Generation and the Politics of Memory in China: Sociologist Bin Xu on Chairman Mao’s Children

Back in September 2017, I interviewed Emory University sociologist Bin Xu about his first book, The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford University Press, 2017). At the end of our exchange, Xu told me about his next project—an examination of collective memory among the zhiqing, or 17 million “educated youth” who were sent from cities down to the countryside in the later years of the Mao era. The goal of the book, Xu said, was “to understand how this important generation’s personal experience has been intertwined with historical processes and sea changes in the past forty years in China.” It’s my pleasure now to interview Bin Xu about his second book, Chairman Mao’s Children: Generation and the Politics of Memory in China (Cambridge University Press, 2021; selected as a 2022 Outstanding Academic Title on China by Choice).

There’s no more famous zhiqing than China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, who has frequently spoken about his time in the countryside as a character-building experience that helped him learn about the “real” China. Not everyone shares Xi’s positive evaluation of their zhiqing days, however. Bin Xu interviews dozens of former zhiqing and recounts their varying views of the send-down program: for some, like Xi, it was a short-term interruption to the expected arc of their lives. For many others, time as a zhiqing derailed their plans and led to feelings of belonging to a lost generation.

Such feelings, and memories of the zhiqing days, are difficult to explore when the Chinese Communist Party has not officially issued an evaluation of the sent-down program—too much public negativity about the past might provoke a political rebuke. Yet as Xu describes, a number of authors, filmmakers, museum curators, and researchers have found ways to navigate this treacherous landscape of memory, sharing the story of the zhiqing era while carefully toeing the Party line.

“This generation of ‘Chairman Mao’s children,’” Xu writes, “are still caught between the political and the personal, past and present, nostalgia and regret, pride and trauma.” Their youth is not their own; personal memories of the past can easily become fraught political issues in the present. Through interviews, participant-observation experiences (including a memorable “Long March” tour with hundreds of zhiqing), and close readings of various cultural texts, Bin Xu has gone beyond the dominant story of Xi Jinping’s zhiqing years to explore the effects of that time on the other 17 million “educated youth” who participated in the sent-down program.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Bin, please accept my (very belated!) congratulations on the publication of Chairman Mao’s Children. It’s exciting to read a previous interviewee’s second book, so I thought we could start with how you moved from one topic to the next. I noticed that in both The Politics of Compassion and Chairman Mao’s Children, your narrative explores the intersection of high politics and personal experience. Are there other connections you see between the two projects?

Bin Xu: Thank you very much, Maura, for your kind words and invitation. It’s great to be on #AsiaNow again. You are absolutely right. Both books explore the intersection between politics and personal experience. In The Politics of Compassion, I examine how the volunteers contributed to the rescue and relief effort after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008, how they understood their actions, how they viewed the local people’s suffering, and how all these were shaped—sometimes enabled but eventually restricted—by the political context. What happened after the Sichuan earthquake was extraordinary. Millions of volunteers, driven by their tears and compassion, went to Sichuan to help people they had no connections with before. Their act of compassion took place under an authoritarian State, which sometimes needs ordinary people’s volunteering for political and ideological purposes but is deeply worried about the potential risks of a self-organizing civil society.   

Similarly, in Chairman Mao’s Children, I also explore the intersection between the personal and the political but in a different event in a different context, the send-down program, a large-scale forcible migration, which involved millions of young participants in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the “zhiqing” were enthusiastic; they wanted to change the frontiers and the villages and contribute to the revolution. But others were forced to leave home. Decades later, their memories have been intertwined with the State’s policies that dealt with the long-term impacts of the send-down program, as well as the State’s attitudes toward this difficult past.

The two projects, however, are connected in a fundamental way. I regard myself as one of those scholars driven by some big questions rather than what’s going on in a subfield. So, I sometimes appear to be hopping from one field to another. These two books are situated in two different fields—civil society and collective memory—but address the same set of questions about human suffering: How do people understand and act on human suffering? How do politics shape their understanding and action?

