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September 22, 2009

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Country roads, take me home

FORTY years ago, Red Guard Zhang Fen was among 17 million zhiqing or intellectual youth sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants. Today she's still there, it's home. Lin Jiangyang visits. The most unwilling to come, but the last to leave" - 60-year-old Zhang Fen sums up her 40 years in one of China's most impoverished rural areas.

Like driftwood left high on the beach long after political tides have turned, Zhang is one of the last of the urban zhiqing, (intellectual youth) sent by Chairman Mao Zedong down to the countryside. They were to be "re-educated" by peasants during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Unlike most zhiqing, or rusticated youth, Zhang stayed on long after the "cultural revolution" and the passing of Mao in 1976: She's a city-bred girl from Chongqing, who gave up electricity, a comfortable home and adequate food for a grinding hand-to-mouth existence.

Sitting in a ramshackle wooden home in her poor mountain village in southwest China, Zhang has watched from afar as her siblings and childhood friends prospered in urban China's rapid development.

She plans a return visit at the end of the year to downtown Chongqing, where she last marveled at once-familiar places in 2003.

"I couldn't recognize places around Chaotianmen Square where I grew up. Skyscrapers lined the road, and they were so high I could hardly see the tops. There were endless streams of cars," she recalls, her expression still one of surprise.

Her old bamboo home, a 10-minute walk from Chaotianmen Square, had been torn down and replaced by a 12-story building. In 1989, it was still there, and downtown Chongqing was just beginning to change.

Last zhiqing

Today the journey home takes seven hours, but in October 1969, when Zhang and 11 other city teenagers left for Lishui Village, it took them two days and two nights to travel the 350 kilometers eastward from downtown Chongqing.

It was a year after Mao issued his directive to "send educated urban youths to the countryside for re-education by poor and lower-middle-class peasants."

Zhang can reel off verbatim Mao's order after 41 years. They started a campaign to eliminate the "three differences" - between cities and countryside, between workers and farmers, and between physical labor and mental work.

Other motives included restoring order in cities after two years of "class struggle" and reducing high unemployment among urban youths.

From 1968 to 1980, when the campaign was officially terminated, about 17 million young people went to the countryside. Zhang was one of the very few zhiqing who chose to stay.

"I can do most farm work and I have to do it, such as plowing paddy fields with a buffalo and transplanting rice seedlings (by hand)," she says. Here, no machine can be employed.

There's black earth under her fingernails; she has hard calluses, arthritic fingers and swollen joints from her life of labor.

"I've had more happiness than sadness in the last 40 years," she says. "When I felt tired or distracted, I would sing myself revolutionary songs popular in Chairman Mao's time, or songs of Chairman Mao's quotations."

Zhang was born into a poor family in April 1950 in downtown Chongqing. Her father was a road-maintenance worker. With a monthly salary of about 30 yuan (US$12 at that time), he supported Zhang and her two younger brothers through school until the outbreak of the 10-year "cultural revolution" in 1966.

Zhang left her middle school and traveled the country like other students at the time. In Beijing, she and other Red Guards were greeted by Mao on October 18, 1966 - "the most exciting moment of my life," she recalls.

Despite her revolutionary fervor, she resisted leaving the city. "Everyone knew life in the countryside was bitter. I was afraid."

But her father's company forced him to compel Zhang to go. "They threatened to stop paying him," she says.

Marrying a farmer

Zhang remembers vividly her first night at Lishui, going to bed and pulling down the quilt to find lice and fleas. She had a sleepless night and was more desperate to go home the next morning.

"I was missing everything back home in Chongqing - broad roads, food and electric lights," she says. But return was impossible, as it contradicted the revolutionary cause and was deemed shameful.

Zhang was soon sent to Kaohe Production Brigade to work the farms.

A year later, owing to a severe shortage of housing, she moved into a compound shared by several households all surnamed Tan.

There she met Tan Shunfa, a widowed farmer with three children. He was 14 years older than she, and his family was one of the poorest in Kaohe. With only a primary school education, Tan was also the accountant of Lishui Commune.

At first, she rejected suggestions of a match, but slowly, she softened to Tan's honesty and warmheartedness as he helped her in her work.

Zhang was especially moved when Tan took care of her after she broke an arm while collecting firewood in the mountains.

From 1972, marriages between zhiqing and farmers were encouraged - despite the huge gulf in cultures - and putting personal considerations first was incompatible with the revolutionary cause.

"At that time, I thought there was no hope of a return to the city, so marrying a farmer was inevitable, and I was willing to stay in the countryside. So I decided to make friends with him," she says.

Her father objected fiercely and her brothers threatened to break her leg if she went ahead with the marriage.

More surprisingly, she tore up a recruitment form for a job in downtown Chongqing that her father had obtained by pulling strings. It was an opportunity that many zhiqing dreamt of.

