Chairman Mao’s Children: Generation and the Politics of Memory in China

Chairman Mao's Children_cover


Selected by Choice Review to be one of the five “Outstanding Academic Titles regarding China, 2022

20% discount on Paperback (enter the code POLI5022 at the checkout) on Cambridge University Press or on Amazon


In the 1960s and 1970s, around 17 million Chinese youths were mobilized or forced by the state to migrate to villages and the frontiers. This “sent-down youth” generation, including China’s leaders today, have been struggling to come to terms with their difficult past in various representations of memory, including life stories, literature, exhibits, museums, and commemorative activities. They strive to reconcile their longing for recognition with the controversies over the send-down program and the Cultural Revolution. The state uses their memories, especially the leaders’ sent-down experiences, to construct the official “China dream” narrative. The memories, however, marginalize those still suffering from legacies of the program and shun self-reflections on their moral-political responsibilities.

In this new book, I provide a fine-grained analysis of this generation of “Chairman Mao’s children,” caught between the political and the personal, past and present, pride and trauma. The book also enriches the theoretical understanding of generation, politics, and memory by highlighting intra-generational differences in memory and the understudied roles of class and group. Drawing on an in-depth empirical and theoretical analysis, I also contemplate some ethical and political issues, including social inequality and historical responsibility. 

This book is based on a decade-long (2007–2018), multi-stage, mixed-method project. In writing the book, I use the extensive data collected from 124 in-depth interviews about the zhiqing’s life history and other issues, many ethnographic observations that lasted from several hours to a week, thousands of press reports, numerous archival materials, personal texts, and literary works. I describe, analyze, and explain memories of the zhiqing generation, in several time periods, at different levels, and in various forms, including their life stories, literature, exhibits, museums, and commemorative activities. With this mountain of data and, more importantly, my long-time, on-the-ground interactions with the zhiqing, I attempt to offer a vivid picture of their passions, struggles, and dilemmas.

Reviews & Endorsements

‘Questioning the mythologizing of the Educated Youth experience as embodied by elites such as Xi Jinping, Bin Xu gives us well-rounded portraits of losers as well as winners of this Cultural Revolution policy, while making a major contribution to the sociological study of the construction and consequences of memory.’ Thomas Gold, University of California, Berkeley

‘Since it was first formulated in the 1920s by sociologist Karl Mannheim, the problem of generations has been notoriously difficult to study empirically. Yet Bin Xu has managed to capture China’s recent generational story here without simplifying it unduly. Chairman Mao’s Children is thus a model of sociological clarity and an important contribution to the literature on political culture, collective memory, and social change in China and beyond.’ Jeffrey K. Olick, University of Virginia

‘Chairman Mao’s Children authoritatively and sympathetically analyzes current identity dilemmas and memory challenges of China’s zhiqing generation, a generation of urban youth sent to rural villages in the 1960s and 70s. Beautifully written, theoretically sophisticated, and methodologically rigorous, Bin Xu reveals the multiple ways these individuals and their society do, and don’t, come to terms with the consequences of such rupturing historical events.’ Robin Wagner-Pacifici, The New School for Social Research

A Zhiqing Museum in Heihe, Heilongjiang


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Winners’ Stories
Chapter 2 Unequal Memories
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: Generation and Memory in Groups
Chapter 6 “Comrades from Five Lakes and Four Seas!”: When Groups Chuanlian
Appendix Methods and Data

A Preview of Chapters

In Chapters 1 and 2, I use qualitative and quantitative analyses of the life history interviews with the zhiqing to describe and explain various patterns of their autobiographical memory. Their autobiographical memory varies greatly, and the variation can be explained by “class,” including their present class positions and their chushen and habitus formed in the Mao years.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on “public memory.” I do not follow the analytical order from micro to meso to macro – that is, presenting “group memory” right after individual memory – because the public memory of the zhiqing generation happened first in time order: literary memory in the 1980s and exhibits in the 1990s before group memory emerged in the late 2000s. Chapter 3 focuses on various patterns of literary memory in the 1980s and later and shows that the pattern of “good people but the bad event” became dominant. The variations and trend in the literary memory can be explained by the interplay of several factors: the dominant realism and unusual dynamics in the literary field in the 1980s, major authors’ habitus, the lower-class position of the returning zhiqing, and the state’s political use of the Maoist past. In Chapter 4, I examine “sites of memory”: the exhibits in the 1990s and museums since the 2000s. I show that memory entrepreneurs and dynamics of cultural production fields result in a pattern of representation centered on “people but not the event.” Such a pattern, however, provokes even more public debates than expected.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on generation and memory in group interactions. In Chapter 5, I describe different patterns of group memory – including “socialist nostalgia,” “rightful resistance,” and “people but not the event” – which are manifested in narratives, symbols, rituals, speech norms, and other practices. I explain those patterns by examining the interaction between memory entrepreneurs’ class positions and habitus and their group processes. In Chapter 6, I focus on intergroup activities. As the activities are booming, conflicts and tensions also emerge along the fault lines of class and ideology, and the cultural influence of this generation outside their memory field is limited.

In the conclusion, I return to where I start. I first discuss how the research presented in this book can help us understand the Chinese state’s official memory of President Xi’s zhiqing experience. Then I recapitulate the major arguments and discuss in detail the broader empirical and theoretical implications of this study. I will end the book with a discussion of the political ethics of the zhiqing generation’s memory, the normative goal of my book, to reflect on the ethical issues in similar cases of memory.

A former zhiqing walking in front of a commemoration wall with pictures of the zhiqing working in Jiagedaqi, Heilongjiang.