Book: The Politics of Compassion

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)

  • An interview with the Association of Asian Studies (

  • Reviewed in Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Chinese Political Science, China Quarterly.




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

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).