The Politics of Compassion: the Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China

Stanford University Press, 2017

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  • Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in Sociology of Culture, the Sociology of Culture Section, American Sociological Association (2018)
  • The Best Book Prize on Asia/Transnational (Honorable Mention), Asia/Asian America Section, American Sociological Association (2018)
  • Interviews with University of Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Contemporary China (, National Committee on US-China Relations (, and Association for Asian Studies (
  • Reviewed in American Journal of Sociology, ChoiceJournal of Asian Studies, Journal of Chinese Political Science, China Quarterly, Choice, China Review International



For the children who died in their schools in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in memoriam.

For their parents who have to live without them.


The 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed about 87,000 people and sparked an unprecedented wave of self-organized civic engagement involving hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens. In The Politics of Compassion Bin Xu combines cultural sociology with extensive data from interviews, observations, and textual materials to examine how civically engaged citizens acted on the ground, how they understood the meaning of their action, and how the political context shaped both their actions and the meaning they attributed to them. The large-scale civic engagement was not only a natural outpouring of compassion but also a complex social process, both enabled and constrained by the authoritarian political context. The participants interpreted their actions in diverse ways, most of which did not follow the classical Western notion of civil society nor the official line about the party-state’s altruism. Moreover, although all the participants endeavored to alleviate suffering, many avoided talking about causes of the suffering—for example, why did so many schools collapse and kill thousands of students? This silence resulted from a general inability to discuss politically sensitive issues in a repressive context. Only dissidents and liberal intellectuals, through their activism and acts of commemoration, addressed the school collapse issue. Through its exploration of how the death and suffering caused by the earthquake dramatized the strengths, paradoxes, and dilemmas in Chinese citizens’ “habits of the heart,” The Politics of Compassion provides a window on the world of civic engagement in contemporary China.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction

Chapter 2 Consensus Crisis

Chapter 3 Mourning for the Ordinary

Chapter 4 Civic Engagement in the Recovery Period

Chapter 5 Forgetting, Remembering, and Activism

Chapter 6 Conclusion


“Bin Xu’s analytic insights into “the politics of compassion” are acute, but his account never erases the personal and human. The result is riveting, provocative, and ultimately heart breaking.”

—Deborah Davis, Yale University

“A riveting account of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. All of the different types of actors, both within the state and in society, that constitute “civil society” in China are here brought to life and depicted in their complex interactions and negotiations. The Politics of Compassion should be required reading for all students of contemporary Chinese society and politics, as well as on state-society relations in general.”

—David A. Palmer, The University of Hong Kong

“In a field heavily influenced by institutional and organizational analysis, Bin Xu’s book foregrounds action, meaning, and context in the formation of Chinese civil society. Analyzing the practices of civic engagement following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Xu tells a rich and moving story of both apathy and moral sentiments, powerlessness and agency. The result is a refreshing, cultural-sociological perspective on the politics of compassion and civil society in China.”

—Guobin Yang, University of Pennsylvania

Journal Reviews

“Through its analysis of an extraordinary event, Xu’s Politics of Compassion makes an important contribution to our understanding of civic engagement and civil society in contemporary China. It is an exemplary ethnography of citizens’ involvement and participation within a larger political context. Its appeal should reach beyond those who are interested in contemporary Chinese politics and society. Anyone concerned with civic activism and civil society in an authoritarian context will find this book useful and valuable.”

–Myungji Yang, American Journal of Sociology

“The Politics of Compassion does a masterful job telling the story of the Sichuan disaster and its aftermath in ways that draw readers into the specific details of a particular time and place while allowing us to see the broader political pattern as one that is repeated time and again in every corner of the planet…The Politics of Compassion is a must-read for anyone interested in Chinese civil society. Scholars of social policy, nonprofit management, disaster recovery, and state–society relations more generally will also find it to be an engaging, uplifting, disturbing, and highly provocative book to add to their shelves and their intellectual libraries.”

–Mary Alice Haddad, China Review International

“With the tenth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake occurring in May 2018, Bin Xu s book The Politics of Compassion is a must-read. His work offers insight not only into the dynamics of the post-earthquake volunteering, but also into the broader relationship between state and society in contemporary China.”

–Christian Sorace, Journal of Asian Studies

This excellent book is further strengthened by the authors decision to situate himself and his volunteer experience in the research, and I highly recommend it for those interested in understanding civil society and volunteering in China, political activism and the politics of disasters.

–Jessica C. Teets. China Quarterly

Hanwang, Mianzhu

Related Journal Articles

Bin Xu. 2014. “Consensus Crisis and Civil Society: The Sichuan Earthquake Response and State-Society Relations.” The China Journal 71 (January): 91-108.

Bin Xu. 2013. “For Whom the Bell Tolls: State-society Relations and the Sichuan Earthquake Mourning in China.” Theory and Society 42 (5): 509-542

Bin Xu. 2009. “Durkheim in Sichuan: The Earthquake, National Solidarity, and the Politics of Small Things” Social Psychology Quarterly 72 (1).