New School: What's Causing China's Growing Generation Gap?

Have thirty years of peace and prosperity have imbued children with different values than their parents? Part of an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.

balinghou.jpgParents just don't understand (Reuters)

This passage is excerpted from the article "Balinghou", published by Aeon Magazine.


In 2004, fresh off the plane in Beijing, I was asked to judge an English competition for high school seniors. My two co-judges were pleasantly cynical middle-aged sociologists, both professors at Tsinghua University. After listening to the umpteenth speech about how China used to be poor, but was now rich and powerful, I remarked to one of them that the students seemed a little sheltered.

"They don't know anything!" she spat. "They don't have any idea about how people live. None of this generation do. They're all so spoiled."

It's a view I've heard time and again over the past eight years, and one of which the Chinese media never tire. The young get it from left and right. This January alone, the jingoistic Major General and media commentator Luo Yuan condemned the young for being physically and mentally unfit, ranting: "Femininity is on the rise, and masculinity is on the decline. With such a lack of character and determination and such physical weakness, how can they shoulder the heavy responsibility?" Meanwhile the writer and social critic Murong Xuecun blasted them in the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy because "fattened to the point of obesity with Coca-Cola and hamburgers [...] the young generation only believes official pronouncements; some even think contradicting the official line is heretical. They do not bother to check the details."

There's a measure of truth in these criticisms. The year I arrived, when I was going through the near-obligatory expat period as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer and editor, I had to forcibly drag a nineteen-year-old out of a classroom after he threw a temper tantrum, drummed the floor, and refused to leave. Murong's claim that the young unwittingly swallow government statements doesn't stand up in an era where official credibility has been shattered by social media tools, but one can see where Luo's claims are coming from. Ironically, the children of army officers seem especially pudgy.

The teachers at a senior academy attached to an army base described their bullet-headed charges to me as looking like "stubby wobbling penises," and held private competitions as to which student was the most "sausagey."

Food metaphors are telling -- older Chinese want to know: "Why do they have it so easy, when we had it so hard?" The main target of this slating has been what the Chinese call the balinghou--young people who were born after 1980, who never knew food rationing and were raised after China's "reform and opening" began. I'm talking here of the urban middle class, who dominate Chinese media both as purchasers and consumers. The raft of criticisms being leveled has very little to do with the actual failings of the young, but is a symptom of the yawning, and unprecedented gulf between young urban Chinese and their parents.

"It's not just a generation gap. It's a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap."

Zhang Jun, a twenty-six-year-old Ph.D. student, described the situation: "It's not just a generation gap. It's a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap." Lin Meilian, thirty, a journalist, bluntly stated: "I have nothing in common with my mother. We can't talk about anything. She doesn't understand how I choose to live my life." Parents who spent their own twenties laboring on remote farms have children who measure their world in malls, iPhones, and casual dates.

This kind of distance is not unique to China. But most other countries can claim far greater continuity between generations. My adolescence in Manchester in the 1990s was different in degree, not in kind, from that of my parents in Bristol and Sydney in the 1960s. But the parents of China's post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed, and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children's lives, and then add to that dating, university life, and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties laboring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones, and casual dates.

Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don't quite grasp, and of clinging to little alcoves of their own kind. In their relationships with their children, they remind me of the parents of the Indian and Bangladeshi kids I grew up with, struggling to advise their children about choices they never had to make. Yet for all the dissonance that geographical dislocation creates, the distance between a Bangladeshi village and a Manchester suburb is, if anything, smaller than that between rural China in the 1970s and modern Beijing.

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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