Domestic Affairs

Chinese youth: Rise of a new culture

By Geeta Kochhar (
Updated: 2011-06-14 11:35
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Looking at the drastic changes that China has undergone since the 1980s, what comes to light is not only a shift in the core leadership and party policies, but definitely a change in ideologies and thinking by the masses.

From what Westerners described a "Revolutionary China" to a "Socialist Market Economy," China has gone a long way to achieve what it now calls a modernized society. A crucial aspect of this reformed society is the rise of a new youth culture.

The main issue is what kind of new culture the present-day youth in China are evolving; has materialism taken over the minds of the younger generation or are the ideological concepts still alive?; in which theoretical frame do the modern youth of China fit?; and finally, what will be the future of this new generation?

In 1978, when China shifted its focus to "Four Modernizations," there was a drastic change in the thinking and lifestyle of the youth. Though the stress was on learning from the erstwhile hero Lei Feng, the "new model Chinese youth" walked on a new path where career making was the main focus. The old youth culture that was based on pure comradeship and sacrifice of the personal life for the communal good are no longer talked about subjects. The new youth started "looking toward money" (向钱看 xiangqiankan) and materialism surged, with profit-making luring the younger generation.

By the 1990s, consumer culture spread everywhere and the fever to grab money became hot. There was a craze for learning English and many opted to clear TOEFL to go to the USA. With the turn of the century, there was also a turn in the focus of living and thinking.

Explicit sexual liaison has become common on streets and fashion has broken all walls. Be it a school-age kid or a young adult, moral values have started to deteriorate, with a love for openness. Openness of what kind is unclear, but today discotheques are running all night. Drinking is rampant and smoking is the norm.

You suggest to a young Chinese girl to please chain her dog and comes the reply, "我的狗不咬人,我负责" (My dog does not bite humans. If it does, I'll take responsibility). You wonder whether this generation of youth knows anything about taking responsibility and their pride describes you all. You feel unmatched and unable to cope as they cry, "你 out 拉" (meaning "you are outdated"). They make you understand that they have evolved a new culture of their own. Hot springs (温泉) are really hot and micro-mini dresses/jean shorts with high heels are bold statements.

While walking from the gate of Shanghai East China Normal University the other day, a young woman was kicking all the flower pots lining the walk and breaking each one of them in anguish. The anger was over a fight with a boyfriend. The dismay over personal issues of present-day youth can break up to hit the walls of any barriers, whether moral or social.

However, among the new urban youth there seems to be a distinct line between those who were born in cities and those who are now settled in cities or are the new generation of rural migrants born in cities. Either way, those who are the new city dwellers are bolder and want to make big changes. Money for them is very important, not just for living but for demanding a change. They want to bring on the change - change to their status, change to the style of living, and change to the style of dressing.

Busy from early morning to late night jobs, women here outnumber men in bringing the change. While those who are city residents without doubt are closing themselves within strange walls. Their love for foreign things is higher and a wish list ends in foreign lands.

A new group of Chinese youth is evolving that stresses reformed Confucius thinking. Religious ideas are controlling the minds of many, with Christianity becoming popular and the youth finding new solace from this "ultra materialistic" hodge-podge society to form a more peaceful living. Yet this group of Chinese youth is smaller in number. What defines this new youth culture is unclear, but even those born in the '80s fail to understand the direction of those born after the '90s.

A new generation Z is in the making, superseding those of X and Y, while redefining youth confidence and notions of nationalism. A future China relies on this maturing youth that lives on its own terms and redefines modernity in its own way.

Dr. Geeta Kochhar is a Visiting Fellow at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. She is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.