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Michel Bonnin The “Lost Generation”: Its Definition and Its Role in Today’s Chinese Elite Politics THE “ LOST G EN ERA TIO N,” OR THE GENERATION OF THE CULTURAL revolution, is unique in world history: it is the result of the demiurgical will of one man, Mao Zedong, to create a whole generation of “revolutionary successors” entirely devoted to the cause of socialism and to the realization of Maoist ideals. Even though Mao’s endeavor ended in complete failure, the mark it left on the young people who experienced it was deep enough to form a very specific and particularly self-conscious generation. Awareness of being part of a certain generation is not limited to this particular group and is more widespread in China than in most countries. Articles and books on generational phenomena are also particularly numerous in China, and the subject is frequently dealt with among observers and scholars outside the People’s Republic. But the criteria used to define different generations are not always clear and well founded. Moreover, the definition of the concept ofgeneration itself is disputed and many social scientists, especially in the United States, reject its use outside the realm of kinship. We feel, therefore, obliged to clarify first what we mean by this concept and why it can be useful. This should help us answer our main questions: How do we define the “generation of the Cultural Revolution”? What is its role in today’s Chinese politics and what could it be in the near future? social research Vol 73 : No 1 : Spring 2006 245 THE CONCEPT OF “GENERATION”: THE NECESSARY “RECTIFICATION OF NAMES” Generation is a word commonly used in everyday life, with different meanings. Even in the social sciences, the concept is far from being simple and clear-cut. However, theoretical foundations to define it already exist and can be relied upon. In viewing some confusions that plague—at least in the eyes of this author—even the best research on the question of generations in China, and particularly leadership generations, it seems necessary to first “rectify names” (zheng ming), as advised by Confucius, in order to avoid adding confusion to an already complex and subtle matter.1 Mannheim’s Conception Our best guide in this endeavor should certainly be Karl Mannheim, who in the 1920s produced the most systematic and penetrating reflec­ tions on the concept of generations, a term that had already been used in the social sciences for a few decades.2 Until now, almost all Western scholars who have written on the issue of generations in China refer to Mannheim’s work entitled TheProblem ofGenerations. However, it seems that many of them pay only lip service to this “seminal work” and do not really apply its main findings to their own work. In this sense, Mannheim’s sociology of generations is still “an undervalued legacy,” as Jane Pilcher wrote more than 10 years ago (Pilcher, 1994: 481-495). Mannheim inherited Dilthey’s idea that common historical expe­ rience during the formative years is what makes a generation (Dilthey, 1991). A generation, then, cannot be defined by purely objective and mechanical criteria, as attempted by positivist thinkers like Auguste Comte (1908 [1880]), but is tied to a subjective experience of time. Mannheim has developed this idea by showing that the time span of a generation cannot be determined by the biological cycle of human reproduction but only by the movement of social change, which in modern histoiy is subject to abrupt changes in rhythm. In certain cases, small differences in age make a big difference in generation belong­ ing, because a sudden disruption can transform the social experience of 246 social research youth. Radical disruption of the social continuity is also the foundation stone on which generation consciousness is built. Generations, then, have varying time spans, according to the tempo of historical change. No universal rule can spare the researcher the effort of determining the length of a given generation. Mannheim shows that many authors have tried in vain to define the length of a generation. As for the spatial span of a generation, Mannheim has pointed to the fact that chronological contemporaneousness is not sufficient to shape...


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