Current Projects

Book Project: Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past: Generation, Class, and Memory

Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past: Generation, Class, and Memory examines the collective memory of China’s “zhiqing” (short for zhishi qingnian, the “educated youth”) generation, the 17 million secondary school graduates sent down to villages, semi-military corps, and state farms in the 1960s and 1970s, during a massive forced migration program. The program was called the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages” program or the “send-down” program in short. 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. Since then, the former zhiqing have told their stories in numerous novels, TV series, memoirs, and exhibits, and they also have organized associations and regularly held reunions and commemorative activities. The memory of the zhiqing generation has become one of the most important and long-lasting cultural phenomena in contemporary China.

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. Four of the seven members of the 18th Standing Committee of the Politburo—the most politically powerful group in China—and three of the seven in the 19th, including Xi and Li, as well as numerous other high-ranking officials, are also former zhiqing. In August 2017, the Party Central published Xi Jinping’s Seven Years as a Zhiqing, required reading for all Communist Party members in China, and, therefore, his zhiqing experience has become an essential part of his “man-of-the-people” image and his official doctrine. The zhiqing years, as this official narrative goes, built his 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. Xi’s political use of his zhiqing experience gives an ideological blessing to many former zhiqing’s desire and endeavors to reaffirm their career success and the values they cherish, such as self-sacrifice for the country and perseverance in the face of suffering and adversities.

A Gathering of the Shanghai Zhiqing to Xinjiang

This revival of interest, however, has brought to the fore many issues surrounding the send-down program and its aftermath. The program changed the life courses of millions of urban youth and deeply affected their families, but failed to achieve the goals of its design. Historian Michel Bonnin calls the zhiqing a “lost generation”: their education was interrupted, they had a hard time reentering the labor force when returning to cities, and their long stay in the countryside resulted in lower social-economic status later in life (Bonnin 2013). For many in this generation, their past cannot be easily weaved into a narrative of success and achievements; it still haunts their memory and even their current daily life. Some zhiqing regularly petition the government to demand adequate social welfare benefits. The send-down program was also historically and politically troublesome because it heavily overlapped with the Cultural Revolution, a dark period of social upheaval and violence. All of these issues make the program what Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz term a “difficult past”—a historical event that is politically controversial, morally questionable, and socially detrimental (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991). Several questions have been repeatedly asked and debated: Are we victims of the wrong policy or heroes who shoulder the social burden of the People’s Republic? Were our best years wasted in the countryside or did we shine despite our dire situation? How should we commemorate the zhiqing event—as a revolutionary pilgrimage or a forced relocation?

A Reunion Activity

Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past examines how the zhiqing generation is coming to terms with their difficult past and aims to explain the variation in their memories. The book draws on extensive data collected over ten years of research, a three-stage process that occurred from 2007-2017, including about 122 interviews, more than 50 ethnographic observations, and thousands of press reports, archival materials, and personal texts and images. It examines three realms of memory: (a) personal narratives, or autobiographic memories; (b) cultural objects (literature, TV series, movies, memoirs, self-published books and magazines, museums and memorials, etc.); and (c) mnemonic practices (commemorative rituals, cultural performances, etc.).

In this book, I make two overarching arguments. First, the zhiqing generation comes to terms with their difficult past in various ways. This variation in memories comes from the conflicts and mismatches between two interwoven components of the difficult past: how to remember their personal experience in their sent-down years and how to evaluate the send-down program as a social-political policy and its impacts. This variation is also in sharp contrast to the popular image of this generation as a homogeneous group, who grew up as “Chairman Mao’s children” indoctrinated into a one-dimensional ideology in their formative years.

Second, class—and related social structures, processes, and mechanisms—play a crucial role in producing the intra-generational variation in the zhiqing’s memories. This role can be summarized as “where they are” and “where they were.” “Where they are” means that their positions in today’s class system shape how they construct coherent narratives to present respectable self-images by drawing a retrospective link between their personal experience in their sent-down years and their present class positions. In this sense, memory resembles aesthetic taste and other symbolic boundaries/classifications, expressing and justifying one’s objective class position and its trajectory. “Where they were” refers to the individual zhiqing’s positions in the politics-based class system during the Mao years, which molded their political habitus. The habitus, in turn, shaped their experience of the send-down program, which formed the foundation of their later evaluative view of the send-down program’s impacts on their personal experience. The habitus may or may not have changed in its interaction with the sea changes in society and politics in the Mao years and the dynamics of the various fields related to their mnemonic practices. The habitus is Mao’s “mental legacy” this generation of “Chairman Mao’s children” are left with.

Significance and Contributions

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). Yet, a comprehensive study of their collective memory is long overdue. This book contributes to the existing scholarship by providing a window into the subjective world of this important generation, who were born at approximately the same time as the People’s Republic and now have become a major cohort of the country’s top leadership. This study engages in the literature of “Mao’s legacy,” not through studies of institutions and cultural objects, which are the focus of existing scholarship (Li and Zhang 2016, Ho and Li 2016, Mittler 2012, Matten 2012, Chan, Madsen, and Unger 2009, Barmé 1996), but rather through a fine-grained inquiry of the mindset and dispositions of this generation of “Chairman Mao’s children,” whose worldviews and actions are still shaping many aspects of contemporary Chinese politics and society.

By studying this important topic, this book also aims to contribute to collective memory studies, a multidisciplinary research field in which sociology has played a crucial role (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 2011, Erll 2011). This book addresses a significant but less studied topic: generation and memory. Generational memory provides us with a valuable chance to understand the intersection between personal biography and history and develop “sociological imagination,” or 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 contributes to the scholarship of generation and memory by emphasizing intra-generational differences in memories, in addition to inter-generational differences, which has been the focus of previous studies (Palmberger 2016, Corning and Schuman 2015). This book follows Mannheim’s theory of “generation units” (Mannheim 1952 [1923]) and examines the same generation’s different memories of a defining event to gain a deeper knowledge of the various ways in which individuals’ life trajectories are entangled with historical processes.

This book also contributes to the collective memory studies by bringing class back into the field. As one of the essential concepts in social sciences, “class” has been “forgotten” by memory studies, remaining underdeveloped and undertheorized. This book relies on a Bourdieusian framework, which consists of a multi-dimensional concept of class position and a concept of habitus as a schema of interpretation and disposition of action, to explain the diverse patterns of narratives and practices along class lines. By emphasizing class, this book also aims to join some major conversations in the general field of cultural sociology. For example, the book’s focus on class contributes to the subfield of stratification and culture by adding memory to the discussion, particularly the literature of symbolic boundaries (Lamont and Fournier 1992).