‘Down to the countryside’

In 1968 the Chinese government began its rustification campaign, colloquially known as the ‘Down to the Countryside movement’ or ‘Up to the mountains, down to the villages’. The stated aim of this campaign was for young Chinese raised in the cities to relocate into rural areas, to live and work with the peasantry so that they could discard their bourgeois ideas. There had been an attempt at this previously – in 1965-66 more than one million youths had volunteered to be transferred from their home cities and into small towns and villages – however the 1968 programme was much larger, more concerted and was not optional. Over the next decade more than 16 million young Chinese would be relocated into rural areas, farming villages and mountain towns. Most of them were recent graduates from high school, in their late teens or early twenties; many were ‘veterans’ of the Red Guard brigades and the Cultural Revolution, which by then was in decline. Some went voluntarily, however those who resisted were forcibly relocated.

“Like many other teenagers, I had only a vague idea of what this trip implied. Our luggage was sent away a couple of days earlier… At the Beijing railway station, the platforms were crowded with parents, siblings, relatives and friends. We found our seats. This specially arranged train would take a thousand of us to Inner Mongolia. Several times, when our train stopped at small stations, peasant children in shabby clothes, almost half-naked, came under our windows asking for candies or food. The city youths on the train threw out whatever food they had. Desolation and poverty… now for the first time I realised that our country was indeed ‘poor and blank’, as Mao Zedong had told us.”
Yihong Pang, former rusticant

Despite the rhetoric, the government had actually initiated the rustification movement out of necessity rather than ideological purification. With the Cultural Revolution in decline there was pressure to wind down the Red Guards in order to prevent further violence and disorder. With many schools still closed there were also millions of Red Guards seeking university places, however there was not room to accommodate them. ‘Down to the Countryside’ was, therefore, a way of dispersing the Red Guards across the nation and thus avoid unrest in the cities. Propaganda of the day disguised this agenda, telling the rusticants (transferred students) that everyone would benefit from their relocation. The peasants and rural dwellers would welcome them with open arms (see picture); the rusticants would bring new skills and information from their studies; their work with the peasants would benefit the nation and instill revolutionary spirit; and it would also mirror the upbringing of Chairman Mao. The reality was much less positive. Most peasant populations didn’t want or need more mouths to feed – and the rusticants, having received an urban upbringing, lacked the skills or stamina for intensive agricultural labour. The great majority of transferred youths found themselves trapped in the countryside, condemned to a life of back-breaking labour, hoping for a recall to the city that never came. Some never returned or saw their family again, a bitter fact that was later expressed in ‘scar literature’. The young people forced down to the countryside are considered by many to be China’s “stolen generation”.


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This page was written by Glenn Kucha and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
G. Kucha & J. Llewellyn, “‘Down to the Countryside'”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/down-to-the-countryside/.
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