The Cliche Generation With Chinese Characteristics

Chinese born after 1990 (dubbed “90后”) came of age in 2008, when earthquakes and Olympics rocked the Chinese Mainland. Now in their early 20’s, many people inside and outside of China are watching this demographic very closely to see how the Chinese youth will shape the future.

Whenever I speak with 90后 kids, I am struck by their optimism and above all their supreme self-confidence. I am also struck by their resignation and flippant disregard for the “important” issues of the day. The 90后 generation (those born since 1990) has been the target of everyone’s ire and/or hopes since they first came on the scene as “adults” in 2008. In that momentous year, China’s youth rallied around the country, alarming foreign commentators who remembered the Brown Shirts of Germany, just before the Nazis rolled into Poland in 1939.

Chinese youth and Nationalism

While talking with one particular group of 90后 teenagers, this idea that has brewed in the West of a nationalistic, brainwashed youth determined to rule the world garnered snickers and jokes. For them, the response to the earthquake in Sichuan was their defining moment, not the wild cheering of overseas students in Korea and Europe as the Olympic Torch made its slow journey to Beijing. There’s a big difference between blind nationalism controlled by bureaucratic censor-puppeteers and clear patriotic love based on the little things: those noodles down the street that only our town makes; the smell of plum blossoms in winter; the cries of the hard-sugar guy and the knife-sharpener as they make their rounds through the suburbs … all those familiar, comforting things that make Chinese watercolors Chinese as opposed to Greek. The youth know that.

The 90后 kids told me matter-of-factly that the fate of the nation rested upon their shoulders. For some of my friends born in the 1970’s (“70后”), this is a scary thought. This new generation has no concept of suffering, loves to have fun and dress wild and might be gay today and straight tomorrow. Basically, my 70后 friends are sceptical and wary of the new kids crowding into the discos and coffee shops (as we all will be of the generation that follows, into eternity). The older generation might be worried, but they are also hopeful, because everything that makes the new kids contemptible (consumerism, indifference, lack of work ethic, access to too much) gives them the ability to resist and change the China that the old bureaucrats are trying to build.

Here We Are Now

Sites like ChinaSmack and ChinaHush are the children of this new generation. They are the vehicles through which foreigners catch a glimpse of how the Chinese ridicule and celebrate their own absurdities. Every week there is a new hero held up and a new goat eviscerated in full view of 300 million netizens, and this is the environment in which the 90后 are growing up and learning about where they are, who they are and what they are supposed to do. Witness how quickly “Fen Qing” (愤青) became an insult and 被和谐 (“Bei He Xie”) became a term to describe being censored.

Take any other past generation and examine their environment: the Starving 50’s, the Insane 60’s, the Even More Insane 70’s, the Everything We said Then was Wrong 80’s, the Make That Money 90’s, the We’re Coming Up Millennium and now The Almost Modern Years we live in today. In the Almost Modern Years, we drown in a sea of information and so do the 90后 despite the Party’s best efforts to maintain a dumbed-down society. The Internet is illuminating gaps in the Great FireWall faster than Beijing censors can hide them and the absurdity of information control in the Information Age gives rise to phenomena such as the Human Flesh Search, Douban as the forum for China’s elite netizens and the content that makes ChinaSmack so entertaining.

Traditional DragonThe 90后 youth are the clean, sleek dragon emerging from the dry, brittle skin of generations past. When the newborn dragon looks back at its old self, he can’t help but laugh at the foolishness of government-subsidized concepts like 和谐社会 (“He Xie She Hui”), while at the same time recognizing the old Chinese idea of harmony as a characteristic of a people that should be (and needs to be) shown to the world at large.

Entertain Us

As with everything in the world, there is a downside.

