On December 22, 1968 Chairman Mao directed the People's Daily to publish a piece entitled “We too have two hands, let us not laze about in the city,” quoting Mao as saying “The intellectual youth must go to the country, and will be educated from living in rural poverty.” It marked the start of the ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement’ (上山下乡运动).
As early as 1953, the People's Daily had published the editorial ‘Organize school graduates to participate in agricultural production labor.’ And in 1955, Mao Zedong asserted that “the countryside is a vast expanse of heaven and earth where we can flourish,” which would become the slogan for the Down to the Countryside Movement.
The late 1960s policy differed from what preceded it in its political context, however. The first rustication movements were instituted to redistribute the excess urban population following the Great Leap Forward and Great Chinese Famine (1958-61). Mao now used the policy to rusticate the Red Guards who had risen up at his beck and call, throwing China into chaos.
Image via chineseposters.net
In 1966, under the influence of the Cultural Revolution, university entrance examinations had been suspended, and Mao now realized that a way was needed to assign the youth to working positions to quell unrest and remove the embarrassment of his early Revolution from sight.
Millions of teenagers, who became known as the sent-down or rusticated youth, were forced out of the cities and exiled to remote areas of China. Commentators consider these people, many of whom missed out on the opportunity to attend university, China’s ‘lost generation.’
Following Mao’s death in 1976, university entrance exams were reinstated, inspiring many to attempt to return to the cities. And on October 1, 1980 the party essentially ended the movement, officially allowing them to return to their homes. It is estimated that there were as many as 20 million sent-down youth over the years.
This article was originally published on December 22, 2014. It has been updated and republished on December 23, 2018.
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[Cover image via IPFS]