- Mao's Lost Children: Stories of the Rusticated Youth of China's Cultural Revolution ed. by Ou Nianzhong and Liang Yongkang
Beginning in mid-1968, the Chinese government organized the systematic and widespread relocation of millions of urban teenagers and young adults. This "rusticated youth program" (上山下乡运动) sent participants, both willing and unwilling, out of the cities to live in rural regions alongside locals. There, they were expected to contribute to production tasks, continue their ideological education, and work for the benefit of the revolution. The majority only managed to return home years later after a change in government policy, making rustication a formative experience for almost an entire generation of urban youth.
With the passage of time, the history of the rusticated youth program has become a topic with a healthy literature. Recent notable publications include Collected Research Essays on China's Rusticated Youth edited by Jin Dalu (金大陆) and Jin Guangyao (金光耀), and Michel Bonnin's The Lost Generation: The Rustification of China's Educated Youth (1968-1980).1 Running side-by-side with this research, former rusticated youths and scholars are collecting, preserving, and publishing the testimonies of those who were sent down.
Mao's Lost Children: Stories of the Rusticated Youth of China's Cultural Revolution belongs to this latter category of work. As an anthology, it brings together a remarkable range of reminiscences by individuals from Guangdong Province who spent their years of rustication on Hainan island (lying off [End Page 88] China's south coast). The fifty-six participants in the volume were sent to Hainan between 1968 and 1971, only managing to permanently return home from the mid to late 1970s onward. Two of their number, the editors Ou Nianzhong and Liang Yongkang, synthesize the recollections of their peers into thematic sections as varied as "Becoming Iron Girls," "Living with the Li," "Bringers of Arts and Knowledge," and "Escapes, Scrapes, and Tight Spots." In doing so, the editors produce a volume that provokes reflection on the nature of the rusticated youth program and suggests new ways scholars can approach studying it. In the remainder of this review, I will share a few of my reflections.
Rustication was a personal, variable, and most importantly local experience for each individual, and Mao's Lost Children captures this kaleidoscope in detail. With this in mind, the title of the volume, although engaging, is somewhat deceptive in its focus on Mao. As we read memories of eating scarce fresh fruit, toiling on rubber plantations, or performing propaganda songs, national politics and Mao Zedong often fade from view. While contributors refer to unnamed campaigns, policy changes, and Mao's cult and ideology, these are less prominent than commonplace occurrences closer to home. Moments of good fortune, actions by local bureaucrats, and the pushes and pulls of the tropical farming calendar shape the narrative of recollections more than anything happening in Beijing. Moreover, the accounts move forward chronologically at a haphazard pace, skipping easily across such recognized dividing lines as the death of Mao in 1976 or the 1978 Third Plenum. The book thus supports Gail Hershatter's methodological finding that individuals do not always structure the past according to the events most familiar to historians of modern China.2 The experiences of those sent to Hainan provide a very different set of signposts to frame the 1970s.
In addition, the anthology reveals a side to the Hainan rustication program that requires significant scholarly attention: its environmental impact. As highlighted in the editors' short introduction, Hainan's geographical position and tropical climate prompted the government to use the island for cultivating a range of crops and plants. In particular, many former rusticated youth tell of "opening up" (i.e., clearing) land and jungle for rubber plantations, as well as toiling for hours at a time harvesting precious rubber to be sent elsewhere. Others worked in a "rubber propagation experimental...