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Big ideas about little rebellions

By 27 June 2009 One Comment
Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Express yourself: Today's young Chinese search for new ways to push the envelope | Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

When I arrived in China, I expected to meet people sporting red armbands and green hats, like icons from a 1950s propaganda poster. Since the rise of communism, Chinese society has been characterized by conformity – in thought and appearance. So when I began seeing young people in Beijing that broke this mold – Mohawk-sporting musicians, tattooed skateboarders, extreme-sport enthusiasts – it seemed more significant than what this same kind of behavior might mean back home. So the question arose: In a country that has put so much stock in conformity, did such new modes of self-expression represent small but meaningful forms of rebellion?

I mentioned this idea to my professor, who thought it would be an interesting topic to pursue. He has decades of experience covering Asia as a foreign correspondent, and he recalled how significant the changes had been to Chinese culture in his lifetime. He pointed out that 40 years ago, when women in Shanghai started tying scarves around their necks in a fashion statement reminiscent of the city’s pre-communist era reputation as the Paris of Asia, it was seen as a very bold move. How bold would your accessories have to be now to make a statement in this new market-driven China?

I started with musicians in Beijing – a group I was comfortable with as a music lover from Austin. I met a very open and friendly guitar shop owner named Xander Peng, 27. In spite of his youth, he was quite accomplished: he owned his own business, he and his wife had been happily married for a year, and he had played a few notable shows with his hardcore metal band. But Xander was pessimistic. The economy had slowed his business and he was worried he might have to start teaching guitar lessons to pay his bills. He had no misconceptions that he would ever make a living as a musician.

“You can’t afford to live on a job at KFC,” he said, in reference to the kind of work that some people get in order to spend their nights playing shows. Xander was in between bands at the moment, because it was difficult for him to find a group that fit his sensibilities. The songs he writes are very political, he said – just the kind many musicians want to avoid. Xander, with his long hair and tattoos and scrawled note on the wall that said “F— the Police” (a song title from the rap group N.W.A.), was my first up-close and personal look at a Chinese citizen who didn’t want to be like everyone else.

Next, I found an interesting example of minimalist rebellion literally standing right next to me. Rio Zhang, one of our Reporting China interpreters, told me that he had recently learned how to slackline, a sport that involves stretching a piece of nylon webbing between two trees and balancing on it, much like a tightrope. Because the rope isn’t taut like a tightrope however, it moves and bounces, so slackliners can perform different tricks. Zhang had learned the sport from his American friend, Chip Rountree, and didn’t know of any other Chinese in Beijing who were practicing it. I asked Zhang and Rountree why they thought that was.

“Extreme sports are really individualistic, which is not something you see in this culture,” Rountree said. That was exactly what I had been thinking, but when I tried to get Zhang’s perspective on the issue, he didn’t think of it the same way. When I asked why his Chinese friends didn’t do it, he offered that perhaps they are lazy or afraid of getting hurt. When I pushed him to look beyond his friends and at the culture of China in general to explain why there wasn’t as much interest in extreme sports, he suggested that it was economic.

“In China, most people will struggle for their life – to get a job and settle down. I don’t know anybody that wants to spend a lot of money on climbing or things like slacklining. They don’t have time to do it. I think that’s it,” he said. Well, that makes sense too. Certainly the average income in China is significantly below that of the States, but is one explanation the right one? Could these new forms self-expression be boiled down to simple finances? I didn’t have the answer yet.

Two of my classmates found stories about self-expression in the art community. One student wrote about dancers at the Beijing Contemporary Music Academy, where a new style of hip-hop is being taught. She found that some of the students had family members who were less than supportive of their passion. A story about the Beijing Film Academy addressed the same issues, and found that young filmmakers in China sometimes defy government censorship to express themselves through their art. Each new piece of information added a new layer to my understanding of how young people differentiate themselves from the group.

After Beijing, our next stop was Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. One of my classmates spotted some Chinese parkour enthusiasts practicing their crazy jumping and flipping off buildings and walls, making them look like gung-fu versions of Spiderman. When you talk about extreme sports, parkour is up there, and its very new. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to investigate, because I couldn’t find them again. Turns out people who parkour are pretty spontaneous.

In Shanghai, I finally got serious about getting to the bottom of this issue of self-expression. What I needed, I decided, were some serious experts. Enter Professor Zhongdang Pan, a communication studies professor from the University of Wisconsin, who grew up in China and now splits his time between teaching in the US and researching new media at Fudan University in Shanghai. What did he think about the new ways that young people were finding to express themselves?

“They are expressions of rebellion, not so much against parental authorities, but against political authorities,” said Pan. Wow. Finally a bold statement. So had my initial impressions been right after all? Yet I wondered why is it only members of an older generation with outsider perspectives are talking about young people’s self-expression this way? I needed to talk to more of these so-called “rebels” myself. I headed for a tattoo parlor.