The volunteers to Sichuan saw people’s suffering from afar, on TV or online, cried, and went to Sichuan to help. But they soon encountered a political and ethical dilemma: if they volunteered to help people with suffering, then what should they do when they knew the suffering was caused by a big, political problem? The most important issue at the time was the collapse of numerous schools in Sichuan, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of students. If they chose to take action to address the problems and investigate the reasons for the collapse, they would get into trouble with the government. Their life and career would be seriously impacted. But if they did not take action, a sense of guilt painfully gnawed at their conscience.

In the zhiqing generation case, they experienced, understood, and remembered their suffering. Most of them did not go down voluntarily; rather, they were forced to leave home at the age of 16, 17, or even younger as participants of one of the largest forcible migration programs in human history—17 million youths from the early 1960s to late 1970s. They saw and experienced the poverty and desolation of Chinese rural areas. They did all kinds of rural work they had never thought about before being sent down. This experience lasted not for a year but for 6-10 years. “How could we make of this suffering?” was a big question they asked themselves. Some viewed the years in the countryside as a complete waste of time and, even worse, with no education and job opportunities in the rural areas, their suffering had lasting experience on their later job and life. Others, like Xi and other “winners” from this group of people, regarded the rural years as a step leading toward their later success—suffering “redeemed” into success. Apparently, as you may imagine, the winners sometimes attribute the losers’ suffering to their own lack of work ethic, perseverance, etc., rather than structural reasons. These diverse views of their past suffering are intersected with their family backgrounds (chushen), the current politics, and other factors. One thing I also emphasize in the book is that the sent-down youths have been too obsessed with their own suffering to pay attention to the local peasants’ suffering, which had been there for hundreds of years, whereas the sent-down youths only stayed for several years.    

MEC: As you explain in the book, the Chinese Communist Party seems to have settled on a course of celebrating the experiences of individual zhiqing (most prominently Xi Jinping) while not making official statements about the zhiqing program itself—though it was clearly seen as a failure even at the time. How does this political limbo affect both the memories and actions of the former zhiqing you interviewed?

BX: In the book, I analogize the Chinese government’s political ambiguity about the send-down program to the American South’s “lost cause” narrative about the Civil War—that is, reaffirming the ideological rhetoric of the event but downplaying the negative side of the event. The “Lost Cause” narrative about the Civil War emphasizes the South’s liberty but shuns difficult questions about slavery. Similarly, the Chinese government’s official narrative about the send-down program praises the practical and ideological goals of the program, such as to develop the frontiers and the rural areas, to build youths’ character, and to sacrifice their best years for a higher goal, etc., all of which remain very much the core of the official ideology today. Nevertheless, the government remains silent on the forcible nature of the program and its exorbitant costs, especially its long-term impacts on this generation’s later life and career.

You can call this kind of narrative a political façade. It is. But its ambiguity and ambivalence have also allowed various memories to grow. In other words, memories of the send-down program are not like those of the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen incident, which are seriously restricted or even completely forbidden. Rather, as I describe in the book, from the crevice in the official narrative, many forms of memories—literature, museums, commemorative events, etc.—have been booming in the past decades. Even the government joins the chorus, certainly in a quite different way—for example, the narrative about Xi’s seven years as a zhiqing emphasizes the character-building effects of his experience and celebrates his, and China’s, upward trajectory from a low point to a high point. Debates over the program can still take place in public discourses; some negative opinions are expressed.

Certainly, all these happen within certain political limits. Politically savvy people know where the limits are. For example, one of my interviewees, also the founder of a zhiqing museum, articulated his strategy of dealing with the political delicacy in his “theory of survival on the surface”: do not try to dig deep into the painful history, only to talk about the people’s contributions; and therefore his museum provides a place for the people to visit, talk about their youth, and have fun.

