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The Lost Generation

The Rustication of China’s Educated Youth (1968–1980)

By Michel Bonnin

Publication Year: 2013

The Lost Generation is a vital component to understanding Maoism. The book provides a comprehensive account of the critical movement during which seventeen million young "educated" city-dwellers were supposed to transform themselves into peasants, potentially for life. Bonnin closely examines the Chinese leadership's motivations and the methods that they used over time to implement their objectives, as well as the day-to-day lives of those young people in the countryside, their difficulties, their doubts, their resistance and, ultimately, their revolt. The author draws on a rich and diverse array of sources, concluding with a comprehensive assessment of the movement that shaped an entire generation, including a majority of today’s cultural, economic, and political elite.

Published by: Chinese University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

The movement to rusticate China’s educated youth was a fascinating experiment in Mao’s China, unequaled in history, including in other Communist countries (although there was a Soviet precedent). The imprint left by that movement, which attempted to transform millions of young urban secondary school graduates into peasants, supposedly for life, ...

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pp. xvii-xl

Between 1968 and 1980, some 17 million young urban Chinese were forcibly rusticated after completing secondary school. This massive organized migration was undertaken as part of one of the most radical political movements ever to emerge in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), because in principle those urban youths were to become peasants until the end of their days. ...


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pp. xli-lx

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Part 1. Motivations

Why was the policy to rusticate educated youths relaunched so energetically at the end of 1968? How did it turn into such a massive movement to concern the vast majority of young city dwellers aged 15 and over who had not yet entered the labor market? And why was the movement pursued over the next ten years, despite the obvious problems it was causing? ...

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1. Ideological Motives

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pp. 3-18

Throughout its history, most of the movements launched by the CCP have had dual transformation functions, both objective (economic, institutional, ecological) and subjective (ways of thinking and attitudes), perceived as being inseparable.1 After the 1963 Socialist Education Movement, the subjective aspect was clearly emphasized, ...

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2. Political Motivations

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pp. 19-24

The “strategic” importance of xiaxiang in the march to Communism should not blind us to the urgency of the situation in which the movement was launched, nor the tactical problems that it raised. ...

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3. Socioeconomic Motives

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pp. 25-46

Mao’s December 1968 directive was presented as a means of consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat and training revolutionary successors, but also as a “wise decision for constructing the socialist countryside.”1 In a mainly rural country with a very backward agriculture, developing the rural areas was a fundamental task. ...

Part 2. The Life and Death of the Xiaxiang Movement: Policy Changes

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4. The Managers and the Ideologue: The Prelude and Interlude of the Cultural Revolution (1955–1966)

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pp. 49-64

This book is not concerned primarily with the xiaxiang movement prior to the Cultural Revolution. However, it is important to know the main features of the earlier movement in order to understand the one launched in 1968. Indeed, most of the later xiaxiang themes were established during this prelude, ...

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5. The Mass Movement (1968–1976)

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pp. 65-122

In 1968, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were eliminated. Zhou Enlai survived politically but only by firmly aligning himself behind Mao, who had the unconditional support of the army led by Lin Biao. Mao had become a kind of deity who governed the country through directives. ...

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6. Irresistible Agony (1977–1980)

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pp. 123-186

Xiaxiang was so closely identified with Mao Zedong that no sooner had Mao died than rumors started that the movement was to end. The fall of the Gang of Four, extreme advocates of Maoist policy, just one month after Mao’s death, might well have signified that the leadership would abandon a measure as unpopular as the rustication of young people, ...

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7. The Shadow of Xiaxiang in the 1980s

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pp. 187-212

At the end of February 1981, to put an end to a specter haunting the “back alleys” of China,1 the Liaoning Daily published two articles in which the heads of the provincial Labor Bureaus denied the “groundless rumors” that the current year’s graduates would be rusticated. ...

Part 3. Firsthand Experience

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8. The Conditions of Departure: “Voluntary” Deportation

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pp. 215-234

From an early age the adolescents of the Red Guard generation had received an education that aimed to familiarize them with rural life and instill a favorable image of it. From the mid-1950s up until the Cultural Revolution, when the authorities were busy sending young graduates from rural backgrounds back to their villages ...

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9. Material Difficulties and Low Morale

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pp. 235-326

Official propaganda never denied the zhiqing’s material and mental difficulties, despite the tendency to describe the countryside as idyllic. While the press did not conceal that life in the countryside was hard, it mainly stressed the benefits the zhiqing would obtain from it. ...

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Part 4. Social Resistance

One might wonder why xiaxiang lasted for so long, given the number of problems it entailed and its rejection by the population. Clearly the answer lies in the prevailing social control system, and that is what I shall describe briefly in the beginning of Part Four. We will then see that the efficiency of this system had its limitations. ...

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10. The Social Control System

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pp. 329-336

To get the zhiqing to accept and comply with the regime’s demands, the government had a complex and graduated system of social control at its disposal,1 comprising indoctrination, monitoring thoughts and deeds, rewards, criticisms, and outright repression. Here I will only deal with the methods used and not the set of institutions, ...

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11. Passive Resistance and Its Effects

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pp. 337-386

As a result of the persistent popular resistance to rustication over the years, the quotas set by the municipalities were rarely met. That resistance grew particularly strong in the slack period that followed the first great wave of departures in 1968–1969. From 1970, the early return of the zhiqing who managed to pull strings to leave ...

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12. Open Resistance

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pp. 387-398

Before 1978, the population-control apparatus put in place by the CCP had succeeded in preventing society from openly and massively expressing its resistance to xiaxiang. Despite that, resistance from the end of 1968 to the end of 1978 was not merely surreptitious and passive; some segments of the population, ...

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Part 5. Assessment of the Xiaxiang “Movement” in History

The perverse effects of xiaxiang described earlier are certainly part of the movement’s failings. I shall now attempt an overall assessment, in reverse order, of the four principal motivations behind the launch of the movement, as demonstrated in the first part of this book.

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13. Socioeconomic Assessment

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pp. 401-420

If, in 1968, rustication solved the employment problem for several million young city dwellers who suddenly found themselves “waiting for work” because of the Cultural Revolution, the solution was only a short-term one, since the root of the problem was political rather than demographic or economic. ...

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14. Political and Ideological Assessment

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pp. 421-440

Xiaxiang’s political stakes, as I’ve defined them, were two-fold: to put an end to the Cultural Revolution by dispersing the Red Guards, and to prolong the revolution by launching a new movement to prevent society from stabilizing. These two objectives may appear contradictory on the surface, but both enabled Mao to strengthen his own power.1 ...

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pp. 441-456

Massive post–Cultural Revolution xiaxiang as a “movement” with political and ideological objectives specifically related to the history of the CCP and Mao’s person did not have the “rationality” that some economists and political scientists conferred on it in the 1970s. ...


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pp. 457-466


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pp. 467-498

Index of Places

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pp. 499-504

Index of Persons

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pp. 505-508

Thematic Index

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pp. 509-516

E-ISBN-13: 9789629969226
Print-ISBN-13: 9789629964818

Page Count: 576
Illustrations: N
Publication Year: 2013