On my way there, I told my interpreter, an opinionated 20-year-old woman, about the story I was working on, as I thought she might have something to add. “My generation doesn’t care about the government,” she said. She clarified that as a student, she was more focused on what she was doing personally than on what was happening politically. She also added that it was hard to get the access to information if there was something she was interested in. When a foreigner had told her about a “big event” in Bejing in 1989, she tried to look it up online, but couldn’t find anything about it. “I think my parents know what happened, but they don’t want me to know,” she said.

Wait a second. I was in China for only a few days before someone told me how to break past the “Great Firewall” so I could access the sites I wanted. Are you telling me that the generation of Chinese youth raised on computers aren’t Internet savvy enough to find out about Tiananmen Square? What about the Netizen community that is supposedly putting pressure on the media and the government to expose corruption? How can young people be rebelling against something that they don’t even know about?

When we arrived at the tattoo parlor along one of Shanghai’s maze-like streets in the southwestern part of the city, we met the owner, A Yang, a 39-year-old tattoo artist, who runs his business out of his wife’s photo studio. I showed him my own tattoo (a small cowgirl on my back) and admired the creations on his forearm and calf. Why does he think tattoos are popular with young people in China? Is it a trend, or a bigger statement?
“It’s a way to show their spirit and personality, and to rebel against their parents,” he said. Well, that’s pretty much the same as in the US, I said. Surely in a country that has been for so long anti-individual expression, there has to be more to it. What separates this younger generation from, say, their parents or Yang’s generation?

“The younger generation is more independent,” he said.”They have their own ideas. We can’t catch up.”

I wasn’t sastisfied. I needed to find a member of China’s young generation and ask my own questions. Time to head to Shanghai’s skate park near Fudan University, supposedly the largest in the world. Surely there would be some rebellious punk rock skaters full of anti-government sentiment there. After noting the 40 Yuan [US $6] entrance fee at the gate (more than most families would spend on a meal), and thinking that you had better have some money if you dared to be a skater in Shanghai, the interpreter and I walked into the concrete playground covered in ramps and bowls for all variety of skating activities. It was less than packed, but everyone we talked to was from a country other than China. Do you know any Chinese that skate here? we asked. Sure, a few. But where were they?

We finally found Tan Cheng, a 16-year-old skater who was hanging out with his French friends. In addition to rollerblading, Cheng was one of those rare parkour practitioners in China. Could he tell me why he liked these extreme sports? They were cool. But what do other Chinese think about it? What about your parents? They think it’s a good release from all his studying. Great, I had found a completely apolitical skater who liked to do his homework. How about this disparity between the generations?

“The older generation wouldn’t dare do extreme sports, but with the next generation it will become more and more popular,” Cheng said.

So at least I was starting to get some consistency here. Young people described themselves and were described by others as being more self-expressive than their older counterparts. But what does it all mean?

I had one more interview lined up. Zafka Zhang is co-founder and chief strategy officer of China Youthology, a consulting agency that studies how young people connect to branding. This was someone from China, who studied youth behavior for a living, so surely he would be able to piece things together for me. What’s the deal? I asked. Is this self-expression some kind of rebellion, or are these kids just trying out the next cool thing?

“They are young,” said the 40-year-old blogger.” They just want to be different. It has nothing to do with politics.” But there was some context I needed to understand. While young people tend to not be involved politically, Zhang explained, they do care about how the government affects their personal lives. When government censorship blocks their access to Internet sites they want to see, they will express frustration to other young people. The fact that they are talking about issues like this at all, he said, is what’s significant.

“If everyone is talking about ‘don’t interrupt my private life,’ that is totally political,” Zhang said. While they may not be talking about the party specifically, the content of these discussions are political by their very nature. And as I continue to push him for the answer to what the latest hairstyle means or how a skateboarder is actually a reactionary, he tells me to step back and look at the bigger picture. “How they express themselves is not important, he said. “They finally have the space and the right to choose the way to express themselves.”

So while my “little rebellions” slogan would have made a great title for a blog post, I think it wasn’t taking into account the complexity that is Chinese culture. What I consider rebellious behavior may not mean that the youth of this country are rising up in defiance, but it does mean that things are changing, big time, for China. In a country where I expected to find a stifling of independent thought, instead I found a culture that refused to be defined by history or labeled by stereotypes. My quest to find a simple answer just led to more questions, and China reminded me that thousands of years of history and billions of people means things can be a little complicated.

One Comment »

  • Jessie Patton-Levine said:

    Very cool story. Interesting the difference culture makes on perspective. I mean duh, but we all have to be reminded of that.

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