Ao and Chen Village: The Sent-Down Youth of China
Chen Village: Revolution to Globalization documents fifty Cantonese adolescents who decided to embark on a decade-long life-changing experience in the spring of 1964 that would forever label them as sent-down youth. The majority of the voluntary youth that went to live in Chen Village before the Cultural Revolution were high school students in their mid-teens who excelled in their studies and sought prove their “redness”, or commitment to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman Mao Zedong’s socialist ideology, by laboring alongside the peasant masses in the countryside. Ao, a recurrent interviewee in Chen Village, was one of these idealistic youths. During her stay in the village, she promoted Mao’s ideology as a Mao Thought counselor, propagandist, and broadcaster during the proliferation of the Mao Cult in the Four Cleanup campaign. She was a successful Communist Youth League member who remained in the village and fiercely scolded rebellious youth during the Cultural Revolution. In addition, Ao was also a vicious interrogator during the Cleansing of the Class Ranks. However, because of her bad class origins she was repeatedly held back from gaining party membership. This frustration along with learning about the shaky politics in the top echelons of the CCP between Chairman Mao and Vice Chairman Lin Biao coupled with a free-thinking younger sister, forced Ao to question her own beliefs while in Chen Village. Ao’s story echoes the lives of many urban youths who were sent down to the countryside in order to learn from the peasant masses and expound Mao’s teaching to illiterate farmers and laborers between 1964 and 1974.
Ao, along with a majority of other youths in her group, “insisted on the sacrifice and ‘tempering’ of a tough life in the countryside” in order to show their commitment Communist ideology that had been taught in their schools (9, 10). These students had to seek their parents’ permission in order to be sent to the countryside. However, this was usually denied, despite the students’ ardor for the experience. Nonetheless, about a dozen students were able to gain their parents’ permission to be sent to Chen Village (11). All together, the group that was sent to Chen Village was a “contingent of fifty young people” (11). The group decided to venture to “the commune’s Siberia” – Chen Village, because “the whole group was carried along by idealistic feelings. and opted for the tougher location” (11).
Neighboring villages knew that “Chens had to toil for longer hours and less reward than most other peasants in the district” (14). Chen Village’s buildings “were dilapidated, dank, and reeked of the sows and poultry that shared the quarters with their owners.” (13). The village had a local population of “just under one thousand” that it could barely support with its own crops (14). This was because the village only had “about five hundred acres of arable lands” with some located in the mountains that could only be reached after am arduous three-hour hike (14). But by the time the youths had arrived, Chen Village had experienced many changes under earlier village leaders. Class struggles and land reform had been accomplished in the early 1950s. Then the village had been collectivized into a cooperative, which quickly lead to it becoming part of a people’s commune during the Great Leap Forward during the mid-1950s. The village had felt successful development until the Great Leap Forward “degenerated into bureaucratic blundering and organizational chaos” (25). Afterwards, production brigades were established and new leaders elected to manage smaller numbers of people in the early 1960s to repair the damages of the Great Leap Forward (26). As the youths entered Chen Village, students would quickly learn of the complex internal political struggles in the small community during the Four Cleanups campaign, which was aimed at “cleansing the rural villages of corruption” while also “transforming the ideology, social mores, and economy of China’s villages” (74). Thus, the Mao Cult would begin its spread throughout Chen Village during the fall of 1965, and Ao would be its voice.
During the Four Cleanups campaign, otherwise known as the Socialist Education campaign, the Mao Zedong Thought Counselor Corps was developed in order to piece together the Chen Village peasants’ “spotty and fragmented” understanding of Communist ideology by teaching them thoroughly through Mao study (74). The workteam that had orchestrated the Big Four Cleanups in the winter of 1965 decided that in the fall of that same year, “the best recruits for [the Mao Zedong Thought Counselor Corps] were the village sent-down urban youths” because “such youths excelled in book learning” (75.) In addition, the youths were “idealistically intent upon dedicating their own lives to Maoist principles. And because [the sent-down youths] had not yet developed any close personal ties in the village, they would be in a better position to criticize villagers for failing to live up to Mao’s teachings” (75).
