July 1975, my mother-in-law is sent to the countryside in what is called the “Up to the mountains and down to the countryside” movement during the Cultural Revolution. She is one of many young adults who are referred to as educated youth (知识青年 zhīshì qīngnián). She didn’t go to university, but it doesn’t take more than a high school education to count as educated youth. She isn’t the first educated youth to arrive in the village she is sent to either. The one who has stayed longest in the village in 1975 had arrived there 9 years earlier.
Every morning between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m., loudspeakers that are installed at every house’s main door wake up the villagers and everyone gets ready for work. There are no machines and the only tools available except for people’s bare hands are simple scythes and the like. Nowadays in Austria, there is usually no fieldwork in winter, but when my MIL is sent to China’s countryside at age 20, this is not how it works. Corn is brought in from the fields in autumn, but since there is a lot of field work to do before the start of Northeastern China’s long and cold winters, harvesting the corn stalks has to wait. With the first snow, the villagers – including the educated youth – can still be seen working in the fields. My MILs hands are cracked and show small wounds, but she is determined to keep on working.
My MIL is luckier than one of the other educated youths who has been sent there. In her village, there is a young guy from Shanghai. One winter day, the guy is drawing a heavy cart loaded with the harvest. The road is icy; the guy slips and the cart gets out of control, crushing him beneath its wheels.
At age 23, after 3 years and 3 months of living and doing hard work in the countryside, my MIL can finally go back to the city. Three years later, she marries my father-in-law. But that’s a story for another post.
Do you know anyone who has experienced something similar? I’d love to hear your stories.