Obituary — Xiaohong Xu

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Xiaohong Xu, assistant professor of sociology, died Dec. 12, 2023, at Angela Hospice near his home in Ann Arbor after a long struggle with cancer. He was 45 years old.

A sociologist of history, politics, culture, political economy and China, Xu’s brilliance, originality and adventurous intellectual spirit shined through his work. With erudition and curiosity that were only matched by his humility and kindness, Xu dedicated his life to developing an innovative cultural framework that examined how revolutionary vanguards arise and create historical change.

Xiaohong Xu
Xiaohong Xu

His award-winning, pathbreaking work about the 20th-century Chinese Revolution has been published on some of his discipline’s most central stages. Xu’s still unpublished work goes as far as arguing that the Chinese Cultural Revolution created the conditions for the country’s subsequent turns to neoliberalism and authoritarianism.

His writing was bold and courageous, as was his approach to public intellectual life. He appeared in numerous panels on contemporary China, wrote about current issues in public forums, and marched with pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong during the turbulent spring and summer of 2019.

A community builder, Xu co-founded THiS — Theory, History, and Society — a platform promoting scholarly conversations across the Pacific. His gentle spirit touched every person who met him. His ambitious research program will have a lasting impact on future scholars of culture, revolution, comparative-historical sociology and social theory.

Xu was born in a rural village near the city of Quzhou in the Zhejiang province of southeastern China. His father was a farmer, and his mother was a village tailor. He left the village at age 12 for a middle school in the county town, sleeping in a room shared with 20 other boys. He visited home every week or two, bringing back to school only rice, steamed buns and pickles as food. He recalled no self-pity but carefree joy in exploring the world around him and expanding his knowledge.

Attending the best high school in Quzhou was Xu’s first city experience. At age 18, he went to the capital to study chemistry at Peking University, where he was drawn toward the social sciences. Xu immersed himself in the thriving avant-garde cultural scene of Beijing, editing for the journal China Scholarship and participating in critical theory circles on and off campus.

He came to the United States in 2003 to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, then transferred to Yale University to earn his Ph.D. in sociology in 2014. Upon graduation, Xu moved back to Asia as an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore and subsequently to Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

He joined the University of Michigan in 2019 as an assistant professor in a joint position in the Department of Sociology and the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, where he was associate director for the last three months of his life.

Xu will be remembered for his infinite generosity and dedication to critical inquiry and to nurturing the next generation of scholars. His career and his life were kindled by a boundless passion for knowledge and ideas, and his bonhomie and far-reaching impact are evident in the hundreds of letters and messages sent to him from across the sociological discipline and beyond during his last weeks of life. 

Xu is survived by his wife, Lang Chen; 9-year-old daughter, Aubree Xu; mother, Yanxiang Fu; father, Huomu Xu; and two brothers, Liming Xu and Xiaobin Xu. He will be forever missed by them and by numerous loving friends, colleagues and students.

Submitted by the Department of Sociology

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