The 90后 love to have fun and ridicule the Party for the old, plodding dinosaur that it is, but as we all know in the US, this adoration of the Cliche as a means for rebellion leads to couch-surfing and a slow but final dis-engagement from civil society. Who can blame them? The more you see how governments work, the more laughingly disgusting it becomes and in the end, who wants to deal with that? The older generations tend to see the 90后 as empty people who want to have the best looking cell phone and the coolest fashions with the least amount of responsibility. These kids need to be entertained, the old folks say, or they get bored and do nothing. Foreign media have tried to understand this group of kids and pigeonhole them as best they can, but the real truth is they cannot be categorized and that is why they will have more success than any other generation in changing China. Past generations were indoctrinated to believe one or another slogan, but this 90后 one has a dozen Party slogans plus the lure of a million more bouncing around in their heads. They can and do and will access reports in Chinese and in English about Party censorship and the corrupt forces that keep Chinese people down. The question is, as is it is for Americans who know so much about their own country’s duplicity, what to do?

For the US, hipsters and Simpsons and South Park are the answer: snarky consumers and irreverent-to-the-point-of-vulgar media. I would argue that snarky-ism and increasingly vulgar media in the US are both an escape and a lazy comment on tired reality. But, I think this is exactly what China needs: the searing gaze of the bored girl with the biting comment that rings true through all of the smoke and mirrors. Chinese society is different from ours and the mindset of 90后 kids is something so alien, so rebellious, so un-Chinese that the impact is very hard to imagine. Remember when that 21-year old waitress stabbed a party official to death when he tried to force her to have sex with him? That’s what I’m talking about. Perhaps a few years ago, the girl would not have dared to stab a government official, good ole’ 和谐 might have stayed her hand. But not these 90后 girls – they know it when they smell it and they are not trying to step in it. But then again, my older friends will point to the college girl all done up getting into the Lexus after school as evidence of what these girls really want.

Cliche Rebels

We in the US had our Obama Surge, when everyone thought that Change truly was going to happen, and it mobilized our Cliche generation (the generation that gave rise to the all-consuming culture of the Hipster) for a while. I doubt that a Chinese official will rise up a la Zhao Ziyang and that is not what this generation will do anyway. The 90后 will change the world with People Power, with repeated threats to Search out the Fleshy Human, with face-ripping ridicule that reaches the entire nation and makes governments get naked and forces old men bow down to little man pressure. Smoky netbars and androgynous people, those are the hideouts of China’s future guerrillas. When I asked one group of 90后 kids if they could change the world (or something to that effect) one girl with a pierced lip and tattoo said “Yes, We Can!”

Obama in ChinaThe laughter that erupted in the group summed it all up: a witty comment made by post-90 girl who text messages her way through school but knows enough about society, politics and the media to whip out an Obama-ism and know that her whole generation will get the joke.

Where do you think China’s emerging youth will take it as we move into the new decade?

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. After living in Chengdu on and off for twelve years, he now lives in Minneapolis.

18 Responses to “The Cliche Generation With Chinese Characteristics”

  1. Quite optimistic outlook…I like this article but has my doubt about the post-90s LOL

  2. Aristotle sat in the back of the class fuming about what was happening in their perpatetic environs. He was refused the seat at The Academy for what reasons may be based in how Plato reacted to this “uruly” student. The fact that times change and that people’s attention to “how they learn” also changes, shifting the dynamic of a population’s state of “knowing.” From a people that may guide its sense of knowledge from how much you know about yin/yang and the yi qing to how fast you can develop a website and gather a mass of people on a qq group, we will inevitably find ourselves reshaping our future. Our minds change. Call it evolution or dissolution, our measures of intuition are adjusted by the force of technology that reshapes our tools of knowledge. Nowadays, libraries are quiet and not because people are being courteous, but because most people are getting their information from other sources. Understanding that the efficiency of our society does in fact influece our dependence on the work required to sustain our intellect, this technological development in some ways reduces our abilities to analytically research, as it has been done in the past. It shifts our abilities and capacities to research in knowing which sites are useful rather than which sites are credible.

    So, when we see a group of minds upset and seemingly apathetic in the class, we cannot let go of the fact that when the bell rings and they fill their days and minds with the construct of media we ourselves might find useless and counter-productive, we are casting aside a very rudimentary capacity to learn something in a generation that requires different tools to excel.

