Theses Doctoral

A Revolution Domesticated: Negotiating Family Life in Urban China, 1959-1984

Huang, Yanjie

Based on newfound family letters, factory archives, oral history, and offiicial publications in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, this dissertation examines how urban Chinese families weathered the economic aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution by negotiating with the austerity measures, official ideology, and street-level bureaucracy. Such multivalent negotiations gave rise to "xiaokang", a “Confucianized” doctrine of depoliticized economic development, providing a durable basis for socialist China’s integration with the capitalist world order. A Shanghai-focused history of urban household economy and grassroots ideology in socialist China, this dissertation explains how urban families shaped modern China’s state-society dynamics and charted China’s unique transition away from Communism.

Urban families’ experiences in late Maoist China were profoundly shaped by “revolutionary austerity”, characterized by ideological mobilization of urban families to bear the costs of Mao’s continuous revolution. By separating millions of teenagers from their families, the send-down youths movement (1968-1980) marked the austerity's apex. Instead of continuing the revolution, the send-down youths movement and other revolutionary austerity measures transformed urban families into smaller, more efficient, and depoliticized economic units. Once the ideologically disillusioned and economically strained sent-down youths negotiated the difficult bureaucratic terrain to achieve family reunion, they reinvested the virtue of sacrifice to the “possessive vision” of family life and the cultivation of their single child. By examining eight collections of Mao-era family letters in the context of larger historical processes, this dissertation demonstrates a significant shift in the late Maoist household economy and grassroots sentiments undergirding China’s "xiaokang" ideology.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Huang_columbia_0054D_16877.pdf Huang_columbia_0054D_16877.pdf application/pdf 2.03 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 27, 2021