From 1949 to 2019, China underwent a tremendous transformation. The historical events of the past 70 years have left no Chinese person untouched. The ups and downs of lives that are easily overlooked can serve as leads for fleshing out a broader narrative – one that runs from the establishment of the PRC through the Chinese economic reform and on to the new era beyond.
Looking back on the past, these people were the witnesses of history who experienced it firsthand. Looking ahead, they are the ones who drive and create the future.
Here are the stories of five ordinary Chinese as a retrospective survey of the last seven decades of change – the greater story of China as told by individuals amongst generations of its people.
Qiu Yaotian: Our glorious youth in the Great Northern Wilderness
At 3 p.m. on April 19, 1970, at the Ningbo Railway Station, Qiu Yaotian boarded a train heading for Heli Town, Heilongjiang. As the train whistle shrilled, he and the 550 other Ningbo youngsters on board the train were tossed into the tumbling current of Fate. They knew nothing about what lay on the roads ahead.
Qiu was not only striving to lighten his family’s financial burden. In the eyes of the then 20-year-old man, the Great Northern Wilderness was also a vibrant land of mystique where he could spread his youthful wings as he could do nowhere else.
“The farms were paying well. With 32 RMB per month, it meant complete independence for us. Moreover, I was the oldest child in my family. By going to support the development of the country’s border areas, I could help my younger sister secure a chance to work in a factory.”
It was with great determination that he made the decision to go north to Heilongjiang. Qiu was not only striving to lighten his family’s financial burden. In the eyes of the then 20-year-old man, the Great Northern Wilderness was also a vibrant land of mystique where he could spread his youthful wings as he could do nowhere else.
I was a Red Guard
When the Cultural Revolution broke out in China in 1966, the news was initially quite exciting for young people in the cities, since they no longer had to study or be bound by the disciplinary restrictions of their schools. Indeed, teachers who had once criticised the students became targets of criticism themselves.
Qiu Yaotian was in the third year of junior middle school, getting ready to take the entrance examinations for senior middle school. He never expected to be “liberated” from the stress of schoolwork and examinations.
Interviewed in his home in Ningbo, now 69-year-old Qiu Yaotian recalls that during those turbulent days, he never understood why the “Revolution” happened at all.
“I was just very happy. The central government was calling for a Cultural Revolution. There was no need to move on to a higher grade or take examinations anymore. But what I didn’t realise was that I was losing the opportunity to study.”
Many things were perplexing for Qiu at first. Students from Ningbo came back from Beijing and staged a silent sit-in at the municipal government’s office building, supposedly exemplifying that “to rebel is justified”. A group of middle school students barged into a city god’s temple and smashed to smithereens the gods that had formerly been worshipped piously, an act that was meant to be “destroying the Four Olds”.
In his ignorance, Qiu soon received his first political baptism. He and a few Red Guards were assigned to conduct a search-and-confiscate operation at a certain household. As they ransacked chests and cupboards, a Kuomintang military officer’s cap turned up.
“We were taught at that time that ‘some people are perpetually plotting the restoration of the old order’. The military cap before us was truly a very vivid lesson. It immediately impressed upon us that the Cultural Revolution was absolutely necessary.”
At the height of Revolution’s fervour, hundreds of thousands of students travelled for free to various places for their grand networking. They were reviewed by political leaders and went sightseeing at scenic locations they had long heard about, all in the name of “learning and exchanging revolutionary experiences”.
His right arm still bears the scar from a stray bullet that hit him during an armed conflict, an indelible mark left on his body by that particular segment of China’s past.
As a Red Guard, Qiu twice met the supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, in Beijing. He also travelled to places like Nanjing, Shaoshan, Guiyang, and Chongqing with fellow students to establish ties.
He recalls, “The trains were fully packed with people. Nothing could squeeze between them. Some people were sleeping beneath the seats. Some climbed onto the luggage racks. Anybody who looked like a student could get on board. Wherever we went, we ate and put ourselves up for free. We were swarming all around China like headless flies, consuming the country’s food and resources.”
During the most vicious of times, he had two close brushes with death. His right arm still bears the scar from a stray bullet that hit him during an armed conflict, an indelible mark left on his body by that particular segment of China’s past.
Many Chinese people suffered mentally and physically more than Qiu Yaotian did during the Cultural Revolution, but the Chinese authorities rarely make mention of this part of history.
When asked about his views on this part of history, he pauses for a moment, a moment pregnant with a rich silence, before he remarks with great profundity, “It truly defies imagination.”
Some of the Chinese people who went through this period of irrationality are reluctant to talk about it. Some do not wish to re-open old wounds that only healed after much effort. Some lack the courage to face the guilt they carry. And there are those who still have not fully made sense of the whole series of events even today. For people who are even younger, the entire affair is simply beyond imagination, apart from what little that can be gleaned from a limited corpus of history teaching materials and literary works.
