April 17, 2023
Biao Xiang |Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
3:00 PM in Haskell Hall

ABSTRACT: How has individual ambition—the desire to improve one’s social standing—driven China’s remarkable growth over the last forty years, and subsequently become a source of the widespread feeling of powerlessness, especially among the youths? 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 as a collective outlook at the end of the 19th century, 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 is turned 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 channeled to hierarchically organized competition that is often led by the state (e.g. in the rigidly unified education system). This explains why inter-personal competition in China became particularly fierce and all embracing. Young people, especially at lower socioeconomic positions, are often forced into competition for material resources and for basic social recognition. Many feel burnout, but have difficulties in breaking into alternative paths of life. 

BIOGRAPHY: Biao Xiang is director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Germany). He has worked on migration and social change in China, India and other parts of Asia. Currently, he is exploring the “common concerns approach” in social research. More information can be found here

Please join us for a reception on Haskell’s mezzanine immediately following Dr. Xiang’s talk.