China’s Brash Young Actors Swap Ideology for a Chance at Fame

A generation ago, they were considered “culture workers.” But now, Chinese performers look to capitalize on the world’s second-largest film market.

The documentary The Road to Fame looks at a young generation of Chinese actors who, in contrast to their counterparts from an earlier era, have chosen the profession to seek individual glory. (Tripod Studios)

When 28-year-old Hou Xiao, a graduate of Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama, compares his generation of Chinese actors with that of his 54-year-old father, also a film actor, the contrast is pronounced. His father lived in an era when an actor wasn’t that different from a school teacher or police officer: you were a state employee assigned to a work unit, paid a paltry salary for acting mostly in propaganda films, and, barring any scandals, guaranteed a job for life.

“For actors in my parents’ generation, making films was a national duty,” says Hou. “This was the work the country gave them, and everyone was working for the good of the nation.”

Hou and his peers, on the other hand, are China’s first generation to ever grow up with the concept of movie stars. They are China’s infamous “post-80s generation”—children born after the start of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in 1978, and subsequently exposed to commercialization, Coca-Cola, and Hollywood. Says Hou:  “The thinking now is, I want to make money and get famous.”

The mindset of this new crop of Chinese actors is explored to great effect in a new documentary about the staging of the Broadway musical Fame at China’s most prestigious acting school, the Central Academy of Drama. The Road to Fame, which will have its New York premiere at DOC NYC on November 16th, features candid interviews with the Academy’s graduating class and their anxious parents over the course of a year as the students compete for lead roles, deal with family pressures, and grapple with their insecure futures after graduation.

The film is an intimate and empathetic portrait of a specific sector of China’s post-80s generation, so-called “little emperors” often derided for being materialistic, and “soft in the middle.”

“In many ways they’re very fragile, and they’re very easily discouraged,” says director Wu Hao, himself born in the 1970s. There’s plenty of research to back up his statements; a study published in Science earlier this year showed that Chinese people born a year after the 1980 introduction of the one-child policy were more risk-averse, more pessimistic, and less trusting than those born a year before the policy.

On set, those attitudes can have real-life ramifications, according to film and TV producer Zheng Junshen: “Post-80s actors tend to be more self-involved, and compared to older actors they aren’t as able to cooperate with the team,” he says.

But these younger actors have bigger expectations for the future than their predecessors, says Wu: “They have no memories of the Cultural Revolution growing up. They don’t have the baggage and the sense of insecurity of many generations before them. So they welcome the future. They’re willing to recognize what they want and go and get it.”

And what they want is something that wasn’t even a concept when their parents were young: fame.

“I want to be a superstar,” declares Chen Lei, one of Wu Hao’s main characters in his documentary. “Everyone wants to be famous, because money follows fame,” says another. In a previous generation, these kinds of statements would not have existed; in those days, young people strove for the collective good, not individual glory. The desire, much less the explicit declaration, for individual fame and glory is a radically new development.

“Before the end of the ‘70s, there were no proper film stars—there were film actors, and they were seen as culture workers,” says Leung Wing-Fai, co-author of East-Asian Cinemas and a lecturer on the Chinese film industry at the University of Cork, Ireland.

Three decades later, China’s cinema market has become the second largest in the world, with its film and TV industries together generating a total of $15.5 billion in revenue in 2011. 3D blockbusters, glossy magazine spreads, and sponsorships by Adidas and Visa are all possibilities for Chinese actors.

“With the commercialization of Chinese cinema, the younger entries into the media sphere aspire to be the kind of stars like Zhang Ziyi: she went to the Central Academy of Drama, she’s become a massive star, she’s paid a lot of money, she does huge advertising campaigns, she’s gone to Hollywood,” says Leung.

In researching this article, we interviewed several young Central Academy graduates whose parents were also in the business. Each member of the younger generation lamented a lost sense of integrity which they believe older Chinese actors possessed. “For my parents’ generation, the important thing was to have a job. They entered this industry with the goal of just doing it really well,” said Zhang Boyu, a TV drama actor whose father, Zhang Fengyi, played in Farewell my Concubine. “Now, people will sell their souls for fame and money.”

That “soul-selling” might also be because these young grads are entering a much more insecure job market than their parents had to deal with. In Mao-era China, the state guaranteed actors jobs for life; now, they’re on their own. In addition, the competition is fierce; there are, by some estimates, about 300,000 actors in Beijing. Even Central Academy graduates, who pay the highest tuition out of any university students in China, have no guarantee of finding work.

Chinese government controls have also stifled the film industry. “China’s entertainment industry is still not diverse enough, because of censorship, so even though in the past few years the film industry has grown tremendously, it hasn’t been growing fast enough to cater to what the market needs to absorb all the talent,” says Wu Hao.

Zha Wenhao, a 2011 graduate from the Central Academy, says many of his fellow alumni have already given up acting, and those who have held on, like him, are struggling to find work. “When you graduate and actually get out into the world, you come up against every kind of difficulty, and you start to doubt whether you’re really cut out for this work,” he says.

It’s not all dire news, though. Producer Zheng Junshen says actors born in the 80s are far more business-savvy than Chinese actors even a few years older, who tend to focus their energies on improving their acting skills rather than promoting themselves. “These young actors are adapting much more quickly to the modern business of the film industry,” he says. “They’re very familiar with the internet, and they know how to promote themselves.”

And, he says, their more self-centered attitudes, while bad for the team, can be a good thing on-camera. “For a great performance, you need that strong sense of self-confidence,” he says. “These young actors are more independent, and ready to run with their own ideas. And that can make the whole industry better.”