Qiu seldom talks to others about these things, but once the sealed memories are cracked open in our interview, many of the absurdities from long ago come to light. When asked about his views on this part of history, he pauses for a moment, a moment pregnant with a rich silence, before he remarks with great profundity, “It truly defies imagination.”
Come join me in the mountains and countryside
After the first three turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, people were beginning to feel worn out by the boiling enthusiasm surrounding them. Chinese society was gradually coming out of the unrest, violence, and disorder, but normal production had yet to resume.
A rare situation occurred in China in 1968 when six cohorts of junior and senior middle school students graduated in the same year and awaited employment. In December of that year, Mao Zedong issued a directive to the whole country, stating, “It is necessary for zhiqing to go to the countryside and receive re-education from the poor and lower-middle farmers.”
And so, all across China, a huge movement of zhiqing (young Chinese sent from urban areas to work in poor villages during the PRC's Down to the Countryside Movement) went to work in the mountains and countryside, sweeping 17 million young people along in the movement.
In the spring of 1970, Qiu Yaotian registered for dispatch to a farm at Heli River, Heilongjiang, joining a team to support the development of China’s border areas. A great crowd gathered on the railway station’s platform on the day of his departure. A long banner was unfurled, bearing the words, “A warm send-off to our zhiqing who will join the revolution in Heilongjiang”.
In 2010, a 40th anniversary commemorative gathering for the border support exodus was held by a number of Ningbo’s former zhiqing. Qiu compiled a commemorative publication for the event, in which he collected many precious photographs that captured the moments before the departure for Heilongjiang.
The parents who came to see their children off knew very well that the trip was not only the first step towards supporting the border areas, but could also very well be the first step towards military deployment.
In these black-and-white images, innocent-looking youngsters stick their bodies out of the train windows, each wearing an Honourable Border Support Pass on the chest. Some individuals are waving the “little red book” (Quotations from Chairman Mao), while some are holding the hands of their loved ones tightly, unwilling to let go. Their faces are full of excitement, a strong sense of attachment, and a measure of uncertainty about the unknown that lies before them.
Sending the young ones off to Heilongjiang was a big event. The time happened to be the second year of the Sino-Soviet conflict that began at Zhenbao Island. The parents who came to see their children off knew very well that the trip was not only the first step towards supporting the border areas, but could also very well be the first step towards military deployment. A handful of family members and other relatives came to the railway station to see Qiu off.
“We all knew that there was no telling when I might come back from this long trip, but we tried our best to not think too much about that. It was depressing to dwell on such thoughts,” he says.
Qiu’s understanding of Heilongjiang was still limited to the colourful descriptions he read in books, such as “hitting Siberian roe deers with sticks, scooping up fish with a wooden dipper, and of wild chickens flying straight into one’s rice pot.” As his train travelled north for three days and three nights, the once faraway Heilongjiang moved from the pages of textbooks into the southern zhiqing’s sight.
Life in the Great Northern Wilderness turned out to be much harder than he imagined. All four seasons were harsh. When seeds were sown in spring, the sky was filled with dust, so much so that one could not tell if it was day or night. When the ground was being hoed in summer, one’s thirst was quenched only with water from a ditch. When they were exhausted, rest could only be found under the scorching sun, with nothing but a mat to block sunlight. During the autumn harvest, the lower back was strained so much that one had to cut the wheat on one’s knees, everyone had badly calloused hands. In winter, there was endless shivering as one threshed grain outdoors in temperatures of -30°C.
As Qiu Yaotian recalls, “We had to dig up faeces at the lavatory during winter to be used as fertiliser. This stuff was frozen hard. When we hit it with a metal pickaxe, it would go puck. Bits of shattered ice that splattered onto the face left a somewhat salty taste in the mouth.”
Talking during our interview about these seemingly distant stories, he frowns. That salty taste and the many different feelings at the Heilongjiang farm seem as palpable to him today as they were nearly half a century ago.
He muses, “It was less about vying against heaven and earth, and more about vying against yourself… You needed to overcome your fear of cold, withstand the labour they put you through, suppress the melancholy of being so far away from home, and shake off the confoundment of feeling so lost about your future.”
Am I lucky or am I not?
Three years after arriving at the farm, for the first time Qiu saw hope for a turn in his fate. In 1973, China held the only round of the National College Entrance Examination it was to conduct during the Cultural Revolution. It was hoped that, through adding a culture examination, the long-disrupted system of knowledge-based talent selection could be restored.
