Lu Zhimin, 47, a Beijing lawyer, said his high school years were roiled by political unrest in the classroom, where students challenged teachers to prove they had the correct revolutionary credentials. He escaped going to the countryside by joining the army, he said, and went to work in a factory for $5 a month as soon as he was demobilized. Later, he taught himself enough to qualify as a lawyer.
"At that time, the students were called on to learn from workers, from farmers and from soldiers," he recalled.
But Lu's daughter, Lu Xu, 18, was called on to learn from her professors at a comfortable high school. She performed well enough to be admitted this fall to the prestigious Beijing University, where she is studying geography and astronomy, equipped with a monthly cash allowance from her mother and a bank card from her father.
Lu Xu's only memory of going to a farm was the time she went to a Beijing suburb to use her new telescope for stargazing in the clear country air. Her idea of deprivation was the long wait for her MP3 player and the university rules that dictate lights out in her dorm after 11 p.m.
"As the only child in our family, my daughter lacks independence," Lu said over a steaming bowl of sesame porridge. "I wanted to develop her ability to earn money or support herself. So I asked her to work part time during the summer vacation in a drug store owned by my friend. She refused after she visited the store. She gave two reasons. One, it's too far away. Two, she had her own vacation plans."
Duan, the retired teacher in Nanjing, keeps two traditional photo albums in her bedroom. One shows her daughter at 20, posing in a variety of fashionable outfits to record her fresh beauty for posterity. The other shows Duan, carefully coiffed and made up, elegant but no longer fresh. Unable to take the coming-of-age photos at 20, during the Cultural Revolution, she hired a photographer and did it at 50.
"They don't even know," said Duan, referring to the happy ignorance of her daughter's generation. "We don't want to spend all our time talking about the past. It's no use talking with them about the past."
Duan said when she finished secondary school in 1968, she was assigned to Che Men village in Jiangsu province, where farmers mostly planted corn and nobody had time or money for taking photos. There was little discussion of not going, she said, because everybody knew what would happen if you refused.
"If you didn't go, your parents would lose their jobs," she said. "It was called voluntary, but it really wasn't."
On the farm, there was no rice, no meat and no fruit. The main diet was sweet potatoes and corn meal, Duan said. Life at the farm was a hardship her daughter does not comprehend, in large part because Duan has made sure nothing of it was ever repeated during her daughter's upbringing.
"They don't have the spirit of struggle like we did," Duan said, looking back on the result. "And if they do the same way with their own children as we did with ours, it will be very dangerous. They should understand that only a few people can have such a rich life."