Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Genesis of a Chinese Public Sociologist by François Lachapelle

Global Dialogue - Newsletter for the International Sociological Assocation Volume 6, Issue 2 (June 2016)

“Where society comes from is an extremely important question. Because you [Westerners] are born in a country with a society, [the very concept of society] is taken for granted. This is completely different for us. We have to start anew.” Interview with Shen Yuan, 2012, Tsinghua University, Beijing. Sitting behind his office desk, smiling slightly, Shen Yuan appeared somewhat entertained to be the subject of a Canadian sociologist’s study. Before I could even ask him my first question, the Chinese scholar inquired, “Why are you researching Chinese intellectuals?” – only to interrupt himself by observing : “you should not study me. If you want to study any of us you should study Sun Liping”. Pointing towards his well-known colleague’s office, Shen continued, “he is the most brilliant of all of us. Or you could study us as a group who has worked together for over a decade.” Later in the interview, Shen identified Li Qiang and Guo Yuhua along with himself and Sun Liping as the other members of this group, all of whom were also founding members of the Tsinghua Department of Sociology in 2000. Born in 1954 in China’s capital of Beijing, Shen Yuan is part of a generation known in China as zhiqing – educated youth. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao Zedong abruptly interrupted the formal schooling of nearly 17 million Chinese youth by sending them to the countryside for radical “re-education”. By thus learning from and being transformed by the revolutionary wisdom of the rural masses, they were to become the next generation of Chinese revolutionaries. Like so many other displaced youth, Shen was sent away for a number of years. After the death of Mao in 1976 and the re-establishment of China’s educational system over the following two years, only a small fraction (2.3%) of Shen’s generation had the privilege of entering university to resume their education. He was one of them.