The place we lived: Chinese childhoods as sites of change and uncertainty

Year: 2019

Author: Wu, Bin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper reports a snapshot of a research project conducted with 40 people who spent their childhoods between 1950s-1990s in Xinxiang, a north-central city in China. It focuses on the change of living environments and childhood memories across generations. The history of Xinxiang dates back to the Sui Dynasty (581-618). With a population of six million, Xinxiang is considered a small town in China. Nonetheless, the development and change of the city typically reflects the general history of central China. Over the last seven decades since the founding of the Republic of China, the condition of people’s material living has been dramatically transformed. Along with economic growth, many issues including increasing job insecurity, social and political instability, inequality and environmental pollution, have emerged. Rapid social changes tend to fuel an idealised image of the past. Both academic scholars and media were quick to report the wave of nostalgia in China (e.g. Cai, 2016; Xu, 2017). This phenomenon is not surprising because nostalgia could work to ensure a sense of continuity, and it is a mechanism to maintain both individual and collective identity (Bird & Reese, 2008). The notion of nostalgia is also a productive method to study people’s responses to change (Ümarik & Goodson, 2018). Against the backdrop of socio-political changes in China, the paper traces the participants’ recalls of their and/or their children’s/grandchildren’s childhoods. The narratives accentuate the tensions between material change and people’s aspirations/ideals and desires. Their memories of childhoods enmesh the past, present and future. It is argued that nostalgia in the narratives is used to channel the anxiety, critique the present in seeking alternative ways of knowing. The paper concludes with a reflection on how researchers and educators can engage with concepts such as nostalgia to disrupt and unsettle childhood as sites of change and uncertainty.


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