Voices From China #1: The 'Post-1980s Generation'

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The news these days is from Libya, Capitol Hill, Fukushima, Syria. But something really important is underway in China -- economically, politically, culturally. One recent indication, of hundreds: The Economist on the rise of "princelings and the goon state" in the current Chinese turmoil.

Here, in three installments, are over-the-transom reports from people who have written in from China. The first is from Shi Hongshen, a young Chinese man I met five years ago in Shanghai, when he was a graduate student doing a thesis on the American neoconservatives (!). He later did translating and research work for me, and we have remained friends.

He writes not directly about political turmoil but about the situation of his generation, the inheritors of whatever emerging China is about to become. He calls his report "Impressions on the Post-1980's Generation in China."

If you have any interest in how the vivid, diverse, highly individualistic young people in China are reacting to the radical change in their prospects compared with their parents', and to the successes and uncertainties of the country now, I recommend reading through to the end. For instance, to the discussion of how "there was actually very little we could inherit from our parents spiritually, who grew up during the 1960's and 1970's," the time of the Cultural Revolution. The young man I know as Xiao Shi writes:

>>For various reasons, young people in China are, and they are happy to be, categorized into different groups according their ages. This is a relatively new thing, which began only a few years ago, for as long as I can remember. This phenomenon can be found in numerous tiny aspects of the modern Chinese society, especially in the internet world, and have very deep culture implications. Douban.com, one of a popular social network website in China, for instance, has an online FM service, which groups the music it plays by the different age groups its listeners belong to, besides genres of classical, OST or rock. These age groups are what we call 70后, 80后 and 90后. [In this context 后, hou, means "post" or "after".]

80后(post-1980's generation) is the age group I belong to. Although a loosely defined term, it generally denotes people born between 1980 and 1985 (mostly born and grew up in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai), which is the group that is turning or about to turn 30 now. I can be wrong, but I am pretty certain that the term post 1980's appeared first, and then came the post-1970's, post-1985's, post-1990's and post-2000's quickly.

The way this term of post 1980's appeared is very interesting and can actually reflect many particular traits of the modern Chinese society, as we are experiencing a tremendous change going on over the past thirty years. My understanding of it comes from my own experience of living in it...

I think the term first appeared as the society realized that my generation was turning from teenagers to adults, began to show somewhat different ideas, values and lifestyle from the previous generations and some of us have begun to radiate prominent influence in certain areas, such as the post-1980's writers or post-1980's CEOs. That sounds, at least to me, as a term from elder generations that bears both a sense that the kids have grown up and they are aging. (Funnily, that may also be the feeling we have toward the post-1985's and the post-1990's today.) That is why I feel many Chinese people age very quickly, both in complexion and in spirit.
As more and more of us begin to reach maturity, or the prime of our lives, many have begun to assume this term voluntarily.

That is not to say that the post-1980's has become a monolithic group of people or the society has become stratified because of this, nor is this an imagined community. No, young people in China are as diverse as those anywhere else in the world... [But] there are actual things that can strike a chord in every one of us, as to lead us to some sort of suddenly-found self-identity.

In reality, if you go to any big Chinese social network website or BBS, I bet topics about the post-1980's that have the most replies you will find are those talking about the memories of our childhood, such as cartoons or TV series we have watched or small and cheap toys we have bought from street vendors at every noisy evening after school. Many of those things are longer to be found now.

It is indeed queer that the single biggest topic can bind young people together is nostalgia, as if young people are reminiscent of some kind of long-lost innocence. Think about it, shouldn't young people at the prime of their lives care more about their career or vocation, about discoveries of knowledge, about creation, about important social lives, or about what contribution they can do for someone or something? All in all, young people should be forward-looking rather than the other way round. Of course, young people in China are active in various social activities or movements, such as making donations to the earthquake-stricken areas in China more than two years ago. However, that is only common, I believe we all agree, to any young people anywhere, like those in the counter-culture movement in the 1960's in US or the May, 1968 in France.

The fact that many young people are bound by those sort of common memories is, to me, a reflection of many dilemmas we are experiencing in the modern Chinese society, which have probably driven many post-1980's to seek self-comforting in nostalgia. First of all, most of us are feeling the same pressure of life, from both life and work, especially given the high housing price nowadays that most of us need to be able to get married. Under such a pressure, many young people, as they complain on the internet, lament that there is very little they can achieve for their dreams. I think this has stricken many young people as a disillusionment and driven many post-1980's to a kind of pre-mature nostalgia, in which they share this disappointment through reviving the recollections of those long-lost innocence. This sentiment galvanized last year in a short movie released on internet called The bright eleven - Old Boys.

On the other hand, I believe this nostalgia also has something to do with how we grew up. Life outside school was usually very infertile in the 1980's and early 1990's. And also because China started the one-child policy in 1980, none of us, except twins, grew up with brothers and sisters. I believes, for most of us, memories of that period were comprised of only the same cartoons and TV series we had watched at our respective homes. There was, for as long as I can remember, little pursuit of other things like, say, art, besides doing homework every night and taking school tests every two months.

Another shortage is that there was actually very little we could inherit from our parents spiritually, who grew up during the 1960's and 1970's, when there was even less material possessing and formal school education. I am not blaming on our parents who were busy working to raise the families when we were kids, because I understand that was the tragedy of times and I agree with the saying that our parents sacrifice the elegance of their entire generation to exchange for much better lives for us today, such as, for instance, sipping Latte in Starbucks.

My point is that the current dilemma of the post 1980's also includes the fact that we not only have to work hard to afford all the mortgage we carry, but also have to build our own spiritual world, after we have come to realize how barren it has been, from scratch, which has brought both elation and disillusion.

That is my impression of my generation's temperament in general. I certainly do not want to sound like looking for excuses for the dilemma I tried to describe. Instead, I firmly believe that understanding the youth in China, among many other things, offers one important angle of understanding the modern China.<<

Think of this the next time you're imagining China as one big export-promotion machine. Some additional recent bits of testimony, with different emphases, soon. Thanks to Shi Hongshen for writing this, and under his real name.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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