(old three classes)
Laosanjie, literally the ‘old three classes’, is a generational concept referring to the middle school (junior and senior high) graduates in China’s urban areas in the three years of 1966, 1967 and 1968. Members of this generation were born around 1949, the year when the People’s Republic of China was founded. They were the initiators of and main participants in the Red Guard Movement (1966–8) and the ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages Campaign’ (Shangshan xiaxiang yundong, 1967–79), two movements that together spanned the entirety of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Because of its historical experience, this generation overlaps with the ‘Red Guard generation’, ‘Cultural Revolution generation’, and ‘educated-youth generation’, and all four terms are often used in interchangeable ways, though in current Chinese-language publications, laosanjie and ‘educated youth’ are used more often than others, especially by those who belong to this generation.
No one knows exactly how and when the term laosanjie came into use. What is clear is that it became popularized as part of a powerful nostalgic wave that swept across the generation in the 1990s. The triggering event was a museum exhibit that opened on 25 November 1990 in Beijing, entitled ‘Our Spiritual Attachment to the Black Soil—A Retrospective Exhibit about the Educated Youth of Beidahuang’, that traced the history of the ‘sent-down’ movement in the northernmost part of China. From then on, all kinds of social occasions and events involving this generation began to appear across the country. TV documentaries were produced, and hundreds of books were published containing reminiscences of the past or featuring old photos, diaries, letters and poems. An influential book of this kind is Jin Dalu’s Hardship and Heroism-Life Trajectories of Members of the Three Old Classes (Kunan yü fengliu—laosanjie ren de daolu) published in Shanghai in 1994.
In 1998, Jilin People’s Press launched a book series featuring the autobiographies of well-known laosanjie writers, including Chen Jiangong, Lu Xing’er, Xiao Fuxing, Ye Xin, Zhang Kangkang. The conditions of contemporary life contributed to the rise of nostalgia in this generation. While the more successful individuals of the laosanjie felt compelled to reassert and prove themselves, the less fortunate ones felt neglected and wronged during a time of rapid economic transformation. According to the published estimates of some Chinese scholars, when state-owned enterprises began to lay off employees on a large scale in the 1990s, members of the laosanjie were among the hardest hit. Under these conditions, laosanjie and their reminiscences entered China’s cultural discourse as social and moral critique.
Chen, Yixin (1999) ‘Lost in Revolution and Reform: The Socioeconomic Pains of China’s Red Guards Generation, 1966–96’. Journal of Contemporary China 8.21:219–39.
Rosen, Stanley (2000). ‘Foreword’. In Jiang Yarong and David Ashley, Mao’s Children in the New China: Voices from the Red Guard Generation. London: Routledge.
Yang, Guobin (2003). ‘China’s Zhiqing Generation: Nostalgia, Identity, and Cultural Resistance in the 1990s’. Modern China 29.4:267–96.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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