LIANGJIAHE, China — The next leader of China spent much of his youth living in a dug-out cave.
Xi Jinping's seven years in this remote northern community meant toiling alongside rural 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 Mr. Xi's life and personality, partly because he himself 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 now is poised to become ruling-party chief next month and president next year of an increasingly assertive China.
What is clear is that Mr. 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 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 go back out 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 Mr. Xi's and now a local official.
A man for his times
It is in the nature of China's politics that relatively little is known about Mr. Xi's policy leanings. He is not associated with any bold reforms.
Aspiring officials get promoted by encouraging economic growth, tamping down social unrest and toeing the line set by Beijing, not by charismatic displays of initiative.
Mr. Xi's resume in provincial posts suggest he is open to private industry and some administrative reforms as long as they don't jeopardize the Communist Party's monopoly on power.
He likes Hollywood flicks about World War II, and has a daughter at Harvard University under an assumed name, though he has signaled he may be a staunch Chinese nationalist.
Tall, heavyset and married to a popular folk singer in the military, Mr. Xi is at ease in groups, in contrast to China's typically stiff and aloof leaders, such as current President Hu Jintao.
A Xi administration is expected to pursue a more forceful foreign policy based on Beijing's belief that chief rival Washington is in decline and that China's rise to global pre-eminence is within reach.
"Xi was chosen in part because he has the large, assertive, confident personality to lead in that kind of strategy," said Andrew Nathan, a specialist on Chinese politics at New York's Columbia University.
Mr. Xi will confront daunting challenges.
After two decades of fast-paced growth and social change, the economy is flagging, and China is under strain. A polarizing gap has left a few wealthy and many struggling and resentful.
Rampant corruption is corroding already low reserves of public trust in officialdom.
Beyond home, China is locked in sharp elbowing over territory with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors. At the same time, Beijing feels hemmed in by the U.S., which is shoring up ties with countries on China's edge.
From chemistry to politics
As son of one-time Vice Prime Minister Xi Zhongxun, the younger Xi spent the 1950s in a world of comfortable homes, chauffeur-driven cars and the best schools when most Chinese were desperately poor.
But the elder Xi fell afoul of the increasingly paranoid communist chief, and Mao demoted him in 1962.
The son was dispatched to rural Shaanxi province in 1969 as part of Mao's campaign to toughen up educated urban youth during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. When caught returning to Beijing, he was sent to a labor camp for six months.
Back in Liangjiahe, he helped build irrigation ditches.
"Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship," Mr. Xi said in a rare 2001 interview with a Chinese magazine. "Whenever I later encountered trouble, I'd just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then, and nothing would then seem difficult."
Local Communist Party officials and police in Liangjiahe followed reporters on a visit and asked them to leave, showing how the party wants to control information about Mr. Xi's past.
But they did allow brief interviews, including with Mr. Shi, described by villagers as Mr. Xi's former "iron buddy."
Mr. Shi stood across from the now-abandoned, one-room home where Mr. Xi lived with a local family, and recalled the day Mr. Xi departed at age 22. "No one wanted to see him go," Mr. Shi said.
Rejected for Communist Party membership nine times owing to his father's political problems, Mr. Xi finally gained entry in 1974 and then attended the elite Tsinghua University.
He would later return to Liangjiahe only once, in 1992, when he gave an alarm clock to each household, Mr. Shi said.
Mr. Xi went on to earn a chemistry degree, by which time Mao had died and his father been restored to office.
Mr. Xi next secured a plum position as secretary to Defense Minister Geng Biao, one of his father's old comrades.
But Mr. Xi took the unusual step three years later of jumping to a lowly post in rural Hebei province, because he wanted to "struggle, work hard, and really take on something big," Mr. Xi told Elite Youth magazine's now-deceased editor Yang Xiaohuai.
Mr. Xi landed in the rural town of Zhengding, where people traveled by horse cart.
While there, he made the most of state broadcaster China Central Television's plans to film an adaptation of the classical Chinese novel "Dream of Red Mansions."
Hoping to create a tourist attraction, Mr. Xi built a full-scale reproduction of the sprawling estate at the heart of the tale.
"You could tell Xi was thinking ahead. By doing this, he created lots of jobs and lots of revenue for Zhengding back when there was very little here," said Liang Qiang, a senior caretaker at the film set, which still draws tourists.