Ao, a dutiful Mao Thought counselor, became the brigade broadcaster and timekeeper when Chen Village got electricity in 1966 and set up a broadcasting system with thirty high-volume loudspeakers installed and placed throughout the communal areas in the village (85). Ao also assisted the work team in collecting information on local cadres and peasants, learning much about the village’s history, internal politics, social networks, and local drama – “the kind of knowledge an astute Mao Thought counselor and broadcaster could use to good effect” (85). She would use “the peasants’ pride in their team to spur them to race against other teams” in order to increase the community’s production output with an effective mix of compliments and criticisms, blared over the loudspeakers (86). Ao and a majority of the other sent-down youths counselors were “disciples of Mao and the party” and “believed in the submission of the individual to the collective and subordination of the smaller unit to the good of the greater whole”, and we able to carry out these criticisms and compliments unreservedly (87). Ao performed her tasks enthusiastically, because “[she] believed that ideological change was the leading factor in the construction of a socialist countryside and felt the broadcasting system was an effective instrument to bring about this change” (86).
Ao remained dutiful to her work as one of the branch leaders of the Communist Youth League in Chen Village but was in danger of appearing as a careerist rather than genuine to the Communist cause because of her many responsibilities as a Mao Thought counselor, broadcaster, and information and materials gatherer for the workteam (104, 107). Other youths became envious of Ao’s elite position in the community and Youth League because how much work she was accomplishing on her own, instead of divvying up the workload with other youths. However, Ao defensively pointed out that “others didn’t know how to manage anything” (107). It was this attitude that fueled other youths’ aggressions towards Ao and other Youth League leaders would still “insensitively lectured and prodded their less successful peers from the city” with an air of righteousness concerning Maoist ideology (110). But during this time, the Cultural Revolution was gaining momentum in the cities, and envious youths looking to rebel against the condescending youth elite and brigade heads took action by becoming members of the Red Guard in 1966.
The Red Guards would strive to “prove the superiority of their political devotion” in feverish struggles against bad class members. However, the rebellious youths ended up unleashing their own personal grievances in their struggles against village and youth authorities. Ao recalls that “[the rebellious youths] didn’t like us to be their commanders” (110). However, Ao remained in the village despite the difficulties that the Cultural Revolution and Red Guards brought, even when the idea was passed around that the youths should return to Canton – defending herself on the grounds that “the youths’ revolutionary dedication would be placed seriously in doubt if they had left” (123). The Cultural Revolution quickly led to the decay in Chen Village’s political and economic system in early 1967, which had to be reinstituted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (129). Eventually, the Red Guards of Chen Village had lost their enthusiasm due to inaccurate accusations, limited knowledge of political terminology, and limited village support (113, 116, 118, 121, 126). With the return of a political structure, Ao returned to “broadcasting the glory of Mao’s thought over the loudspeakers” which she had ceased doing during the heat of the local Red Guards zealous attempts at gaining power (132). Ao could not have realized that her diligence and work as a cadre during the years before and during the beginning Cultural Revolution would not earn her fitting rewards. Instead, she would be held back because of her class origins.
Ao sought to become a committee member in Chen Village’s new governing body in 1968 (141). However, her position appointment was vetoed on the basis of her class background, because of her father (142). Ao’s father “had worked under the Guomindang as a physician in the army medical corps” and thus sullied Ao’s class origins. In her place, local youths of better standing from poor peasant backgrounds were selected. Ao would not easily forget this turn of events in her life, and would later use it to fuel her zealousness as the head of a special cases small group for the village’s public security committee during the Cleansing of the Class Ranks campaign (145). Her power in this position would allow her to display “how competent a ‘red’ she really was” (151). In her position in the public security committee, Ao was in charge of questionings and “had the power to initiate interrogations and to extend them for as long as she wished” to acquire any material she deemed anti-Maoist from villagers, youths, and cadres (155). Ao could also place people into the village’s “cowshed” – “a makeshift jail of a type that sprung up all over China during the Cultural Revolution” where people Ao deemed political enemies of who were anti-Maoist thought could be locked up (150).