The farm where Qiu was assigned was allowed to send out 40 examinees. He had always done quite well in school, and in the said examination, he was ranked 11th. Overflowing with hope, he wrote down the name of his institution of choice on his application form: Zhejiang Chemical Engineering College (later renamed the Zhejiang University of Technology). Unexpectedly, the exam ended with the negative impact of a letter from Zhang Tiesheng. He was the “hero” who turned in blank examination papers and wrote a letter on the back showing his disgust for bookworms who never did any honest work, while he slogged hard in the fields and could be disqualified from entering university after a few hours of written examinations. The intended path of university student recruitment took a hit. The culture examination was subsequently abolished. Throughout different parts of China, institutions turned to the use of recommendations instead. With that, the dreams of numerous zhiqing with high marks—the dream of going to university—were shattered.
In the late 1990s, China undertook a large-scale reform of its state-owned enterprises. Many of the former zhiqing were caught off guard as they were swept away by a massive wave of retrenchment.
The political games played behind the whole Zhang Tiesheng incident might not have been evident to Qiu Yaotian. He only knew that the slot at the Zhejiang Chemical Engineering College went to a zhiqing from Hangzhou.
“I couldn’t choose how I might live. I could only bury my sense of loss deep within me,” says Qiu.
Due to his good performance at the farm, Qiu was given a recommendation in the following year to study Chinese at Shuangyashan Normal School. After graduation, he worked as a teacher for two months, but eventually joined the Shuangyashan Bureau of Education in October 1976 and became an office secretary.
Qiu sees this schooling as the most important turning point in his life. In the late 1990s, China undertook a large-scale reform of its state-owned enterprises. Many of the former zhiqing were caught off guard as they were swept away by a massive wave of retrenchment. As an employee in a government agency, Qiu was spared.
“People in those days had a very traditional way of thinking. We tended to spare more thought for the collective body than for the individual self…” - Qiu Yaotian
He points out, “Many of the retrenched workers had been zhiqing. They gave the country their youth in the earlier days, then lost their jobs in the prime of life. Compared to them, I had one less crisis to endure. I was fortunate.”
But, of course, life takes away with one hand even as it gives with the other. Precisely because he joined the Shuangyashan Bureau of Education, Qiu missed the opportunity to go to university. After the College Entrance Exam resumed in China in 1977, Qiu saw his friends from the farm striving to get into universities. He envied them greatly. Although he knew he could study well, he ultimately did not take a step in that direction.
He explains, “At that time, I hadn’t been working at the Bureau of Education for long, so I couldn’t bring myself to tell my superiors that I wished to take the College Entrance Exam. People in those days had a very traditional way of thinking. We tended to spare more thought for the collective body than for the individual self… I hadn’t thought deeply about my own future and destiny. Very often we can only wait until all is past before we can look back and see clearly how some choices in life should have been made differently.”
For many years, Qiu asked himself numerous times how things would have turned out if he had taken the College Entrance Exam. Would he eventually have become a professor at a university? But there are no what-ifs in life, he notes wistfully.
When asked if he has regrets about this, he replies, “It was my own choice. Once you’ve chosen a path, you’ve got to keep walking on it.”
Along with countless zhiqing who returned to the cities in 1979, Qiu went back to his hometown after nearly 10 years away from it. He took courses during employment and eventually received a diploma in Chinese language and literature from the Open University of Ningbo.
The whole generation of zhiqing is sharply divided about how they feel towards their shared experiences. Some people lament their sacrifices and how Fate was unfair to them, and some sigh over how the hard times hastened their personal growth.
Qiu says, he does not wish to complain or suggest that his is the generation of the delayed, nor does he want to eulogise youth and claim that there are no regrets whatsoever for all that happened.
“To me, all that happened was just a passing segment in life. It added some colour to my life. It evokes some special feelings when I think back on it.”
I sent my daughter to Canada
In the four decades after his return to Ningbo, China underwent the many changes that came with its economic reform. The most prominent thoughts Qiu Yaotian holds about all this is that “there’s stability in life now. We’re doing a lot better economically.”
According to him, when relatives from Taipei visited him a few years ago and saw his three-bedroom apartment of over 100 square metres, they jokingly remarked, “Compared to you guys, we’re wretched tramps.”
Qiu shows a little sense of pride when he speaks of this. He says, “When the water runs high in the big river, it will run high in the tributaries too. When the country is doing well, every family will do well.”
As he puts it, he was swept along by the great currents of the times during his most glorious years, and there were many things for which he was in no position to decide for himself.
As a retired civil servant, Qiu is presently enjoying his twilight years, busy with things he had no chance to do in his younger days. He is learning English and photography and has even signed up recently for a video editing class.
His only concerns revolve around the very last stretch of his life. His daughter, an only child, left China for further studies after graduating from university. She now has her own family and career in Canada. Qiu is very likely to miss out on the pleasure of having the company of the next generation in his later years.
Even so, he did not stop his daughter from settling abroad. As he puts it, he was swept along by the great currents of the times during his most glorious years, and there were many things for which he was in no position to decide for himself. For now, he will just give his full support to the choices made by the next generation regarding their own youth and future.