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September 18, 2010

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Life down on the Fengxian farm

AT the moment Zhu Enzao set foot on Xinghuo (star and fire) Farm in the suburban Fengxian District 38 years ago, the 18-year-old had no idea he would never return to comfortable downtown Shanghai from the remote rugged area.

The icy winter wind off the sea would pierce him to the bone and the seawater would numb his feet as he reclaimed shoreland with shovel after shovel of soil, sometimes handful after handful.

But he stayed.

"I sacrificed my entire youth, the most precious prime time in life, to that place," he says with a bitter smile as he lights a cigarette. "It was destiny, whether I wanted it to be like this or not. People my age are the generation that grew up from misery."

Zhu, now 56 years old, referred to the tumultuous "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when an estimated 12-18 million zhiqing or "intellectual youth" were sent (willingly or not) from cities to the countryside to learn from politically superior peasants. They were also known as "rusticated youth."

It was a period of tears, blood, struggle and hard work.

When the upheaval ended, some return to their city homes, some did not.

Zhu was one of those who stayed. "It was not that I didn't want to leave, but because I was not qualified. I had to stay," he says with a shrug.

"The good thing is that I've become accustomed to it here. I'm not sure if I'm fit for urban living," he adds.

Today Zhu is director of Xinghuo Farm's No. 2 Community's Residence Committee.

Fengxian District's three farms -- Xinghuo, Wusi and Liaoyuan -- were one of the agricultural centers during that time that took in an estimated 80,000 young people from Shanghai; the real figure is believed to be much higher.

Another of the intellectual Shanghai youth was Sun Guiying, who also chose to stay on the farm. Today, at 56 years old, she is an office director and mediator, working to solve disputes between family members and neighbors.

But when she recalls the days when the city girl became rusticated, tears well in her eyes.

"My fellows were just 18 years old, still teenagers. Who could suffer this hardship?" she says. Most of the young people had lived in apartments or single-family houses. Farming was totally alien to them.

They lived in dorms made of straw mats supported by iron rods, without a brick. When it rained, it drizzled inside the room and the wind penetrated. In the summer, there were mosquitoes.

"At night when we were sleeping, we could even feel rats were licking our fingers," Sun recalls with a shudder.

They were trained by local farmers how to plant and tend crops, transplant rice seedlings and pick cotton. They often stood barefoot in the cold fields, shivering in the late February mornings. They also learned to twist straw into ropes and weave it into mats, their hands becoming cracked and blistered. Everyone developed callouses.

They learned to carry loads of fresh pig manure, spreading it as fertilizer by hand on the crops. They were ordered to work fast. They learned to reclaim land from the sea in winter and dredge mud from the river in winter as well.

"Some girls cried when they first smelled the disgusting manure, but I was okay after I found our teachers -- the local farmers -- were all as young as us," says Sun. "I figured I could do as well as them."

In the scorching summer, they had to race against time to harvest the crops and plant seedlings within one week. "It was total humiliation for the team who finished last, though we didn't get any prize to be the quickest. It was just sheer pride," Sun recalls. "The last team would be despised."

In order to be No. 1, each team worked virtually around the clock during the "horrible week" of harvest. They got up at 2am and worked in the fields until 9pm. Long hours of standing and bending over made their legs and backs stiff; it was hard to move and sit down after a day's work.

Winter suffering

But the most terrible part was reclaiming land from the sea in the winter. Parents were not allowed to visit their children during this time.

"That's because it was such a sad and shocking scene and no parent would allow their children to do such hard work," says Zhu with tears in his eyes.

It had to be done in the coldest time. "It snowed heavily and the temperature got as low as 7 degrees Celsius below zero. We wore light pants and thin rubber boots, standing in the freeze seawater and using our hands to pile soil into the sea," he recalls, a little worked up at the memory.

The boots were always punctured by sharp reeds and stones and water seeped in. Soon Zhu and the others were numb with cold.

"Then I could work without any feeling on my feet," he says. The next day he put some paper into the boots and tried to cover the holes, with poor results.

After work each day, everyone got a small cup of hot water to clean their feet and hands, wash their face and rice bowl. That was all, no more hot water.

There was no rest, no day off unless someone was seriously sick. One of Zhu's teammates asked another guy to break his little finger. "He couldn't bring himself to do it," says Zhu. The trick worked and the man got six months' leave before he had to return to the farm.

"But the director discovered the truth later and both of them got very severe punishment -- they were docked six months' pay and bad reports were put in their personal files, which ruined their lives," he says.

The young people seldom went back home, it took almost half a day to get to downtown Shanghai and going back and forth took a day. There was seldom time and home visits were not encouraged.

He had to work barefoot for an hour from the farm to the nearest bus stop in Zhelin Town, wait for the bus to Xidu Town, and take the Huangpu River ferry to Shanghai County (today's Minhang District). He then took a bus to Xuhui District and transferred to another bus to get home in Changning District. Some people lived further away.

Each time they got home, the most important thing was eating. During that time, everything was rationed by the central government because of the serious food shortage.

Each young person got a monthly salary of 18 yuan (US$2.70), but they could buy nothing without coupons issued to purchase food, oil, cloth -- almost everything. Each got coupons to buy around 20 kilograms of rice a month.

"It was far from enough for people like us who were laboring so hard in the fields," Zhu says. "I was hungry all the time."

On the farm they seldom ate meat; they ate cabbage that was always on the canteen menu, but they were not allowed more than 500 grams for each meal.

A popular way to make them feel full was to put wheat flour into hot water with just a little lard. "It was the most luxurious feast we could have," says Zhu. "It smelled so good."


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