Book review: The Lost Generation, by Michel Bonnin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 5:07pm

The Lost Generation: The Rustication of China's Educated Youth (1968-1980)
by Michel Bonnin
Chinese University of Hong Kong Press
5 stars

Mark O'Neill

This book is about one of the most extraordinary experiments in human history: Mao Zedong's decision to send 17 million young Chinese from the cities to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

They stayed an average of six years and as long as 11 years; most believed they would remain there for good. It scarred them for the rest of their lives, deprived the vast majority of a university education, and disrupted their family life and professional and marriage plans. They gave up many of the best years of their life - and for what purpose?

Michel Bonnin's The Lost Generation appeared first in French in 2004 and in Chinese in 2010, including a mainland edition which differed little from the Hong Kong version, translated by Krystyna Horko. The book has become the standard work on the subject.

Mao's decision was based on political and ideological reasons: he wanted to disperse the Red Guards from the cities and prolong the revolution by launching a new movement to prevent society from stabilising. He also detested intellectuals, seeing them as a social class that had an independent spirit.

The departures began in 1968: in September, 144,000 out of 176,000 graduates from three graduate years left from Shenyang within 10 days. The train system was overloaded carrying all the young people.

Although the move was "voluntary", it amounted to deportation. All those who could, avoided it. "All means were used, including violence and corruption, to get into those bodies headed by the worker and army propaganda teams" as a way to avoid going; the bodies were responsible for organising others to leave.

This enormous relocation was chaotic and badly organised. Rural cadres misappropriated the funds given to settle the newcomers for personal and local projects; some even "invented" young people to obtain more grants.

The youths were not welcome. The peasants saw them as a burden imposed by the government; there was a shortage of arable land, food, housing and money. They had to live in grain silos, warehouses, tool sheds and empty ancestral temples until they could build their own rudimentary homes. In most rural villages, there was no running water or electricity, so they had to read and write by an oil lamp.

There was a vast gap between the educated youths and the peasants among whom they lived. Few integrated into the rural community or remained after it became possible to leave. In 1976, according to official figures, there were nearly 10,000 cases of ill treatment, mostly rape, and 4,970 "unnatural deaths".

But even before then there was widespread resistance; in 1971, only 53 per cent of the rustication target of 1.4 million was met. People used party and family connections to avoid leaving the cities or, if they were already in the villages, to return home. By June 1978, six million of the 16 million had returned.

By the end of 1978, a massive resistance movement began, with protests in 21 provinces. It was particularly intense in Shanghai, which had rusticated the most people. In February 1979, those demanding return blocked rail traffic in the city for 12 hours.

By the end of 1980, fewer than 10 per cent were still in the countryside.

The book is meticulously researched, with sources from official documents and newspapers of the period and interviews with the young people. These are the words of a song written by a young man sent to Heilongjiang: "I have no hope in this life. What must I do to live the life of a man?"

Michel Bonnin will speak at the Chinese University bookstore on Friday. Inquiries: 3943 9800