The Privatization of Ambition in China: A History

MPIfG Lecture

  • Date: May 31, 2023
  • Time: 05:00 PM (Local Time Germany)
  • Speaker: Biao Xiang
  • Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
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  • Location: Cologne
The Privatization of Ambition in China: A History

How has individual ambition – the desire to improve one’s life chances – driven China’s remarkable growth over the last forty years, and subsequently become a source of the widespread feeling of powerlessness, especially among the youth? To address this question, Xiang provides a history of ambition in China with a focus on its “privatization.” Ambition as a widely approved attitude in China emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a collective outlook, namely the national ambition for independence and development. This collective ambition resulted in a set of ideologies, for instance those of the inevitable progress of history and the glory of sacrificing short-term benefits for long-term visions. After the 1980s, the desire for collective betterment turns into individuals’ pursuits for personal interests. But old ideological apparatus and institutional structure remain hegemonic. In this condition, individual ambition is construed as part of nationalist endeavor and is therefore legitimated, and unchecked by such concerns as individual responsibility. Individual ambition in practice is channeled into hierarchically organized competition that is often led by the state (e.g., in the rigidly unified education system). This explains why interpersonal competition in China became particularly fierce and all-embracing. Young people, especially in lower socioeconomic positions, are often forced into competition for material resources and for basic social recognition. Many feel burned-out but have difficulties breaking into alternative paths of life.

Recommended reading

Biao, Xiang. 2021. “Anthropologist Xiang Biao on China’s Involuted Generation.” Interview by Cai Yiwen and Xie Anran. Sixth Tone, December 27, 2021.

Biao Xiang is a social anthropologist who has worked on migration and various political economy issues in China, India, and other parts of Asia. Currently a director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, he is exploring a “common concerns” approach in social research.

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