In 1969, a pale, gangly 15-year-old walked down a dirt road flanked by desiccated yellow cliffs from which generations of Chinese farmers had eked out a subsistence living.
The path led to Liangjiahe, a village in central China where the Communist Party was sending city youths to do hard labor during the Cultural Revolution. For nearly seven years, Xi Jinping lived there, making a cave his home. A thin quilt spread on bricks was his bed, a bucket was his toilet. Dinners were a porridge of millet and raw grain.
"He ate bitterness like the rest of us," said one of the Liangjiahe farmers, Shi Yujiong, who was 25 years old when the teenager arrived.
Xi was one of millions of Chinese youths driven into the countryside by Mao Tse-tung in those years. But his life has turned out to be anything but ordinary. From his years in Liangjiahe, Xi worked his way into the graces of the Communist Party, his rise fueled by a workaholic drive and apparent indifference to privilege. He left few mistakes or enemies in his trail.
That journey has brought him to the pinnacle of power. If all goes according to the script, Xi, since 2008 China's vice president, will replace Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist Party this year, and as president of the People's Republic the next, a post he could hold for a decade.
This week he arrives in the United States for what is being billed as his American coming out. The trip will be scrutinized for signs of how Xi and a new generation of Chinese leaders plan to govern, and how they might deal with a war-weary and economically wounded America, still struggling to adapt to Beijing's rise.
"This is an imprinting opportunity to set an impression of the man who will run China for a decade," said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American investment banker who is advising the Chinese government on the trip.
The 58-year-old president-in-waiting is often depicted as another in a line of colorless cadres, but his life story is rich with contrasts.
A passionate scholar of Marxist theory who preaches the need for young Chinese to study more Communist ideology, he nonetheless champions private enterprise. His daughter is a sophomore at Harvard. Personally unassuming, Xi is married to one of China's most glamorous figures, folk singer Peng Liyuan.
"Xi has an advantage," said Zhang Musheng, a former government official and prominent intellectual who has met the vice president several times. "He lived at the bottom for a long period. It makes him understand the current conditions in China very well."
Xi Jinping (the family name is pronounced Shee) was born June 1, 1953, the son of revolutionary war hero Xi Zhongxun. He was the third of four children born to the elder Xi's second wife. When he was a young child, his father was named vice premier, and the family moved into Zhongnanhai, the vermilion-walled Communist Party compound next to the Forbidden City, home of the late emperors.
At a time when China was abjectly poor, Xi's family had their own cook and nannies, a driver and a Russian-made car, a telephone, a special supply of food earmarked for the leadership. Fearful of spoiling the children, the elder Xi made his son wear his sisters' hand-me-down clothing and shoes, which the family dyed so they wouldn't be in girlish colors, according to a biography published last year.
But in 1962, Xi's father had a falling out with Mao and went to prison. The family was booted from their compound, forced to move around Beijing. Four years later, Xi's mother was sent to a work camp in the countryside, and Xi's school was closed down.
"You grow up in an environment where everything is provided, and suddenly you're stripped naked and left in the cold," said a friend from Xi's younger days.
The friend, who did not want to be quoted by name when discussing the leadership, described a world in which suddenly adrift teenagers would collect books left unguarded in libraries or discarded by people who feared persecution as intellectuals. "We had nothing to do to comfort ourselves but read," said the friend.
Xi has described Mao's orders that intellectual youths be sent to the countryside as a welcome relief. He was sent to Liangjiahe, hundreds of miles southwest of Beijing and in Shaanxi province, his father's base in revolutionary days.
Xi's service in the village is key to the narrative the Communist Party is spinning of a tireless, selfless volunteer, trying to counter Xi's image as a "princeling," the derogatory term for the many offspring of leaders in power now. But in a 1998 essay titled "Son of the Yellow Earth," Xi acknowledged early difficulties: "I was rather casual at first. The villagers had an impression of me as a guy who doesn't like to work hard."
He wrote that he couldn't stand the fleas, the poor food, the farm work, and after a few months, ran away to Beijing. He was arrested during a crackdown on deserters from the countryside and sent to a work camp to dig ditches.
