Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2017

Educated Youth (1991), by Ye Xin, translated by Jing Han

Educated Youth is an astonishing book: I learned so much about a little known aspect of Chinese life from this novel…

From the early 1960s to the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), over 14 million high school graduates were uprooted from their homes and sent to do manual labour in rural parts of China, receiving – as Mao Tse Tung’s decree described it – ‘re-education from the peasants’.  It was called shangshan xiaxiang, meaning ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages’, but it was basically a brain drain out of the cities.  This crazy idea of  Mao Tse Tung’s held back development in China because it wasted the skills and talents of an educated generation, but it also had an enormous impact on the personal lives of these zhiqing as they were called.  It means ‘educated youth’.

(Perhaps because Mao finally recognised the economic impact of his stupid policy), the zhiqing were allowed to go back to their home cities in the mid 1970s.  The mass movement of 14 million people is startling to contemplate – it’s more than the entire population of Australia in 1975 – but families and the cities in which they lived simply had to absorb these people.  There were only two restrictions to prevent the zhiqing returning home: those who had been assigned jobs in the provinces, and those who had married there, had to stay where they were.  Because of course, as the years went by, these young people had given up hope of return and had made some sort of home in the village to which they’d been assigned. Some of them fell in love, some of them made marriages out of a sense of compromise and fatalism, and some of them had children.  But as soon as a return home became possible, the lure of the big city usually trumped whatever family life had been established.  One way or another (and divorce was easy in Mao’s China) the zhiqing shed their domestic shackles and took off for the bright lights of their original home towns.  Ye Xin’s novel is about what happens when children from the province of Xishuangbanna came to Shanghai seeking reunion with zhiqing who had abandoned them.

Through the stories of five children and their startled parents we see the results. Most Zhiqing had prudently kept their past lives private, and in their new relationships, usually lied about having been married before and having had children.  Whereas in Australia there are sensitive protocols around reunions of pre-marital children and their relinquishing parents, no such sentimentality smoothed the way in Shanghai.  The kids simply turned up, creating havoc within the family and embarrassment at work and in the community.

In the novel, all sorts of issues arise.  Wives and husbands are outraged, and in-laws take the opportunity to unleash long suppressed hostilities.  In the era of the One Child Family, a half-sibling described by his own mother as a Little Emperor, is monstrously jealous of the new rival for his parents’ affections.  The gossips in the neighbourhood have a field day.  The children (aged about 14, old enough to make the journey alone but still all at school) are not expecting to cause such family distress and react with guilt, shame, feelings of worthlessness or resentful anger.  Caught between their new families and the old, the zhiqing feel ashamed about their lack of feeling for their first child, anguished about the reaction of their current spouses, nostalgic about the first love back in Xishuangbanna and tormented about how to sort it all out.

There are other factors beside these personal ones.  Ye Xin has characterised the zhiqing in different social strata. (If anyone has any fanciful ideas about China being a classless society, this novel will enlighten the naïve.)  Yang is rich, and when she and her husband Wu (also a zhiqing) paid a couple of peasants to look after their child Yonghui, she set out to make a whole new life in Shanghai.  Marriage with Wu failed, and so has her second marriage so she’s enjoying independence and the favours of an occasional lover.  There’s plenty of room for Yonghui in her mansion, but there isn’t room for him in her life.

Shanshan and her zhiqing husband Mancheng, OTOH, live in a miniscule apartment not even 10 metres square.

A double bed took up one third of the room and Mancheng managed to fit in a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a dining table and chairs.  There was no gas, no bathroom and they had to go downstairs for water.  A small stove for cooking was pushed into a tiny nook outside the door.  The space was not as good as those on the floors above but better than those below, and Mancheng felt happy and content with his life.

But now a fourteen-year-old son would be joining the family.  Resourceful as he was, Mancheng couldn’t imagine a solution. (p. 34)

There are cultural difficulties too.  The children from Xishuangbanna speak the Yunnan dialect, making some conversations mutually incomprehensible (especially when they get lost in the big city), but also enabling hurtful conversations to be overheard because people wrongly think that because the children can’t speak the Shanghai dialect, they can’t understand it.  And food looms large as a problem: the food in Yunnan is much spicier than in Shanghai, a problem not wholly solved by lashings of chilli paste.  Cultural differences in behaviour cause misunderstandings and distress too.

As you might expect, not all the personalities are respectable.  One of the children revels in Shanghai’s opportunities for dealing in drugs, and one of the zhiqing fathers is in prison.  One couple are potentially in a bigamous marriage because in the haste to return to Shanghai, the official formalities for divorce weren’t followed.  One of the children turns out to be a consequence of rape, which makes the situation doubly hard for his mother.  It’s all very messy indeed.

In this excellent translation, the story is simply told, with no postmodern authorial tricks, just flashbacks to fill in the back stories of the zhiqing and their village relationships.   But it’s an engaging story that held my interest throughout.

Highly recommended.

Author: Ye Xin
Title: Educated Youth
Translated from the Chinese by Jing Han
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2016, first published by Jiangsu Arts & Literature Press, 1991
ISBN: 9781925336047
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Educated Youth and direct from Giramondo Publishing, including as an eBook.



  1. Sounds amazing.


    • It is, just the numbers of people involved is amazing!


  2. The things we don’t know! Sounds like a fascinating read.


    • Yes, it’s both a phenomenon, and a personal story. The author was one of the ‘educated youth’ himself.


  3. What an amazing story. So interesting what history reveals.


  4. I know the Cultural Revolution was a disaster, but I think Mao had to do something, and as maybe this novel illustrates, the middle classes were getting above themselves.


    • I’m going to a session about the Cultural Revolution at the MWF, so I’ll be interested to learn more about it.


  5. […] I have already started my next VSI, to coincide with my reading of Educated Youth by Ye Xin (see my review), it’s Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). These VSIs […]


  6. […] werden auf ANZLitLoversLitBlog vorgestellt, nämlich The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree und Educated Youth von Ye Xin, der sich mit einem Aspekt der Chinesischen Kulturrevolution beschäftigt, der […]


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