LIANGJIAHE, China — The next leader of China spent much of his youth living in a dug-out cave.
Xi Jingping's seven years in this remote northern community meant toiling alongside villagers by day and sleeping on bricks by night, in stark contrast to his pampered early years in Beijing. He was born into the communist elite, but after his father fell out of favor with Mao Zedong — and before his later rehabilitation, the younger Xi was sent to a rural hinterland to learn peasant virtues at age 15.
The Liangjiahe years are among the scant details known about Xi's life and personality partly because he chronicled them as a formative experience. They are part of the vague picture of a man who has drawn little attention during much of his political career but is poised to become ruling party chief next month and president next year of an increasingly assertive China.
What is clear is that Xi has excelled at quietly rising through the ranks by making the most of two facets: He has an elite, educated background with links to communist China's founding fathers that are a crucial advantage in the country's politics, and at the same time he has successfully cultivated a common man mystique that helps him appeal to a broad constituency. He even gave up a promising Beijing post in his late 20s to return to the countryside.
He did not at first come willingly, however, to Liangjiahe, a tiny community of cave dwellings dug into arid hills and fronted by dried mud walls with wooden lattice entryways. He tried to escape and was detained. Villagers remember a tall bookworm who eventually earned their respect.
"He was always very sincere and worked hard alongside us. He was also a big reader of really thick books," said Shi Chunyang, then a friend of Xi and now a local official.