This strategy of dealing with the difficult past is quite prevalent in many forms of memory. I call this pattern of memory “people but not the event”—talking about the zhiqing, especially their positive dimensions, but not evaluating the send-down program as a historical event, let alone the Cultural Revolution, which heavily overlapped with the program. To some extent, this pattern of “people but not the event” is the minimum consensus among people with different views of the event—who does not want to talk about the good things about themselves? On the other hand, this pattern of memory tends to highlight those who are successful and happier but neglect those whose past suffering still continues—for example, those former zhiqing who are still petitioning the government to change the policies about pensions and hukou that seriously affected their current life due to the forcible migration. In a nutshell, this popular pattern is a political narrative that takes on an apolitical pretense.

MEC: The middle chapters of your book are devoted to cultural representations of the zhiqing experience, both fictional and not. In what ways have such cultural products changed over the years regarding their treatment of the send-down program? Are younger authors (or filmmakers, artists, etc.) with no direct experience of the zhiqing era now looking to that time as source material for their work?

BX: These cultural products change over time in their forms and contents. Their forms have changed from literature and TV dramas in the 1980s to exhibits in the 1990s and museums and memorials since the 2000s. Their contents also have changed from the most critical and traumatic narratives in the novels in the 1980s, as part of the “trauma literature,” to more positive representations in museums and memorials. Of course, if official narratives count as cultural products, they are even more positive in recent years, such as biographical narratives about Xi’s zhiqing years. The reasons for these changes, as I have detailed in the book, include not only ideological and political reasons, which are easy to identify and understand, but also other reasons, such as the life course stages of the zhiqing, the development of the cultural markets, and resources that the leading zhiqing possess. For example, the booming zhiqing literature in the 1980s could be explained by the zhiqing’s life course stage—returning from the countryside and having difficulty rejoining the urban labor force—and the literature market opportunities for amateur writers’ biographical writing.

Are younger cultural creators with no direct experience of the zhiqing years interested in this topic? Generally, such interests are very limited, almost nonexistent. Even if a few of them are interested, their products are insignificant and do not sell well. I am sure you haven’t heard of any of these products. In the book, I describe a young movie director who made a zhiqing film but was broke. And then he slept in a zhiqing magazine’s office, on a few chairs, when he was screening the film in Shanghai.

This lack of interest in the zhiqing experience among the younger cultural creators is just an example of the general diminishing influence of the zhiqing memory and culture. The reasons are many, but one of them has to do with this generation’s cultural repertoire, which was formed in the Mao years and does not attract many people besides themselves. A deeper reason was that the younger generation did not understand why the zhiqing were forced to go down, lived miserably, but now still want to celebrate their misery. This is certainly a simplistic impression. As my book reveals, there are lots of nuances in the zhiqing’s memories, some of which are painful and defiant. But the general public are not sociologists; they pay little attention to the nuances. The main narratives in their parents’ or grandparents’ memories just don’t resonate with them. Over time, the memory boom of the zhiqing past becomes a memory of the zhiqing, by the zhiqing, and for the zhiqing.

MEC: Shortly after finishing your book, I was reading Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, by Timothy Garton Ash, in which he quotes a line of poetry by James Fenton: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.” It made me chuckle because that seems such an apt description of the zhiqing reunions and excursions you describe. What do you think continues to bring former zhiqing together when there seems to be such an aversion to engaging with their shared past experiences?

BX: The poem describes a quite general phenomenon. On the one hand, even a painful, controversial past can bring people who experienced the past together because even misery could lead to commiseration and commemoration. On the other hand, if a certain past is too controversial and could instantly provoke debates among those who experienced the past, then the best way for them to get together is not to talk too much about the past. Rather, as described in my book, downplaying and even forgetting the past is the obvious choice. Therefore, “happy together” rather than “never forget” becomes their slogan.

I also want to emphasize that this “happy together” pattern has its political and social limits. Some groups do not have the luxury of forgetting the past because their past still lives in the present; they feel the pain on a daily basis. They are still regularly petitioning the authorities to change various kinds of problems related to their pensions and hukou. For example, they were forced to migrate from Shanghai to a much less developed province and retired there. Now, they return to Shanghai but have lower pensions because of the regional difference, and more importantly, much of their medical insurance simply does not work in Shanghai. One big factor that causes these problems is their hukou, which remains in their sent-down provinces if they retire there. Their claim hinges on a narrative about the painful past: “the government forced us to go down and now should be responsible for all these problems caused by the migration program.” Are they happy? No. Can they forget the past? No. Moreover, if such claims are the main narratives in the commemorative activities, then such commemorative activities would be strictly watched and even forbidden by the government. The case of Xinjiang zhiqing’s years of commemorations and protests is a typical case of this kind of “historically remaining issues.”

