2nd Book: Collective Memory of the Sent-Down Youths (zhiqing) Generation

Under Contract with Cambridge University Press

Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past: Generation and Memory

Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past: Generation and Memory examines the memory of China’s “zhiqing” (short for zhishi qingnian, the “educated youth”) generation—the 17 million urban, secondary school graduates were transferred to settle in villages, semi-military corps, and state farms in the 1960s and 1970s. Their transfer was part of the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages Campaign” (shangshan xiaxiang yundong) or the “send-down program” in short, a large-scale forcible migration program (Bernstein 1977, Bonnin 2013, Ding 2009, Liu 2009). The program proved economically costly and socially detrimental. In the late 1970s, facing the zhiqing’s mounting grievances and even protests, the state implicitly admitted the failure of this program and allowed the zhiqing to return to cities.


A Zhiqing Museum in Heihe, Heilongjiang

The topic of the history and memory of the zhiqing generation has attracted extensive public attention in recent years, as some former zhiqing have entered China’s power elites, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. In August 2017, the Party Central published Xi Jinping’s Seven Years as a Zhiqing, required reading for all Communist Party members in China. The zhiqing years, as this official narrative goes, built President Xi’s character, made him resilient, and provided him with a rare opportunity to understand the lives of ordinary Chinese people—not through school education but rather through his lived experience. Major foreign media also speculated about how his seven years of zhiqing experience had shaped his mindset and whether his coming-of-age experience under Mao contributed to the recent revival of a Mao-style personality cult of Xi. Despite their different political stances, both the state and Western media narratives share an almost exclusive focus on President Xi.

One man’s apotheosis, however, overshadows the memories of 17 million. What the media do not cover is a long “memory boom” of the zhiqing generation since the end of the send-down program. The zhiqing have been telling their life stories not only in private settings but also in numerous novels, TV series, memoirs, exhibits, and museums. In the past decade, it has culminated in numerous self-organized commemorative activities, from as small as a reunion dinner party of tens of people to as big as week-long trips with hundreds of participants. Hardly any other group or generation in the history of the PRC has generated so much memory, in so many forms, for so long.

This memory boom is not just a generation’s natural nostalgia for their bittersweet youth but also a complex social, political, and symbolic process. The send-down program is uncomfortably situated in China’s national memory; or, like other “difficult pasts” such as the Vietnam War, “the event is swallowed, as it were, but never assimilated” (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991, 380). It poses three types of problems to the society, the state, and the zhiqing themselves. First, the political problem is how to evaluate the controversial program, given that the program overlapped the Cultural Revolution and that many zhiqing were former Red Guards. Second, the program has caused long-lasting social problems for this generation, including lower education level, delayed life stages, less satisfying jobs, and other negative impacts as accumulative effects of their long stay in the countryside (Davis 1992, Zhou and Hou 1999, Qian and Hodson 2011, Bonnin 2013). Third, the cultural problem is how the zhiqing generation remembers their youth and the controversial event that permanently altered their youth and subsequent lives. While zhiqing like President Xi tell stories of “suffering to success,” many others believe suffering begets suffering. Even today, some zhiqing are still protesting to demand that the government solve problems with their pensions and healthcare, which they believe are caused by their forced migration 50 years ago. Many of them now eagerly talk about their youthful passions and hardship but remain silent on the flipside of their generational identity—the Red Guards. Moreover, the zhiqing were “Chairman Mao’s children” (Chan 1985): the first generation who grew up after 1949, the “morning sun” at eight or nine in the morning, “full of vigor and vitality,” and, thus, carried the hope of the Party to be successors of Communism. However, forty-something years later, they have to reconcile “Mao’s legacies” in their minds and dispositions with the sea changes in social life and politics in post-Mao China.

The three problems are intertwined, but the cultural problem—how the zhiqing generation remembers their difficult past—is the focus of this book.

Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past draws on extensive data collected over ten years of research, a three-stage process that occurred from 2007-2018, including 124 interviews, many ethnographic observations, and thousands of press reports, archival materials, and personal texts and images. With this mountain of data and, more importantly, my long-time, on-the-ground interactions with the zhiqing, this book offers a nuanced analysis and a mosaic picture of the zhiqing generation’s memory, passions, struggles, and dilemmas. Such a picture eschews the exclusive focus on leaders’ mythic pasts in media discourses.

This book shows that 50 years after they were sent down, this generation is still caught between the political and the personal, past and present, nostalgia and regret, and trauma and glory. They struggle to deal with the tension between two entangled aspects of their generational memory: the controversial send-down program and their desire to remember their youth and confirm their worthiness. This tension is manifested in different forms of memory, including autobiographic memories through life stories, public memories, such as literature, exhibits, and museums, and commemorative activities within and between groups.

