My Research

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

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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).



Current Project: Collective Memory of China’s “Educated Youth” (zhiqing) Generation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Top Photo: Zhang Xiaoning’s Private Museum on Zhiqing in Nanjing. Bottom: Heihe Zhiqing Museum, Heilongjiang

I am currently working on a project along my primary line of research interest in collective memory: collective memory of China’s “educated youth” (zhiqing) generation. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese state sent about 17 million secondary school graduates to villages and state farms. The purposes of this large-scale forced migration included to alleviate urban unemployment problem, to indoctrinate the youth, and to end the mess caused by the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. The program ended in the late 1970s when the state implicitly admitted the project’s failure and the educated youth protested to demand to return to cities.

The topic of zhiqing’s history and memory attracts much public attention in recent years, when some former zhiqing enter the elite class and even become China’s leaders, for example, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. But the memory boom accentuates a series of political and social problems in the past and present. The “educated youth” program involved millions of youth and families but failed to achieve its designed goals. It was also closely related to, and to a large extent, was part of, the Cultural Revolution, a historical period officially defined as “ten years of upheavals.” Moreover, the program changed a whole generation’s life course, delayed their education, and resulted in their lower social-economic statuses. In addition, some zhiqing, particularly those Shanghai zhiqing who went to Xinjiang before the Cultural Revolution, have been petitioning to the government to demand social welfare benefits and corresponding hukou policy adjustment. All 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.

On the other hand, despite the difficult past, many former zhiqing endeavor to reaffirm values of their youth and traditional virtues they cherish, such as self-sacrifice, endurance, and perseverance. 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 shining in the dire situation? Various interpretations of their past and its meanings are also expressed, realized, and represented in a variety of cultural objects (novels, exhibits, memorials, TV series, etc.) and mnemonic practices (personal narratives, commemorative activities, etc.). How do the former zhiqing come to terms with the past’s two contrasting and even conflicting aspects—the need to confirm their dignity and worthiness and their troubled identity as participants of a controversial historical event? What can account for their various ways of commemorating the difficult past?

Zhiqing Reunion Gathering

With the help from the Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (FAD) supported by the ASA and NSF, I have collected data from in-depth interviews, participant observation, visits to memorials, literary works, memoirs, and archives during my fieldwork from 2012 to 2014. I examine the questions in three realms of memory: (1) cultural objects (literature, TV series, movies, memoirs, self-published books and magazines, museums and memorials, etc.); (2) personal narratives; (3) mnemonic practices (commemorative rituals, cultural performances, etc.).

I argue that former zhiqing’s present class positions and other inequality-related factors are central to both their collective memory as a group and their individual memories. As a group, because of their lower social-economic status, they have been pursuing public recognition of their contribution and dignity to enhance their symbolic status. As individuals, the class differentiation and life course divergence within the generation also shapes how they interpret their suffering in the past. For example, is the suffering a necessary step toward their later success or the painful youth wasted in the countryside? The within-generation class differentiation also affects who have economic, cultural, political, and symbolic capital to organize mnemonic practices, produce cultural objects, and publicize their views of the past. All these class-related factors function in different historical contexts, which are shaped by features of cultural production fields—literature, popular culture, and self-organized commemorative field—as well as the state’s political agenda and related social policies.

The study makes significant contributions to sociology of collective memory by bringing back in a less studied factor: social class. Drawing on Bourdieu’s cultural theory, this project theorizes “difficult past” as struggle for symbolic capital—that is, public recognition of dignity of a group who is connected to a controversial event. By highlighting class, this study reconnects collective memory to the vast literature on social inequality and culture.

Xinjiang Zhiqing Activity

The study also contributes to China studies by addressing collective memory of one of the most important generations in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The zhiqing generation’s life course has been synchronizing with history of the People’s Republic, and this generation’s mentality and habitus has been and still is influencing China’s politics and society. Moreover, this study confirms a central theme in China studies—social inequality—and extends it to the realm of collective memory of the Maoist past. Instead of viewing the zhiqing generation as a monolithic group of “Chairman Mao’s children”, this study indicates that their collective class status and the class differentiation within this generation are what they are really concerned with, what shape their various views of the past, and what are central to their mnemonic practices.

I am currently writing a book manuscript and a few articles based on this project.

Ritual and Commemoration of Disasters 

Politics of Disaster: Moral Performance and Its Limitations

  • Bin Xu. 2016. “Moral Performance and Cultural Governance in China: The Compassionate Politics of Disasters.” China Quarterly 226 (June): 407-430.
  • 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. 2012. “Grandpa Wen: Scene and Political Performance.” Sociological Theory 30 (2): 114-129.

War Memory and Nationalism

  • Qian, Licheng, Bin Xu, and Dingding Chen. 2016. “Does History Education Promote Nationalism in China? A ‘Limited Effect’ Explanation.” Journal of Contemporary China (online first)
  • Bin Xu and Xiaoyu Pu. 2010. “Dynamic Statism and Memory Politics: A Case Analysis of the Chinese War Reparations Movement.” China Quarterly 201(1): 156-175.
  • Bin Xu and Gary Alan Fine. 2010. “Memory Movement and State-Society Relationship in Chinese World War II Victims’ Reparations Movement against Japan.” Pp.166-189 in Northeast Asia’s Difficult Past: Essays in Collective Memory, edited by Mikyoung Kim and Barry Schwartz. Palgrave-McMillan.

Politics of Reputation

  • Gary Alan Fine and Bin Xu. 2011. “Honest Broker: The Politics of Expertise in the ‘Who Lost China?’ Debate.” Social Problems 58 (4): 593-614. 

Other Writing and Publications


翻译《卡尔曼海姆精粹》南京大学出版社 (Translation: Selected Papers of Karl Mannheim)

翻译:《文化:社会学的视野》(John R. Hall, Mary Jo Neitz,商务印书馆)