Join Sebastian Veg (EHESS) and writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo for a conversation about the book Minjian: The Rise China's Grassroots Intellectuals.
Who are the new Chinese intellectuals? In the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement and the rapid marketization of the 1990s, a novel type of grassroots intellectual emerged. Instead of harking back to the traditional role of the literati or pronouncing on democracy and modernity like 1980s public intellectuals, they derive legitimacy from their work with the vulnerable and the marginalized, often proclaiming their independence with a heavy dose of anti-elitist rhetoric. They are proudly minjian—unofficial, unaffiliated, and among the people.
In this book, Sebastian Veg explores the rise of minjian intellectuals and how they have profoundly transformed China’s public culture. An intellectual history of contemporary China, Minjian documents how, amid deep structural shifts, grassroots thinker-activists began to work outside academia or policy institutions in an embryonic public sphere. Veg explores the work of amateur historians who question official accounts, independent documentarians who let ordinary people speak for themselves, and grassroots lawyers and NGO workers who spread practical knowledge. Their interventions are specific rather than universal, with a focus on concrete problems among disenfranchised populations such as victims of Maoism, migrant workers and others without residence permits, and petitioners. Drawing on careful analysis of public texts by grassroots intellectuals and the networks and publics among which they circulate, Minjian is a groundbreaking transdisciplinary exploration of crucial trends developing under the surface of contemporary Chinese society.
Sebastian Veg is professor of the intellectual history of twentieth-century China at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris. He is the author of Fictions du pouvoir chinois. Littérature, modernisme et démocratie au début du XXe siècle (2009) and the editor of Popular Memories of the Mao Era: From Critical Debate to Reassessing History (2019).
Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese British novelist and filmmaker and fellow with the Institute for Ideas and Imagination. She has published several books in both English and Chinese. Her memoir Nine Continents won the National Books Critics Circle Award 2017. I Am China was one of NPR’s Best Books of the Year. Her previous novels include A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Orange Fiction Prize Shortlist.) She also directed feature films including She, A Chinese and UFO In Her Eyes. She describes her work as “documentary novels.”