Their autobiographical memories vary greatly and reflect the wide disparity in their present class positions and the differences in their political habitus formed in the Mao years. Those with higher class positions today tend to have positive memories of their personal sent-down experience. Those with “red” chushen are more likely to give positive historical evaluations of the send-down program than those with “black” or middle chushen.

Their public and group memories also vary but gradually evolve into a dominant pattern: “Remembering the people but not the event!” This pattern highlights the zhiqing’s youth and positive qualities but decouples themselves from the controversial program and its detrimental aftermaths. It results from the interplay among several factors: the memory entrepreneurs’ class positions and habitus, dynamics in the field of cultural production, the state’s ambivalence toward the program, and group dynamics in the commemorative activities.

This pattern of memory has been used by the powerful and the successful in this generation to construct their uplifting, ascending life stories for the purposes of self-congratulations and political propaganda. This loud chorus of self-importance, however, is accompanied by a silence. The silence marginalizes those zhiqing who are still suffering from the harmful impacts of the program. It also covers and veils voices of self-reflection on their moral-political responsibility in the political upheavals in their formative years. Outside their comfort zone, their effort of decoupling ironically is often interpreted as coupling. Many see the zhiqing’s nostalgic remembrance of their youth as a positive evaluation of the send-down program and the Cultural Revolution. In general, as their memory is booming inside their own circle, its cultural influence is fading in the general public.

Significance and Contributions

This book aims to understand the zhiqing generation’s memories to achieve two goals, one particular and the other general, and I believe that they are best approached by playing one off the other.

The particular goal is to examine how the zhiqing generation come to terms with their difficult personal and collective past in various ways and what can explain the variations in their memories. The zhiqing generation has been a theme of some studies in history, literature, sociology, and even public administration (Bonnin 2013, Liu 2009, Bernstein 1977, Honig and Zhao 2015, Rosen 1981). There also a few articles on the zhiqing generation’s memory (Bonnin 2016, Yang 2003). Nevertheless, a comprehensive study of their collective memory is long overdue.

In doing so, this study makes some contributions to this literature of “red legacies” (Li and Zhang 2016, Ho and Li 2016, Mittler 2012, Matten 2012, Chan, Madsen, and Unger 2009, Barmé 1996). First, it provides a fine-grained inquiry of the mindset and dispositions of this important generation of “Chairman Mao’s children,” especially their worldviews and actions. Second, this study centralizes and theorizes intra-generational variations in the memory and mentality of this generation. This book not only counters some stereotypes of this generation popular in the public discourses but also goes beyond the focus on activists of this generation in previous scholarship (Chan 1985; Yang 2016). Third, this book highlights the political and historical significance of class in both pre-1978 and post-1978 periods and corresponding influences on the zhiqing generations’ perceptions and memory. When they view their personal past, they tend to use today’s rules of winning and losing to evaluate the past through their class positions today. When they evaluate the send-down program and the Cultural Revolution, their views are still shaped by their political-class-based habitus formed in the Mao years. This paradox shows both how much Chinese society and this generation have changed from the Mao years to now and also how much they have not changed. Fourth, this book analyzes the formation and consequence of the “people-but-not-the-event” pattern and sheds light on the political implications of the current official memory of President Xi Jinping’s zhiqing experience.

The other goal of this book, more general and theoretical, is to contribute to the sociology of “memory” and particularly to enrich our understanding of generation and memory (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 2011, Erll 2011, Palmberger 2016, Corning and Schuman 2015). Generational memory provides us with a valuable chance to understand the intersection between personal biography and history and develop “sociological imagination”—the ability to “understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals” (Mills 1959, 5).

Specifically, this book makes four contributions to the scholarship of generation and memory. First, I go beyond the cognitive concept of “generational memory” to conceptualize it as meaningful mnemonic practices. Second, this reconceptualization involves an explicit distinction among three different levels of “memory”: individual, group/community, and public, and, thus, facilitates an examination of qualitatively different properties of culture and social processes at different levels. Third, this book emphasizes intra-generational differences of memory at the different levels and provides a colorful, “hi-definition” image of generational memory rather than a black-and-white, low-resolution one. Fourth, in explaining the intra-generational variations, this book brings class and group, two essential sociological factors, back into the field.

Table of Contents



Chapter 1 Autobiographical memories I: The Winners’ Stories

Chapter 2 Autobiographical memories II: The Lower and The Middle

Chapter 3 The Wasted Years and A Land of Wonder: The Literary Memory

Chapter 4 Regretless Youth and Long Live Youth!: Exhibits and Museums as Sites of Memory

Chapter 5 Nostalgia, Resistance, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Generational Memory In Groups

Chapter 6 “Comrades From Five Lakes and Four Seas!”: When Groups Chuanlian


Appendix Methods and Data