Every afternoon, Zhang Huiying arrives at the activity room on time. Instead of joining in a mahjong game with fellow patients or taking a stroll on a treadmill, however, she walks straight to her seat, at the back of the room.

Zhang’s behaviour is not unusual; despite the many facilities here – fitness equipment, pool tables, a blaring wide-screen television and a reading corner with shelves of magazines and books – most of the patients prefer to remain seated throughout the two-hour activity session: motionless as if attending a boring lecture, saying nothing while wearing blank expressions.

“Many of them have lost motivation and interest in the real world,” says Wu Bin, a doctor who looks after the 40 patients here. “Their mind is in a world of the past.”

Zhang, 63, was one of China’s “sent-down youth” (zhiqing) – a scheme initiated by Mao Zedong in the late 1950s to encourage city youths to settle in the countryside and live the life of rural labourers. Also known as “rusticated youth”, young people continued to leave urban areas, either willingly or under coercion, until the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Since 2008, Zhang has been living inside this white five-storey building: a psychiatric hospital unit, built specifically for former zhiqing on the outskirts of Jiamusi, a prefecture-level city at the northeastern tip of Heilongjiang province, 1,600 kilometres north of Beijing.

During the Cultural Revolution, 540,000 young people relocated to remote areas in the northeast. Although a great majority of them eventually returned to their home cities, Zhang and her fellow patients were unable to settle anywhere else.

For many years, the country has been divided by the topic of the zhiqing; this year even more so. In the run-up to the oncein- a-decade leadership transition, the focus was on a generation of leaders whose own experiences as zhiqing helped shape their lives. As the pomp and ceremony unfolded in Beijing, in another corner of the country, other former sent-down youth languished in this and other psychiatric hospitals.

Here, inside the isolated and enclosed compound, time seems to have stopped for these schizophrenic patients. Zhang talks as if she were still on the farm or with her classmates from Beijing.

“Is the road to Beijing open yet?” she asks. “There is no need to send photos back home. The bus does not stop at small stations.” There is a remoteness in her voice and her eyes are unable to look into those of the person to whom she is talking.

“My parents are still alive and are now in their 70s. I want to go home but can’t,” she continues, her face showing little emotion.

Despite these lapses, Zhang can still remember details of her life in Beijing and the early days of her time in the countryside – details which fit in with the scant information in her medical files. Zhang is the second in a family of six children. Her dad was a book-keeper at a high school and her mother a dressmaker at a small clothing factory. Life was hard for the family. At school, Zhang set high standards for herself. So when the fervour for Mao’s ideas was sweeping schools in the capital, without telling her family she boarded a train for the northeast.
“I was eager to show my political vigour,” she says. “It was really naive.”

It was October 1966 and Zhang had just turned 18. There were 20 of them on the train; 10 boys and 10 girls. After three days and two nights, they arrived at Fuli Tun, a farm 100 kilometres to the east of Jiamusi.
There, a battalion of ex-servicemen, who had been dispatched a few years earlier, were already at work. (It was expected that these city women would become wives to the former soldiers.)

“In the fields, I did all sorts of farm work, like breaking the frozen land with picks, ploughing the fields or harvesting wheat with sickles,” she says. “I was paid one yuan a day.”

She talks lucidly of the experience; but when asked what happened next to cause her to lose her mind, her thoughts become jumbled. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she says. “I am just here to enjoy Mao’s free meals.”

According to her doctor, Zhang fell in love with a young man from Beijing. But later, when she found out a friend had stolen him from her, she went insane.

In 1973, she returned to Beijing for the first time in eight years but, probably because of her family’s inability to take care of her, she returned to the farm. Soon after, she was married to a poor farmer and a year later they had a daughter. In 2008, when hospital staff went to bring Zhang in for treatment at the bequest of her family, she was in a terrible shape.

Once in hospital, and after treatment that saw her condition stabilise, she told her doctor she regretted the marriage.

“My dream was to go to university,” she says. “But it never came true.”

Another patient, 61-year-old Jiang Yingguo, a former zhiqing from Harbin, the provincial capital, believes he is still 21. The damage was done one night, 40 years ago, when he was driving his tractor and it hit something; Jiang was terrified, thinking he had killed someone. It turned out that he had merely hit a bundle of straw, but the mental trauma stuck. In the activity room, the only thing Jiang does is pace up and down.

A lovelorn teenager and a young man who thought he’d killed someone; these are hardly predicaments likely to stem solely from a massive experiment in social engineering. Why, then, do these zhiqing need such a facility?

