In December 1968 Mao Zedong proclaimed that China’s educated urban youth should move to the countryside to be reeducated by the poor and lower middle peasants. Some seventeen million who responded to his call spent the better part of a decade laboring in remote and impoverished regions.
Returning to the cities in the late 1970s, undereducated, unemployed, and manifestly unprepared to contribute to China’s post-Maoist future, the rusticated youth were dubbed the “Lost Generation”. How then, could China transform itself into an economic and military behemoth without the support of an entire generation of educated men and women?
A close look at a group of young Beijingers suggests that at least some of the rusticated millions reentered urban life with assets that enabled them to play a creative role. “The Beijing Fifty-five” were atypical insofar as they had volunteered to carve rubber plantations out of a tropical wilderness on China’s southwest border a year before the wave of involuntary recruits. However, their struggle to survive cultural, political, and physical challenges was typical.
Drawing from the spoken and written testimony of the Fifty-five, this book shows in dramatic detail how “The Lost Generation” survived the tribulations of the Mao years to help build today’s China.
John Israel is well known for his writings on students and higher education in Twentieth Century China. Professor Israel conducted research in Taiwan and Hong Kong (1959-1962, 1973) and in the People’s Republic of China since 1980. Following normalization of US-China diplomatic relations, he became the first post-1949 American resident professor in Kunming. Over the past four decades, he has lived and studied in China – particularly in Yunnan province – for extensive periods. John in emeritus professor of history at University of Virginia
Finding China's Lost Generation joins a very short list of excellent books where former sent down youth contrast their earlier lives with life in post-Mao China, while reflecting on the valuable survival skills they learned from their challenging rural experience. We are shown how national and local politics impacted these idealistic youth, who seek to balance their revolutionary values with tactical pragmatism, and how their revolutionary fervor was gradually transformed into disillusionment. The insights provided will be of great interest to both general readers and China specialists.
Based on oral history supplemented by personal diaries and a written memoir, John Israel’s book makes up for pleasant and instructive reading, thanks to the crafty knitting of the voice of the actors with the enlightening explanations and witty remarks of the author. Focusing entirely on the fate of a group of 55 Beijing “educated youth” who volunteered in early 1968 to go to a distant countryside and practice hard labor there, months before Mao ordered their entire generation to do so, the author is able to vividly present many aspects of the experience of the almost 20 million members of the “Lost Generation”, who spent the best years of their youth in a rural exile without a definite term. Following the destinies and the intellectual evolution of some of them until today, this book provides food for thought on Mao’s legacy and on the mix of drastic changes and heavy continuities in post-Mao China.
Amidst the many autobiographical and sociological accounts of China’s Cultural Revolution generation, this book is unique in its focus on a small collective - the Beijing fifty-fivers. Professor John Israel brings their stories to life through extensive quotations from their diaries, memoirs, and other personal documents.