Chairman Mao’s Children: Politics, Generation, and China’s Difficult Memory

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Speaker: Bin Xu, Sociology, Emory University October 26, 2020, Cornell University East Asia Program In the 1960s and 1970s, about 17 million Chinese youths were mobilized or forced by the state to migrate to the rural areas and the frontiers. In his forthcoming book Chairman Mao’s Children: Politics, Generation, and China’s Difficult Memory (Cambridge), Bin Xu tells the story of how this “sent-down youth” (zhiqing) generation, including China’s top leaders, have come to terms with their difficult past in various forms of memory in the past 40 years, including personal life stories, literature, exhibits, museums, and commemorative activities. At the core of this lasting memory boom, however, is their struggle to deal with the tensions between two entangled aspects of memory: their desire to remember their youth and confirm their worthiness on the one hand, and their difficulty in evaluating the controversial send-down program and other political upheavals in the Mao years on the other. Their memory is used by the state to construct an official narrative, which weaves the leaders’ “adversity-to-success” personal experiences into an upbeat story of “China dream” but avoids addressing the controversial event. The memory boom also marginalizes those zhiqing who are still suffering from the harmful impacts of the program and veils voices of self-reflection on their moral responsibility during the political upheavals in their formative years. This generation of “Chairman Mao’s children” are still caught between the political and the personal, past and present, nostalgia and regret, and pride and trauma. Bin Xu is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Emory University. His research interests lie at the intersection of politics and culture, including collective memory, civil society, cultural sociology, and social theory. He is the author of The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford, 2017), which won the 2018 Best Book Prize for Culture and Honorable Mention for Asia from the American Sociological Association. His second book, tentatively titled Chairman Mao’s Children: Politics, Generation, and China’s Difficult Memory is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. He is working on his third book The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society (under contract with Polity Press). His research has appeared in leading sociological and China studies journals. Faculty host: John (Jack) Zinda, Development Sociology Co-sponsored by: Cornell Department of Global Development, Environment and Sociology Major, The Polson Institute for Global Development
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history; East Asia; China; politics; Communism
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