The Changing Fate Project


How do adolescents grow into mature adults during massive social changes? Traditional social theories emphasize the role of school education in preparing adolescents for the necessary social, cultural and cognitive skills in their coming of age process. However, when school education fails to do so, how do adolescents grow into adult social members and what challenges, difficulties, and struggles do they have to deal with? I explore this question in the context of modern and contemporary China, a country whose incredible socio-cultural and political changes make it especially well-suited for this study.

The Changing Fate Project examines Chinese rural youth’s coming of age experience in the country’s transition from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to post-Mao market reforms. During the Cultural Revolution, the youth in China’s countryside received a rural-oriented and collectivist school education, which did not prepare them for the ensuing social changes that led to a world of urbanization and individualization. This phenomenon then leads me to ask how rural youth in China navigated their lives and transformed their identity during and right after the years of social changes. Based on ethnographic and life history data, I argue that a combination of micro and macro level factors—most importantly, family, state ideology and gender—enabled rural youths to internalize different sets of social norms and channeled them to distinctive life paths. The project offer an alternative understanding of China’s radical social changes from socialism to late/post socialism by highlighting the grassroots-level narrative of educational reforms and facilitates the development of a refined and nuanced understanding of the rise and manifestation of neoliberalism in modern China.

Currently, I am working on a book manuscript derived from this project, which is tentatively titled Changing Fate: The Cultural Revolution’s Rural Youth in Transition to Post-Mao China.


2021 National Academy of Education and Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship

2019 Illinois Qualitative Distinguished Dissertation Award (Traditional Category), International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry

2017 IIQM PhD Dissertation Award, International Institute for Qualitative Methodology, Canada


Zhao, P. (book in progress). Changing Fate: The Cultural Revolution’s Rural Youth in Transition to Post-Mao China.

Zhao, P. (2020). “Working the Hyphens in Contemporary China: Reconsidering Researcher-participant Relationship in an Authoritarian State.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2020.1828642.