`It's The Year Of The Laosanjie'

Diners at Beijing's Hei Tudi restaurant nibble on wild greens and sip cabbage soup, surrounded by 1960s propaganda photos of rosy-cheeked youths plowing the fields and enthusiastic students reading Mao's little red books. Nearby, the walls are covered with symbols of a new era: bulletin boards jammed with hundreds of business cards. The cards belong to members of the laosanjie generation, who as senior government officials, company managers, and academics now want to meet others with a common Cultural Revolution background.

Today, laosanjie fads are spreading all over Beijing. Popular novels, dramas, and songs discuss the years of hardship in the countryside and the difficulty afterward of readjusting to society. A 20-episode TV series called The Sinful Debt, about children left behind by their laosanjie parents, was a prime-time hit. And in January, 8,000 laosanjie and their families jammed Beijing's Capital Stadium for a huge party. Says Qin Xiaoying, chief program editor at a Beijing film production company, who had worked in northern Shanxi Province in the Cultural Revolution: "It's the year of the laosanjie."

PHONES AND BISCUITS. Hei Tudi, founded two years ago, caters to laosanjie who had worked in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. On any given evening, tables on both floors are crowded with middle-aged, mobile-phone-toting professionals eating stewed pork shoulder, cornmeal biscuits, and other Heilongjiang staples. Last year, more than 10 large reunions of laosanjie convened at Hei Tudi.

Surprisingly, this cathartic reflection on one of the Communist Party's darkest chapters is occurring amid extreme political sensitivity as Deng Xiaoping lies on his deathbed. The government is especially touchy about graphic treatments of the subject by laosanjie film directors such as Zhang Yimou. His To Live, which depicted popular local cadres being brutalized by Red Guards, was a prizewinner at the Cannes Film Festival but is banned in China. And Tian Zhuangzhuang hasn't been allowed to make a movie since his poignant 1993 film The Blue Kite touched on the period.

The January party, the first known major laosanjie gathering, was allowed to go on, some believe, because the director of Beijing's cultural bureau is a laosanjie. The organizers, a group of private-sector laosanjie businessmen, issued invitations through word of mouth and chain letters. Chen Kaige, the laosanjie filmmaker who won the prestigious Palm D'Or at Cannes in 1993 for Farewell My Concubine, was one of the masters of ceremony, and the program included appearances by laosanjie folksinger Guan Guimin, comedian Jiang Kun, and actor Xie Yuan.

As such events show, a generation long regarded as anti-Establishment is rapidly becoming the Establishment. Little wonder that the owners of Hei Tudi are opening more restaurants in Beijing and plan to expand to other cities soon.

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