In 1968, when Su Wei left his family behind and voluntarily joined the millions of urban youth who were being sent by Chinese leader Mao Zedong into the countryside to work the land as part of a “re-education” movement, his spirit was nearly broken.
As part of Mao’s “up to the mountains and down to the villages” campaign, initiated in 1968 to quell civil unrest during the Cultural Revolution, all urban 16-year-olds were commanded to travel to rural villages to be schooled in hard agricultural labor. More than 20 million teenagers were sent to work in the countryside, often devoting more than a decade of their lives to farm labor. Not only did this deprive them of a formal education, but parting from their families was a heart-wrenching experience for most of the youngsters. However, for then 15-year-old Su — now a senior lector in East Asian languages at Yale — leaving life in Guangzhou (Canton) represented an escape from an even more brutal life, and so he set off eagerly for the countryside even before he was required to do so. (more…)