The key to “alternative foreign cha dui”


By Shi Yan, 4/19/08 • “Cha dui” is a historical term meaning, more or less, “being sent to the countryside to do manual labor and be reeducated by the peasants.” For the vast majority of Chinese young people, the concept of cha dui [“being sent to the countryside”] is a strange one, especially for kids like me who’ve grown up in a city from the time they were small

Shi Yan is a graduate student studying rural development at Renmin University of China. She arrived in Minnesota in the second week of April 2008 to start a 5-month internship at the Earthrise Farm. Ms. Shi blogged in Chinese about her experiences at Earthrise, a small CSA farm run by two Catholic nuns near the Minnesota-South Dakota border, since the day she arrived. Her blog posts were translated into English by Caroline Merrifield. Shi Yan’s Chinese blog is:

In any case, my parents got together because they were both educated youth sent down to the countryside.

From my parents’ style of raising and educating me to Professor Wen’s influence on me for the past two years, when I look at the 50-something people around me, I see that whether or not they’ve had a period of experience in the countryside has a huge impact on their understanding of and attitude toward human life, and their feelings about the countryside and rural peasants.

The concept of cha dui actually refers to something that happened after the eruption of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when Chinese society entered a kind of unique phase. At the time, employment opportunities in the cities had fallen off a great deal, so beginning in 1968 there were 20 million young intellectuals and cadres in the cities who were termed “Settlers Sent to Countryside” and then sent to the countryside to do manual labor.

Chairman Mao made the appeal: “There is a great need for educated youth to go the countryside and accept reeducation from the poor and lower-middle peasants.” “My

But now when we bring up the countryside, the majority of young people still share the same perception as Yan Yangchu [Chinese rural organizer involved in the Rural Reconstruction Movement of the 1920s and 1930s], who thought that peasants are ignorant, poor, weak and selfish, and rural areas are ridiculous and backward. This is because a huge chasm exists between us and the countryside, between us and the land. We don’t know where the agricultural products we eat come from; we don’t have that kind of emotional connection between people and the land. What we think of more often is how to get out of the countryside, how to live a better life in the cities, how to make our wallets expand a little faster

And then one day we find that the vegetables and fruit, the steamed bread, the rice and the meat that we eat are all unsafe; there are fertilizers and agricultural chemicals all over them, and every day we’re slowly poisoning ourselves. And the countryside as a community is moving farther and farther from us; rural areas really have declined in the way that we imagine.

Pollution from agriculture has already come to comprise the greatest percentage of China’s pollution; at the same time, problems with food safety seem never-ending, and farmers’ share of final profits from sales of agricultural products is getting smaller and smaller, which creates a vicious cycle: in order to raise profits, you have to increase output, and to do that you have to use more fertilizer and chemicals.

So what is it that we want? This seems, more and more, to be turning into a life-or-death question.

My alternative sent-to-the-countryside story in America began like this…

On April 18, 2008, with the help of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in the U.S., I arrived at Earthrise Farm in Minnesota to begin my life as a farmer in America. I really will become a farmer here – I’ll work alongside them every day, from planting to harvest, from recruiting community members to dividing up produce to send to the community, from watering and weeding to picking produce. At the same time, I’m still a grad student at Renmin University of China. I don’t only need to work, I also need to observe and to interview, going about my research from another angle.

When I say this experience is “alternative,” maybe it’s because when most students go abroad, they choose to study at a university or do research, and it’s hard to imagine that someone would want to come to America to be a farmer, and for an entire half-year at that.

Professor Wen says I’m the first Chinese grad student to go to America to be “sent down to the countryside.” That’s a big deal. Some people say that it’s an epochal event, but I don’t really care what anyone says because, speaking from my heart, I enjoy this kind of life and I believe that the saying that “practice makes perfect” is a principle that should be followed by those of us researching the problems of agriculture. I’m honestly looking at the facts, not just lamely digging out arguments from books. Perhaps it’s rare for someone to have a more than a few half-years like this in their lifetime.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.