CHINA> Highlights
For love of their country
By Wang Ru (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-11 08:00

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Ma Yunchang looked around the packed theater. Hundreds of his peers were chanting passionately, tears welling up in their eyes. At last, 40 years later, they could celebrate the days of the zhiqing.

Now in their 50s, these men and women have long lived with thoughts of what might have been had they not been told to forsake their city homes and start new lives in the countryside for the sake of China.

What dreadful conditions might they have avoided? What schooling might they have had instead? What priceless opportunities?

As the 700-strong crowd sang the old, familiar songs in tears, Ma gave their history a new perspective.

A group of zhiqing pose with their wheat harvest in the late 1960s while working in the countryside. Inset: Members with China zhiqing website celebrate its founding. [Photo courtesy of Liu Xin]

"We grew up with the nation," he says. "People may say that we missed the best times of our lives but we were the major force behind the opening-up and reforms of the past 30 years.

"Many zhiqing led a miserable life and some were persecuted in the chaos but it was a special time when our country was in need - I don't regret carrying the load for my country."

So it was that Ma resolved to organize a reunion for those once known as China's "lost generation", culminating in last Friday night's gala at the PLA Opera Theater in Beijing.

He already knew of many old friends who wanted to attend but it was just two weeks earlier that his website, had invited registrations.

The responsive was overwhelming - he was flooded with far too many applications and had to whittle down the list to the room's capacity of 700.

"This year is the 40th anniversary of the start of the zhiqing movement," he says. "I am not sure if we can still meet again 10 years from now for the 50th anniversary, so I founded the site to connect zhiqing and have a memory to share for the rest of our lives."

It was back in April 1969 that 18-year-old Ma left Beijing for Inner Mongolia to join a construction corp in the desert.

"There was nothing except vast sands and shabby wooden cabins, without electricity and water. But we felt so excited as it was the first time we had seen a desert," Ma recalls.

"That night, though, some of the girls began to cry. The boys laughed at them and shouted at them to stop but soon the boys started crying, too.

"It felt like our cabin was shaking in the gale-force wind and we all began to miss Beijing."

The next morning they found sand all over their bodies. Getting it off was no easy matter - each day 40 people had to share two buckets of water.

Whatever romantic notions they might have had about their new adventure were soon dispelled by their heavy labor. They worked day and night, digging water channels and wells, making bricks to build houses and planting trees and crops.

"We used to get up at 4am to build a road," says Ma. "By lunchtime, we were very hungry but too exhausted to eat."

Zhu Li, 57, worked in another construction gang in Inner Mongolia. She left Beijing in 1969 and married a colleague during her 10-year zhiqing life.

"While we were digging water channels, we had to spade the mud and throw it 2 m away from the bank," Zhu remembers. "A full spade of mud weighed about 15 kg - by the end of the day the girls couldn't even move their arms, it hurt so much."

The only entertainment they had was reading books and watching a revolutionary movie once a week.

"Life was hard and boring, but we really learned a lot from the years," says Ma, who returned to Beijing in 1974 and went to university after college entrance exams resumed in 1977.

"It is said that a zhiqing can sweep a floor much cleaner than anyone else. It is true because our generation understands responsibility and has a strong will to fulfill it. In fact, many zhiqing were very successful in their careers after they returned to the cities.

Last year, Ma organized a zhiqing trip to the desert where he spent five years. "As soon as we saw the old place, many of us shed tears," he says.

The website administrators often had meetings in a small office in Beijing's Chaoyang district - two of them were in wheelchairs and had to make a great effort each time to be there.

Mu Hua, 58, was one of them but often worked until 1am to maintain its forums.

"Many zhiqing only began to learn how to surf on the Internet in order to review history and look for their colleagues, who they had lost contact with for many years," she says.

"They left messages on our different bulletin boards to express their sentiments, share their views, look for their friends and organize reunion trips."

Mu can remember the exact day - a cold winter morning on Jan 25, 1969 - that she stood at Beijing Railway Station, waiting for her train to Yan'an.

Nobody came to see her off but the 16-year-old felt like she was escaping the chaos as the train set off for Yan'an, Shaanxi province.

Her father, Mu Xinya, was a lieutenant general in the Kuomintang army under the command of General Fu Zuoyi, who was stationed in Beijing and surrendered to the Liberation Army in 1949.

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