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Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages

January 29, 2010

Thomas P. Bernstein. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages: The Transfer of Youth from Urban to Rural China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Ellen Huang (2003)

Thomas P. Bernstein’s book was the first major study of the rural transfer, popularly called “up to the mountains and down to the villages” (shang-shan, xia-xiang), an ambitious public policy program implemented by the Chinese government. The program, practiced first on a limited scale just before the Great Leap Forward and accelerating sharply during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, transferred urban secondary school graduates to rural villages and frontier settlements. According to Bernstein’s statistics, over 14 million urban youths, roughly 10% of China’s urban population, were resettled to the countryside during and after the Cultural Revolution. The study’s goal was to “describe and analyze the policies and practices underlying the transfer,” and to consider their efficacy. (9)

What is noteworthy of this study is Bernstein’s exhaustive research and documentation, a difficult feat considering that at the time he conducted his research, foreign scholars had almost no access to China. As such, he industriously uses data from the Chinese media, visitor’s reports, and interviews with refugees in Hong Kong. Due to the lack of reliable figures, Bernstein is forced to resort to extrapolation, educated conjectures, and deductions to compile data and to analyze important statistics, such as the number of youths resettled and the proportion of urban population transferred, all of which are provided in the form of charts and tables. This type of data analysis forms the basis on which he illuminates different aspects of the program: What were the economic and ideological rationales of sending these millions of urbanites off to the countryside? What was the clash of values between this policy and the propelling of personal ambition? What was the relationship between rural residents (peasants) and the sent-down youths?

An example of Bernstein’s data analysis is demonstrated in his discussion on the goals and policies of the transfer program, in which he argues that the incapacity of the urban sector to supply enough jobs to those in the urban labor market was the root of the rustication program. He connects a relation between the capacity for the urban sector to provide young people with employment and the actual numbers sent to the villages to support this argument. His analysis of the Chinese press reveals two other major goals that sustain the program, that of ideological transformation and rural development. To Bernstein, the tension between the developmental and ideological goals creates difficulty for the implementation and success of the program, for “the transfer of urban youths to the countryside itself promotes the very institutional normalcy so suspect to China’s ideological radicals” (289).

The two contemporary reviewers, Susan Shirk (Journal of Asian Studies, 38,1:148-152) and Victor Funnell (Pacific Affairs, 51,3:502-503) both recognized the value of this book for its insightful analysis and perceptive observations. Shirk wished that the author would have been able to develop the implications of his findings. Indeed, the weakness of the book is exactly the author’s lack of explanation for how the policy was implemented by the government, given the lack of support for the program itself. One is also left wondering about the change in people’s perceptions and social values in relation to the shifting urban-rural dichotomy. On the other hand, this book’s contribution is precisely that it lays groundwork and raises issues from which further study, especially given the passage of time and increased access to sources, may arise.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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