The long road home for Mao's exiled youth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am

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Kong Ping has spent the past two years converting his company's Shanghai cemetery grounds into a 50 million yuan (HK$59.91 million) museum and square. The project is dedicated to the tens of millions of zhi qing (educated youth) who were mobilised under a call from Mao Zedong to leave their urban homes during the 1950s and '70s and endure an arduous life in the countryside. Today, the Shanghai Educated Youth Museum is nearing completion, and Kong talks about his desire to again bring together those millions of people, in an effort to remember the historical era and educate more people about it.

Can you elaborate more on the background of zhi qing?

In 1955, Chairman Mao advocated that any intellectuals who were able to work in rural areas should go there joyfully. The countryside was vast and had plenty of possibilities to develop intellectuals' talents. At the end of 1968, Mao wrote in People's Daily that young people, who had already attended school for some years, had to go to rural areas and be 're-educated' by poor farmers. But before that, as early as 1953, some 'outstanding' students had given up their comfortable lives in cities and thrown themselves into the villages. Mao praised them highly and they became the model for all the country's youth.

It is estimated that from the 1950s to 1978, when the movement ended, about 17 million teenage students, were sent to these remote areas, mainly in Heilongjiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Jilin, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and farms in rural Shanghai. They lived and farmed with local people and were called zhi qing. About 1.1 million came from Shanghai.

The central authority's rationale in doing this was to relieve the heavy unemployment pressure in cities and to boost the development of villages. Since the 1980s, most of those people have gradually returned to cities.

What was life like there?

Very hard, and some had to live in undeveloped mountainous areas. While I was putting the museum together, I interviewed some people who were sent to Jiuxianling Mountain near Jiangxi's Poyang Lake. They said that, in the beginning, they had nothing to eat and nowhere to live. They had to build homes out of bamboo, bark and grass. They were at risk of snail fever and wolves. But they had firm faith in the Communist Party. Because of their huge contribution, the mountainous hamlet has turned into a small city called Gongqingcheng, meaning Youth League City. What is in your museum?

Over the past two years we have collected from across the country 20,000 items from that time, including photos, cups, washbasins, clothes and farm tools. We are also hoping to solicit items from abroad, because some people who spent years of their 'fiery youth' in the villages now live overseas.

Outside the (1,300 square metre) museum we have a (2.1 hectare) square, with a 215 metre wall carved with thousands of zhi qing names. In front of the wall, there is 'Zhi Qing Road', and we plan to carve the footprints of 100 people with interesting stories into the pavement. To date, we have inset the footprints of more than 40 people.

There is a statue of Jin Xunhua, a Shanghai native who went to live in Xunke county in Heilongjiang. He died at the age of 20 while trying to save two power poles during a torrential flood. The poles were state assets, so people felt obligated to protect them. Jin was an icon for the youth, and many people thought as he did.

At the centre of the square is a steam locomotive that was used four decades ago and carried many people on their long journeys across the country.

Are there any particularly special items you've collected?

One man, a zhi qing who went to Heilongjiang, donated some black earth that he picked up in 1978 before going back to Shanghai. The man spent 10 years on a farm there and saw the region as his second home. Another special item is a big, heavy wooden cart from a village in northern Anhui. This slow and clumsy cart hauled faeces, grain and was even used during weddings or funerals. The one in our museum is reportedly more than 100 years old.

Are you a zhi qing?

Yes, from 1964 to 1978 I was in the Maba People's Commune in northern Jiangsu. I picked up skills in everything, from farming, carpentry, and electric welding, to using a lathe and writing propaganda material for our commune. I think this time was a precious experience. Although I didn't read many books then, it was a good time to sharpen my physique and my will. I also improved my understanding of our society and the country. After this experience I didn't fear hardship anymore.

Why did your company decide to engage in this project?

It is part of our company's culture. The Shanghai Haiwan Cemetery (in Fengxian district) has been involved with many people who were sent to the countryside in their youth. Our facility is also a humanity-themed garden. While some of our competitors are touting the 'celebrities' buried in their centres, we came up with this idea of promoting zhi qing culture because there is such a huge population. And parties organised for groups of these people, as well as the related cultural studies, have mushroomed nationwide. These people have sacrificed a lot and made invaluable efforts to develop rural areas. So we kicked off this project in 2009, and have gained support from local authorities.

Our museum is not the first of its kind in China. There are several others, including ones in Heilongjiang, Jiangsu and on Shanghai's Chongming island .

You also set up a fund to help such poverty-stricken groups?

The fund has registered capital of 2.1 million yuan. It was set up because we saw that many people were returning to cities in the 1980s but were unable to find decent jobs. They earned little, and soon after, in the 1990s, they were laid off. Worse still was that some families were hit by serious diseases. So far we have donated 160,000 yuan to 200 people.

In November we held a ceremony to launch our fund and to mark the construction of the square. It was also a gathering for zhi qing. To our surprise, almost 4,000 people showed up, almost double our expectation. They were in different groups, with some waving red flags with the names of counties where they once stayed. People were delighted to see each other; they took pictures and talked happily about the old days.

What's in store for the museum?

When it opens in the next month or so, it will be free for visitors. We will keep on collecting items and hope our collection can be helpful in the academic study of this era.