MEC: Since you published Chairman Mao’s Children, there’s been a lot of media coverage about the employment difficulties and general ennui among Chinese youth today, and Xi Jinping has called on them to “eat bitterness” in the way that he did during his zhiqing days. How do you read this reference to the past amid the politics of the present?

BX: Before the youth unemployment problem became dire recently, Xi—or, more precisely, the official narratives about his youth experience in a Sha’anxi village—had already repeatedly urged young people to build their character through “eating bitterness” and toughing out difficulties. It is not surprising to see the State draw on an old experience, at least symbolically, to find a way to mitigate a similar problem (one of the goals of the send-down program was to solve the youth unemployment problem in the 1960s), especially, as I mentioned earlier, “eating bitterness” and other ideological elements were in the “lost cause” of the send-down program. The program failed, but the State has been trying to salvage some useful things from the catastrophe.

Will this invoking of the past succeed? I do not think so. The most obvious reason is that such propagandistic narratives do not and cannot sustain another large-scale migration program or something similar. Such a program is simply impossible in today’s diverse, market-based society, although many are worried about the so-called “revival of Maoism.” Some elements from the Maoist period will come back, including the zhiqing-related ideological rhetoric. Yet, Chinese society has changed so much that any anachronistic effort will encounter much stronger resistance and even be botched. The youths today are completely different. Some are nationalistic, but most young people watch K-dramas, follow TFBoys, and pursue personal success and pleasure. The leaders should not expect an enthusiastic response to their years of calling for eating bitterness. A simple rehash of the zhiqing rhetoric and narrative will not work well.

MEC: Finally, I know you’re spending the 2023-24 academic year on a fellowship in Berlin. What is the project that you’ll focus on during your time there, and what else do you hope to do while in Europe?

BX: In my fellowship year at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin), I plan to work on a couple of concurrent projects. The one I proposed for the fellowship was about the relationship between silence, forgetting, and memory with the 1989 Tiananmen incident as a case. Put it in plain English, silence is not forgetting, although people tend to use them interchangeably. When people are not talking about a certain event, you cannot just say “they have forgotten” the event. Rather, they may not be able to talk due to some political pressure. Or, they don’t want to talk because they think of the event as a shame or an insignificant happening. Or, they simply don’t know about the event because their textbooks in schools or public sources of information do not present the event—this is a lack of knowledge but not “forgetting.” All these diverse nuances are not effectively addressed by the empirically vague and ethically questionable term “forgetting.” This project will be a combination of theoretical contemplation and empirical research.

Another project I plan to work on in my Berlin year is about death, mourning, and commemoration in the COVID crises. I examine important mourning events, such as mourning for Dr. Li Wenliang in China and public mourning rituals in the United States for the COVID victims. I also investigate hundreds of cases of grassroots mourning and commemorations, including memorial sites, rituals, artistic works, online memorials, etc. I examine whether and how both the Chinese and American governments demonstrated their sympathy toward people’s deaths and suffering and how both governments want people to forget about millions of deaths or try to silence those who keep reminding us that we should remember.

How are these two projects related to my previous work? Of course, they are both in the field of memory, but they are deeply connected to each other because they all address cultural and political interpretations of human suffering and death, as I mentioned at the beginning of this interview.

In addition to research projects, in my spare time, I will visit many commemorative sites in Germany and adjacent countries. You probably know that Germany is one of the most important “sites” for collective memory. Scholars working on German memories produce many of the most important works on memory. The Germans’ public concerns about its difficult past have been revolving around many physical memorial sites. So, the fellowship is also a wonderful learning experience for me.    

MEC: Once again, Bin, congratulations on publishing a wonderful and important book!