Ao had serious belief in Maoist thought to the point of zealous religiousness and she sought “to invoke the thought of the Chairman against anyone who deviated from orthodoxy and local order” – her reason for opposing the rebellious Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (156). She, along with other leaders in the Cleansing of the Class Ranks campaign, held firmly to the belief “that every person inevitably is part of a family unit and should be identified as such” thus making it easier for her to proceed with her intense interrogations (166). She and other youths pledged devotion to the “three loyalties” which included “loyalty to Mao, to Mao’s thought, and to his revolutionary line” (169). But Ao’s ideological and political dedication would be cast aside for the technical expertise of new youths during the upcoming era of forced sent-down youth.
The turn of events for Ao began after the Cultural Revolution began to work on stabilization. Ao was forced to make public apologies in 1969 for her “exaggerated attacks against the urban-born youths” along with attacks against other village heads. (179) At the same time, she was denied party membership when the workteam was selecting new members because of her father’s work with the Guomindang (227). As she got older, and other urban-born and local youths came of age in the village with better educations, “even the posts she already held seemed threatened” (227). Ao began to contest the significance of her own class background’s compared to her own personal work towards Maoist ideology. Eventually, urban-born youths were forced to the countryside, including Ao’s sister, who came in with new ideas and an alien skepticism toward authority and government that at first left Ao feeling appalled, but then curious towards this new wave of thought (229). Eventually, the controversial death of Vice Chairman Lin Biao, once a supposed heir to Chairman Mao, but then labeled treasonous by the party, would throw Ao along with many hardcore supporters of the CCP into serious doubt about the party’s internal strength (229). With Lin’s death, there was no more need to study Mao thought, which sent-down youths had spent a decade promoting. Many were left with little faith in the political system (231). The final blow would be dealt when a village-supported campaign was devised to force youths like Ao to the remote jungle-island of Hainan, which Ao protested against (232). Ao’s sister explains: “[Ao and I] really felt abused by the village because it had tried to force us to leave” (235). So, after Ao and her sister were forced to sign up for the program, they decided to escape to Hong Kong in 1974 (235). In my opinion, I believe she made the right decision to leave because she would have no way of knowing whether or not future policies would force her into a lower status again because of her class background, casting aside once again all of her dedication and work towards the Communist cause in the countryside.
Chen Village’s focus on the sent-down Cantonese youth during 1964 to 1974 shows the life changing experiences they endured. The youths went to the countryside in order to prove their commitment CCP and Maoist thought. Ao was one of these youths, who promoted Maoist ideology while at the same time being held back because of her class background. This setback along with the controversial incidents like Lin Biao’s death and controversial policies in the CCP led her to ultimately question her beliefs. Ao’s experiences mirror the lives and ideological developments of many other youths who lived in the countryside during the intense decade in China’s history.
Chan, Anita, Richard Madsen, Jonathan Unger. Chen Village: Revolution to Globalization. Berkeley: University of California, 2009. Print.
Written for Prof. Bell's Hist182 - June 2, 2010
Teacher's Comments: Liz—you write (and read) very well, and have done an excellent job with all of the details of Ao’s life and understanding her changing mindset. My only complaint is that I would have liked just a bit more explanation at the outset about why Mao believed it was so necessary for everyone to espouse revolutionary principles in this post-Great Leap Forward period. [the answer here to is to fight again bureaucratization in the upper echelons of the urban-located CCP - a separation of party from the common masses due to elitist technocrats]
|Theme paragraph, organization, overall presentation||Ao’s motivations and the general pattern of the sent-down youth||Ao’s specific roles and the beliefs behind them||Why did Ao leave? Assessment of her decision and its meaning|
Total score: 19.5/20 [YAY!]