n a spring day in 2007, as the Yale University cherry blossom trees began to bloom, two men met on campus, reuniting for the first time in nearly four decades.
“He recognized me at once, but I didn’t recognize him; I had forgotten his face,” said Su Wei, a senior lector in Yale’s department of East Asian languages and literature. The other man, Huo Dongling, was a successful entrepreneur who had for years occupied a place on The Hurun Research Institute’s list of China’s wealthiest individuals.
When they last laid eyes on each other, they had been young men assigned to work in the countryside as “sent-down youth” – urban teenagers and young adults sent to be “re-educated” by laboring alongside farmers in rural areas. This Mao Zedong initiative, dubbed the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement,” led to the relocation of about 17 million young people in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Strictly speaking, Su and Huo had only met a few times as sent-down youth in the Hainan Province countryside. Huo had taught himself musical composition and had garnered some fame among Hainan’s sent-down youth as a composer of sorts. Su, a future language professor, had earned a reputation for his literary talent. They wrote a propaganda song together called “Patrolling the Dam” for a coastal land reclamation project run by the local military. They parted ways shortly after. At the time, they couldn’t have known that after decades of dormancy, their musical cooperation would come back to life and together they would create something that would resonate among sent-down youth the world over.
Buried Past At 15 years old, Su left his Guangdong Province hometown in the midst of chaos.
His father and one of his older brothers had been accused of spying for China’s Nationalist Party and thrown in jail. Soldiers had ransacked his home and others had bullied and beaten his family members.
When he reached rural Hainan, Su and his fellow sent-down students arose before daybreak and tapped rubber trees for 10 to 12 hours every day. Later, he was selected to manage a plant nursery, for which he shouldered a pole bearing two buckets of water more than 100 times a day. The arduous conditions took their toll – the manual labor left him with chronic lumbar strain in adulthood and, perhaps because of malnutrition, he now stands a few inches shorter than his siblings.
When China began its period of Reform and Opening-up in the late 1970s, Su became part of the first class of students to pass the reinstated national college examination and attend university after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). After graduating in 1982, he was among the first to study abroad after the country reopened its doors. He studied in the US and returned to China after graduation, coming back to the US more permanently in 1989. He has since taught at several American universities.
Second Life In 2006, Su once again crossed over the Pacific to visit relatives in Guangdong Province.
While watching a TV show called My Sentdown Youth, he heard a melody and lyrics he knew well. Business executive Huo Dongling
was singing their song, “Patrolling the Dam,” while being interviewed on the show. Huo even named Su on air as the song’s lyricist.
For some reason, Su didn’t really give the show too much thought. By that point, that period of his life had been buried deep in his memory.
But, one year later, he dug it back up. Before Huo went to the US on a business trip, he looked up Su’s email address and asked whether or not they could meet. Su agreed without hesitation due to a simple rule of his: “My door is always open to any sent-down youth.” After that Yale meeting, the two old friends spent the entire night talking. “All of a sudden, all of my deepest memories about my sent-down days came back to me,” Su told NewsChina.
The product of their conversation was the beginning of a multipart cantata, or narrative musical composition written for voices and instrumental accompaniment, titled “Ask the Sky and the Earth: A Cantata for the Sentdown Youth.” Huo had asked Su if he would be interested in writing a song dedicated to their sent-down peers. Over the next year, Huo composed the music and Su wrote the lyrics, just as they had done decades prior.
The piece consisted of nine songs and included parts for a choir, soloists and a wind band. By depicting scenes of abandonment, labor, romance, loss and death, “Ask the Sky and the Earth” echoed the memories of a young generation’s untold sufferings in the countryside.
The cantata premiered in Guangzhou, Guangdong’s provincial capital, in September 2008, and later traveled to Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts. It won the 2009 Lu Xun Literature and Art Award, one of Guangdong’s most important cultural awards.
It did not take long for the cantata to cross oceans and reach international audiences.
Musicians have performed it in the US, Australia and Germany. In 2011, the cantata made its way to Carnegie Hall. It was performed by the Yale Concert Band and a special chorus formed specifically to sing the piece. “Neither of us expected this to go to Carnegie Hall, to get so big,” Su told the Yale Daily News in 2011. “Any performance at Carnegie Hall speaks to the world... And that night, we were telling a story to the world.” The “Ask the Sky and the Earth” story has about 17 million protagonists, all of whom could relate in some way to Su’s and Huo’s sent-down experiences. At the cantata’s Carnegie Hall performance, conductor Thomas Duffy asked those who had been sent-down youth, or whose family members had been sent down, to stand. A significant portion of the audience rose to their feet.
The cantata’s fame continued to spread by word of mouth. Many performances were organized by former sent-down youth or their relatives. “A chorus member from Yale went to Indiana to look for work, so Indiana invited us to perform,” Su said. “From Indiana, word spread to Chicago, so Chicago invited us. Then it was St. Louis. It was snowballing.” In 2015, the cantata’s European premiere was held in Frankfurt, Germany. When covering the event, local Chinese newspaper Huashangbao wrote: “When the performance was over, everyone, both on stage and in the audience, was very excited. Even the venue’s manager said he had never seen such a sight there.” According to Huashangbao, Su, Huo and that night’s conductor were surrounded by admiring audience members for a long time. The cantata is still gracing stages worldwide, with tours planned in the UK and Canada.
Mixed Reaction While many have praised “Ask the Sky and the Earth,” others have criticized it, especially for its overall upbeat nature. For example, in the cantata, Su painted his experiences tapping rubber trees in a positive light: “We were busy tapping rubber trees by the Nandu River.
Songs flew with the rosy clouds… I carried the rubber you collected. We sang and laughed all the way.” When addressing this criticism, Su emphasized that the cantata was not written to mourn a lost past. Instead, it was meant as a tribute to the idealism and vigor of youth, as well as the beauty of Hainan Island. At the same time, he’s all too aware of the misery that members of his generation have experienced and the conflict they feel when reflecting on their sent-down youth. A line in the cantata goes: “Don’t ask me whether I regret my youth. There is nothing more precious than life.” Su said asking him and his peers whether or not they grieve for that period of their lives is a flawed proposition. “We never had a choice,” he said. Now, he added, the only choice they have is the way by which they view their past. “It’s not about whether or not we suffered, but about how we face that suffering,” said Su.