  3. Charlie

    I’m more hopeful of the 90后 generation becoming responsible and constructive members of the international community than any other in recent history. There’s less separating today’s Chinese youth with those of Japan or South Korea than ever before.

    Great post, very thought provoking.

  4. Superb article. It’s a topic that crosses my mind often while living here. Personally I think we’ll see a surge in responsibility from this generation when their parents get too old to hold their hand on a daily basis and they have to rely on themselves for survival. Put a person into a fight or die scenario and they often learn lessons quickly.

    The comment about the 90后 needing to be entertained or else they will get bored is right on the money. I see this time and again, especially from females. But then, you can’t blame them too much because they were brought up like that.

    • Charlie

      Good point about this generation going through a rite of passage and becoming responsible adults. I see a lot of that generation living off of the hard work of their parents, but I don’t expect that to last forever. The one-child policy has created a unique kind of worship of the family’s one child, especially if it’s a boy. Such extreme coddling contributes more often to their detriment than benefit in my observation.

  5. I take back all i wrote above. this generation is hopeless.
    “I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself.”

  6. Come across a stubborn little emperor today Sascha?

    • Oh yeah. One of those little metro boys whose dad never whooped him. But as soon as it was just me and him, he was a lil puppy asking if i could be his big brother. when i was 19 i talked mad shit, but once it was just me and a big dog, i usually asked advice … these kids are the first generation that is as narcissistic as we are. I am gonna call up my pops and apologize …

  7. Though Han Han – http://tinyurl.com/yaxxrab – is technically of the 80s generation, the 90s-ers have his sarcastic, no-patience-for-authoritative-rhetoric attitude to look up to.

    • oh, I’m big fan of Hanhan 韩寒.He is really cool guy. His most articles are about criticism of Chinese education, politics, government and culture. His style is more like Luxun 鲁迅(please wiki it if you don’t know) , the real writer with justice. Hanhan is very brave to tell the truth through his blog,and Chinese government hates him a lot, block his blog many times but still can’t stop him.

  8. I had a VIP student today who is fresh back from the UK. Currently finishing high-school on her way to uni. The mind boggles at how different she acts compared to those who’ve not made it outside of the red curtain.

    The 2 most astounding things she seems to have picked up are: logic and peripheral-awareness. The second in my mind being the rarest thing in China.

  9. this is a such a interesting blog…nice job

  10. the ‘foreign commentators’ that are alarm with raising nationalism,are usually the bigoted and racist, to begin with. YOU intentionally excluded the overseas Chinese – emirgant mainlanders and locals who did it for the motherland ) participation in the cheering/rejoicing for the Torch .

  11. citymonkeymao(毛毛) Reply July 20, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    As a 90后 myself,I think there is three resons that caused the phenomena
    1,As the government wanted to contral the population,every family just allow to have one child,most of 90后 is the only child in the family,so all family menbers is concern much on the only child(include parents and parents’s parents)so that make them selfish.As there is only child in home,so the child almost have no one to talk with in family,so they’d rather play with friends outside rather than spend time in home which made their parents extremly angry(this is why parents think the 90后 is miserable,in fact that is because the lack of conmunication )
    2,The educationg we recived is steretype,teacher is to us what famers is 0to ducks,so the world duck educationg(填鸭教育)was invited.
    3,Lack of mischance is also one of the reson,I had maked a reserch in my school:do you konw what happend in jun 4th 1989? to my surprised,no one konws.

    No matter what caused 90后, the reson must be find in adult but not to blame children beacuse children was rised up by parents!!
    Or as luxun(鲁迅) wrote in crazy diary(狂人日记):Rescue the children(救救孩子!) !

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  2. Chinese Characteristics: What Are They Anyway? | CNReviews - May 20, 2010

    […] Chinese characteristics” (interesting how is that), and Chengdu Living wrote a post entitled “The Cliche Generation with Chinese Characteristics”. Some excerpts from that post– The 90后 love to have fun and ridicule the Party for the old, […]

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