“It is true that at any time in history, a certain percentage of the population will get mental disorders,” says Liu Xiaomeng, co-author of A History of China’s Sent-down Youth and a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But when it comes to these particular cases, their experience in the countryside is the direct cause of their illness. You can argue that there may be genetic factors but human beings are social animals and what we become has a lot to do with social conditions and our personal experiences.

“When the sent-down youth saw no hope in their future, no matter how hard they worked, especially those not from ‘red’ family backgrounds, they became mentally stressed” and cracked when they may not have done so in other circumstances.

Another patient, 68-year-old Zhao Yinbao, used to be a Russian language student at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Languages School. He arrived at Baoquanling State Farm, 60 kilometers from Jiamusi, in 1963 but was soon arrested for putting up a poster on which he had written: “Long Live Liu Shaoqi”. Liu was China’s president at the time; but Zhao was named a counter-revolutionary and sent to work in the fields. Unable to take the stress of labouring in freezing conditions, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Nowadays, his head nods whenever he wants to talk and his wet eyes make him look like he is on the verge of crying. The only Russian word he can now say is “comrade”.

“It is sad that over the course of his illness, his speech abilities are gradually leaving him,” says Wu.

Bian Xiaochun, 59, a former zhiqing from Beijing who laboured on the same farm as Jiang and Zhao, says, “It was a time when we tried our best to show our political zeal and everybody was nervous and afraid to do anything wrong.”

Today, the wild land of the northeast is a major grain production base. Three years ago, to remember the sacrifices of the zhiqing, the city of Jiamusi built a huge square with a sculpture and wall relief depicting their lives in the fields.

Over the course of 20 years, 1.7 million young people relocated or were moved to various parts of the countryside. Now, as more memoirs and historical studies emerge, accounts have piled up of young lives lost tragically in fires or other accidents, and of young women being raped by local chiefs who had the power to grant or deny requests for them to return home.

In June, a 45-part drama about the zhiqing began airing on primetime China Central Television, sparking fury among some viewers, who urged the station to pull the plug on the series. They accused the scriptwriters of misleading viewers by eulogising a dark period in the country’s history, and suggested it was intended as part of the pageantry to usher in the new leadership.

In recent years, much has been made of the legacy of the sent-down youth, with particular emphasis placed on the positive attitude of the zhiqing, their spirit of sacrifice for the good of the nation and the valuable life experience they drew from the hardship and suffering they endured in the countryside. Qiao Haiyan, who spent four years in a village in Henan province, believes this kind of talk is pure propaganda.

“For me, it was a time of no hope,” he says during the launch of his memoirs in Beijing. “It’s a mentally painful period.”

Michel Bonnin, a French scholar on sent-down youth and the author of Lost Generation, agrees it is wrong to glorify this part of Chinese history: “A generation of young people were thrown on a [path towards] downward social mobility. It was an extremely unequal society.”

Bian, who has had a successful career in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s Silicon Valley, was among the very few of the 17 million zhiqing who eventually went to university.

“With little education and no qualifications, many struggled, doing cheap labour when they went back to the city,” he says. “The future of a whole generation of young people was destroyed. It was an extremely absurd time.”

IT IS LATE AFTERNOON and the autumn sun slants in through the large windows of the Jiamusi Psychiatric Hospital. At the urging of nurses, the patients stand up and file out of the activity room. As she leaves, Zhang says she saw her mother and sisters in a dream the previous night but they left without speaking to her; and that her daughter called from Beijing in the morning but rang off before she could get to the telephone.

“Zhang’s family has not visited her for quite some time,” her doctor says later. “Most of the patients here have lost touch with their families. They will probably stay here until the end of their lives.”

In the long, foul-smelling corridor, Zhang walks past a locked iron gate by the lift and enters her ward – an 18-square-metre room with barred windows and a bare white wall that she shares with two other patients. She goes to her drawer and takes out a photograph – the only personal item she is allowed. In the picture, she is in a wheelchair, wrapped in a heavy coat, and behind her is Tiananmen Square.

“This was in the winter of 2011,” she says, sitting on the edge of her simple but tidy bed. “We were in Beijing for a performance and we sang A Thankful Heart.” The hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth cannot go unnoticed.

A Thankful Heart is a 1999 song by Au Yeung Feifei, a singer from Taiwan based in Japan.

“I come by chance, like a drop of dust,” its lyrics run.

“Who is able to see my soft spots?

“Where I’m from, where my heart goes?

“Who beckons me next time?”


Unsettling old scores