'AN, May 14 (Xinhua) -- Satchels and mugs with Chairman Mao's portrait. Kerosene lanterns. Books, newspapers and magazines that are at least 40 years old.

The humble two-story building where Gao Mingliang houses his private collection of antiques was turned into an exhibition hall last month.

The free exhibition shows the history of Mao Zedong's "educated youth," or the estimated 12 to 18 million young urbanites who were sent off to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Most of the "educated youth" had received only a secondary school education. Some were still in middle school when they were swept up in the campaign.

They were, at Mao's call for young urbanites to "go down to the countryside," dispatched to inhospitable areas of rural provinces with ambitions to make the infertile land bloom.


But Gao Mingliang, 62, was not a member of the students-turned-farmers.

"I just worked with them on the farm and later in my office at the local cultural bureau," Gao said at the museum in downtown Yan'an, a city in northwest China's Shaanxi Province that served as Mao's revolutionary base for 13 years before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

A native of Yan'an, Gao said he felt sorry for the urban children from Beijing and Shanghai who fumbled with farm tools and struggled to adapt themselves to the tough climate, different diet and hard physical work.

"I witnessed the bitterness they suffered, as well as their courage and fortitude," said Gao. "That part of history should not be forgotten."

In 1979, when most of the sent-down youth had returned to their home cities, Gao began collecting the things they had left behind: photos, newspapers and magazines that covered the lives of the students-turned-farmers, as well as deserted stationery, farm tools and personal belongings.

After he retired from his job as a coordinator at Ganquan County's cultural bureau last year, he began sorting out his collection for an exhibition.

When he traveled to other provinces, he would visit local curio markets to hunt for antiques related to the Cultural Revolution and the "educated youth."

He also rummaged for old newspapers and documents in dustbins and carefully picked out pieces of information that he found valuable.

He visited more than 200 former "educated youth," taking down their first-hand accounts of the old days and collecting whatever old objects they could provide.

When his exhibition was unveiled on April 13, he had put together more than 2,000 items to exhibit in the 200-square-meter hall.

The exhibition has received more than 2,000 visitors over the past month, including former "educated youth" from Beijing, Shanghai and other cities within Shaanxi Province.

Gao remembered one of the visitors sitting on a "kang," the equivalent of a bed built of bricks and heated by fire, and crying. "He recounted the pain he suffered as a teenager, having to carry rocks, feed pigs and toil endlessly in the scorching sun."

But at the end of his tearful visit, the man wiped his eyes and announced that he "couldn't have been as strong and perseverant later in his life without that experience," according to Gao.

While the majority of students-turned farmers returned to the city to attend college or secure a job, some of them chose to stay in the countryside permanently.

Fu Heping was one of those who stayed.

Fu was 17 when she was dispatched to a village on the outskirts of Yan'an in 1969. "There was never enough food, but we worked long hours in the fields every day," she said.

After a few years, she had gotten married and found that her affection for Yan'an had surpassed that for her home city of Beijing.

When her former schoolmates returned to Beijing in the mid-1970s, she was determined to stay. Under her parents' pressure, she sent her two children, a son and a daughter, to stay with them in Beijing.

"Everytime I go back to Beijing on holiday, they keep pressing me to stay. But there's always something in Yan'an from which I cannot detach myself. I know this is where my life belongs," she said.

At 61, Fu is still working on the land where she toiled as a teenager. The formerly infertile land owned by the "people's commune" is now a commercial farm that grows fruit, vegetables and grain.


The "educated youth," who are typically over the age of 60 and lack any academic qualifications, are generally seen as a generation of "lost children" with a bleak future.

For four decades, their stories have been told in novels, TV shows and popular movies.

"I think there's a reason for these stories to remain popular," said Jin Yaqin, 63. "As a teenager, I left the comfort of city life and experienced poverty, hunger and fatigue for the first time."

Today, however, Jin said her most vivid memories of those years are the friendships she created with her teammates and local villagers. "This is the most valuable legacy for me."

Gao carefully preserves what he sees as a legacy of the 1960s for the "lost generation" and spends all of his pension income, about 36,000 yuan (5,862 U.S. dollars) a year, to run the exhibition.

Since the exhibition is free, Gao found that he had run into a deficit by the end of its first month.

"Rent takes up more than 20,000 yuan a year, and the rest of my income can barely cover the water and electricity costs," said Gao. "But I think it will work out fine, as the operating costs are not very high anyway."

Exhibitions and museums carrying similar themes exist in many other parts of China, including Shanghai and the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning.

"The popularity of the 'educated youth' period does not just reflect nostalgia, it also implies a longing for faith, idealism and altruism, which are largely absent in today's society," said Zhang Yan, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

"The past era of poverty and hardship endowed the older generation with fortitude and forbearance and they stood firm against calamities," she said. "Despite today's material abundance, many people feel unhappy, perplexed and empty inside -- that's why they look back to take comfort in this spiritual legacy."

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