Changing Fate: The Cultural Revolution’s Rural Youth in Transition to Post-Mao China
Pengfei Zhao

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Florida

Primary Discipline

During China’s structural transformation from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to the late socialist era, the educational reform in 1977 for the first time introduced competition into the life of ordinary Chinese youth. This pivotal event happened at the historical juncture when different parts of the world geared up to embrace a neoliberal world order. If, as Foucault and Wendy Brown suggest, the meaning-loaded term “neoliberalism” is defined as a new form of rationality that employs economic terms, especially the mechanism of competition, to configure and normalize all aspects of social life, then it was through the 1977 educational reform, rather than historical events in other domains, that we have seen the origin and rise of neoliberalism in modern China. The proposed critical ethnographic study, the Changing Fate Project, aims at exploring the interlocking themes of the origin of neoliberalism in China, the local implementation of educational reforms, and their long-term impact on educational inequality through foregrounding the voices and lived experience of a social group that were most significantly impacted by the aforementioned historical events, the students. Specifically, it focuses on the disadvantaged social group of then rural youth, who received school education in the Cultural Revolution and came of age during the post-Mao transition. By highlighting a grassroots-level narrative of educational reforms, disadvantage youth’s coming of age experience, and the reforms’ influence on Chinese youth’s life course, the project entails an alternative understanding of China’s radical social changes from socialism to late/post socialism, and facilitates the development of a refined and nuanced understanding of the rise and manifestation of neoliberalism in modern China.
About Pengfei Zhao
Pengfei Zhao is an Assistant Professor of Qualitative Methodology at the University of Florida’s College of Education. She has an interdisciplinary background in inquiry methodology, sociology, and cultural studies. In her theoretical and methodological work, she draws from a wide spectrum of theories—from critical theories to contemporary pragmatism, feminism, and post-colonial studies—to formulate a praxis- and social justice-oriented qualitative research methodology. In her empirical work, she primarily uses ethnographic, narrative, and action research approaches to address educational issues such as disadvantaged youth’s coming of age experience, school-community-family relationships, and student-centered teaching and learning. Dr. Zhao received her Ph.D. in Inquiry Methodology with a minor in Social Theory Studies from Indiana University Bloomington

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