Xi later returned to the village, and this time threw himself into his work. His pale complexion and white hands darkened; he learned to farm and carried heavy buckets of water from the well. He devised a biogas pit that converted waste into energy.
Chai Chunyi, a 63-year-old villager with tobacco-stained teeth, described Xi as a clueless city boy who arrived lugging a heavy suitcase full of books.
"At first, we couldn't understand his accent and he couldn't understand us," Chai said. "But he worked really hard. He didn't complain like some of the others from the city."
Despite the years of persecution, Xi still sought out the Communist Party's approval. He applied eight times to join its youth league, but nobody would accept his paperwork until he invited a young man who served as the local party secretary for a fried egg and steamed bread in the cave and pleaded his case. He finally became a party member in 1974.
With the party's recommendation he was able to secure a place at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The party selected his major, chemical engineering, but he never worked in the field.
Xi's father was politically rehabilitated in 1978 and later appointed by Deng Xiaoping as party secretary for Guangdong province, implementing economic reforms in an area that was to become the engine of the new China. No longer a liability, his father used his connections to get Xi a plum job as an assistant to Geng Biao, a fellow revolutionary who headed the powerful Central Military Commission.
The young man married an elegant, well-connected woman, Ke Lingling, whose father was China's ambassador to Britain. The young couple moved into a spacious apartment in a gated compound across from the state guesthouse, again living a life of privilege. But they split up after just three years.
Xi then began an odyssey through China, accepting two- to five-year stints from the party in different provinces as he worked his way up the ladder. Unlike other party members of his age group, he didn't drink much or womanize, said the friend from his younger days. He dressed plainly and rode a bicycle even after he ranked high enough for an official car.
"There was nothing flashy about him," said the friend. "It was as though he always had a sense of mission about him."
The woman who became his second wife had a similar impression when she was introduced to the 33-year-old Xi on a blind date.
"What kind of songs do you sing? I'm sorry, I don't watch much television," he said to Peng, already one of China's most famous singers, according to an interview she gave the Chinese press.
His workaholic habits didn't change and when their daughter, an only child, was born in 1992, he missed her birth because of a typhoon in Fujian province, where he was posted.
As governor of Fujian, where he courted investment from across the Taiwan Strait, and in other posts, Xi built his business credentials.
"He's a cool, rational guy who realizes and knows China needs foreign investment and technology," said Sidney Rittenberg Sr., an American consultant who successfully appealed to Xi to resolve a business dispute for a consortium of U.S. companies building a power project in Fujian in 2002.
Xi's support for the private sector intensified after he was named the top official of Zhejiang, a coastal province known for its concentration of freewheeling entrepreneurs. Xi famously became a booster for Geely, a local automaker that would eventually purchase Volvo.
And in a party renowned for its chronic corruption, he had a reputation for staying clean. In 2007 he was chosen to replace Shanghai's disgraced party chief, Chen Liangyu. He attained a spot on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee later that year.
"I'd be surprised if you were able to dig up any dirt on him other than some stolen library books," said the friend.
In Liangjiahe village, the older people who knew Xi are proud and hopeful about his ascension. The village remains poor, but with many new comforts: electricity, running water and a road that residents say was paved because of Xi's intercession.
He had remained in touch with some of the villagers, helping the disabled son of one of his hosts get an operation on his leg. In 1993, he came back to visit, bringing with him a gift of watches.
"He had enough watches for each household to get one," said villager Chai. "But the party secretary in the village took some of them, so many houses didn't get them."
People who know Xi believe that his top priorities will be fighting corruption and closing the income gap between urbanites and peasants like those he lived with in Liangjiahe, along with confronting China's mammoth environmental challenges. Although a U.S. Embassymemo, released in 2010 through WikiLeaks, described Xi as "redder than the red," many hope he will prove a reformer like his father, who condemned the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.
"He carries with him a very grand confidence," said Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and Republican candidate for president, who was U.S. ambassador to China until last year and met with Xi on many occasions. "He exudes a sense of warmth, even charm, that I think will serve him well in power."
Demick reported from Liangjiahe and Beijing, and Pierson from Beijing. Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.