Online seminar #4: Chairman Mao’s Children: Generation and the Politics of Memory in China

Bin Xu (Emory University) in conversation with Iza Ding (University of Pittsburgh)

PoSoCoMeS online seminar series: session #4

4 October, 5:30 pm CET

Zoom link:

In the 1960s and 1970s, around 17 million Chinese youths were mobilized or forced by the state to migrate to rural villages and China's frontiers. Bin Xu’s Chairman Mao’s Children: Generation and the Politics of Memory in China (Cambridge University Press 2021) explores how China’s ‘sent-down youth’ (zhiqing) generation come to terms with their difficult past. By analysing representations of memory including personal life stories, literature, museum exhibitions and acts of commemoration, he argues that these representations are defined by a struggle to reconcile worthiness with the political upheavals of the Mao years. These memories, however, are used by the state to construct an official narrative that weaves this generation's experiences into an upbeat story of the ‘China dream’. This marginalises those still suffering and obscures voices of self-reflection on their moral-political responsibility for their actions. Xu provides a careful analysis of this generation of ‘Chairman Mao's children’, caught between the political and the personal, past and present, nostalgia and regret, and 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, the author also contemplates ethical and political issues such as social inequality and historical responsibility. The book is based on a decade-long (2007–2018), multi-stage, mixed-method project, and data collected from over 100 interviews, many ethnographic observations, thousands of press reports, numerous archival materials, personal texts and literary works.

Bin Xu is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). His research covers cultural sociology, political sociology and China studies as well as collective memory studies. He is the author of The Politics of Compassion: the Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford University Press 2017), which received the Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture and Honorable Mention for Best Book on Asia/Transnational from the American Sociological Association (2018) and The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society (forthcoming with Polity Press) as well as numerous articles appearing in leading journals in sociology and China studies. Bin Xu is a recipient of many awards and grants and one of the Public Intellectuals Program fellows at the National Committee on US-China Relations.

Iza Ding is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research explores the antinomies emerging through economic and political modernization, such as development and environmentalism, bureaucracy and populism, and liberalism and nationalism. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Comparative Political Studies, China Quarterly, Chinese Political Science Review, Democratization, Studies in Comparative and International Development, and World Politics. Her book The Performative State is forthcoming from Cornell University Press.