Her actions angered her entire family and they cut off relations with her until 1989.

"Most villagers knew of my relationship with Tan. If I'd left, they would have called me a liar and spoken badly of me. I would have tainted the image of the zhiqing," she explains.

In April 1972, they married.

"We were destined to be together. My mother had dreamed that I married a farmer here before she died in 1970. She was 11 years younger than my father, so the age gap with Tan didn't worry me," she says.

Zhang worked hard.

"She quickly learned to be a good wife. She never looked down on me though I am an almost illiterate farmer," Tan says. "She is really an able, strong-minded and optimistic woman. No matter how grueling the farm work was, I never saw her cry."

The family remained poor until the early 1990s, when they began to have enough food and more money. Largely thanks to Tan Dongfu, the first son of Zhang and Tan, they were no longer the poorest family in the village.

Dongfu left the village in 1992 - at the age of 19, the same age that Zhang became a zhiqing - for coastal Zhejiang Province, more than 1,500 kilometers east of Chongqing. He got a job at a hardware factory and his wages became the main income for the whole family.

In 1995, Zhang was elected head of Kaohe's 800 farming households. She led the fight against poverty with the construction of roads and power supplies and by encouraging people to seek jobs and better pay in cities.

"Had the young people not gone out to find jobs in cities, there would have been big problems in the village and the entire town," she says.

She estimates that at least half of more than 16,000 people in Lishui are working most of the year in places such as Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces and Shanghai.

In 1997, the entire village was connected to power grid for the first time. Zhang had an electric light for the first time in 28 years.

Her biggest challenge came after Tan Hongbin - their younger son - who passed the national college exam and was enrolled at the Southwest Nationality College (now Southwest Nationality University).

Tuition for the first semester cost about 4,500 yuan (US$660), bearable for most urban households, but too much for her family.

Zhang's pride at bringing up a university student in a poor mountain village was tempered by her anguish at being unable to afford his tuition.

Tan Zhiqiang, the younger son of Tan and his first wife, sold his only buffalo, and Tan Dongfu contributed his wages. Zhang got a loan from a credit union, and borrowed another 500 yuan from an acquaintance, at a five-percent interest monthly. She paid it back in eight months.

After five tough years, Tan Hongbin graduated in 2002.

"Without Tan Dongfu, Hongbin couldn't have finished school," Zhang says. "Almost every time Tan Hongbin wrote to ask for money, I would cry. There was just no money."

She was too poor to see her father before he died in 1997.

"I really wanted to go, but I couldn't afford it. In 1989 when I returned to Chongqing for the first time since marriage, my younger brother sent money," she recalls.

Zhang says she felt hurt and guilty as she had also been unable to see her mother before she died in the winter of 1970. When she knew that her mother was seriously ill, she immediately left for Chongqing. She arrived home after traveling for three days to find her mother was already dead and buried. She was heart-broken.

Widening gap

Zhang and her husband still cultivate one mu (0.07 hectare) of rice paddies and half a mu of maize.

"We have electricity, tap water and telephone connections. Most families in Lishui can watch TV. Some people also have mobile phones," she says.

But life is still hard. "We are both old and rheumatism has plagued my leg for years. We can no longer do hard labor," Zhang says.

She worries about serious illness. "Medical treatment is too expensive although we have joined the cooperative medical care system," she says.

The rural medical care system, initiated by the government in 2003, aims to help uninsured farmers. It can cover up to 60 percent of medical costs for serious illness.

But Zhang, like other farmers, fears the system will never cover a serious illness that could cost thousands in hospital bills.

Her four trips back to downtown Chongqing since 1969 have convinced her that the rural-urban wealth gap is widening. "The countryside is walking, but the cities are running," she says.

She estimates the per-capita disposable income of Lishui at about 3,000 yuan for the year in 2008, less than 20 percent of the net income of urban dwellers in Chongqing, which stood at 15,709 yuan. Nationally, per-capita disposable income of urban residents was 15,781 yuan last year.

National statistics show the urban-rural income ratio, a gauge of balanced social development, was 3.36:1 last year. It was 2.57:1 in 1978 when city dwellers' average incomes stood at 343 yuan and those of farmers at 134 yuan.

The gap also includes education, medical care and social security.

Zhang says Mao's order in 1968 was a cruel mistake as she and other zhiqing were too young to adjust to the harsh life in the countryside.

Mao's campaign failed for at least two reasons - the widening urban-rural gap and the return of almost all zhiqing to cities, she says.

But she counts herself a rare success of this failed campaign as she built a family, brought up a university student and understood the hardship of a farmer's life.

"I don't regret the decision to stay here and marry Tan since regret doesn't work. I am not used to thinking too much," she says. "Life in the countryside is too hard, too bitter."


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