On March 21st, Jemimah Steinfeld sat down to talk to a full house at Chengdu’s Bookworm Literary Festival. Her new book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China launched at the beginning of March in London.
Aside from having written for CNN and The Telegraph among many others, she graduated in 2012 with an MA in Chinese Studies from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. After being back and forth between China and London for years, she now finds herself living back in London.
Before her talk at The Bookworm in Chengdu, I (Zak Dychtwald) sat down with her to discuss why she wanted to write this book, China’s generation gaps, and a healthy dose of sex. To make it easier to navigate, and for those scrolling just for sexy bits, we’ve split the interview up with subheadings.
CL: How would you describe your latest book, Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China?
I think the best way to describe it is as the lives and loves of urban Chinese. The book is mostly about the 1980’s kids but also a few 1990’s kids. I say youth, and I specify in the introduction youth is more of a mindset than an actual age group. It is the kids who have left school. Some of them have left their parents, although one of the big theme in the books is some of these older “kids” are still living with their parents. Psychologically they have left their parents, they are making decisions for themselves, but they’re not yet married.
It is aimed predominantly at the American and British and “Western Audiences.” How are their lives like ours? How are they different? Where are the commonalities and why is it that you walk down a modern Chinese city and superficially, a lot of it looks similar to your hometown, but then, once you break the surface, it proves to be much different.
CL: What are some of the reasons you wanted to write this book?
One of the big reasons I wanted to write this book is there is this conception that young Chinese people are living in this political prison. Actually, they have a lot of the freedoms we have back home, a lot of the freedoms we exercise back home. I mean, there’s the vote is coming up in the UK in two months time. Lots of my friends will not even vote. Russell Brand just came out and said, “Why would you even bother voting?”
I think for a lot of 20-somethings, even people who are semi-engaged, voting is not what defines their daily lives – it’s other more personal matters. It’s strange to go back to the UK and hear people bemoan, “Wow, it must be awful, they can’t even vote!”
It is not to condone the political situation or to say that they don’t have their struggles here —they do—but maybe the things that get to them on a day-to-day basis are slightly different. They want love. They want to not be screwed around by their boss. The issues can actually be quite similar to ours, but the way they manifest is totally different.
CL: True. There seems to be a type of “Red Scare” suspicion with which a lot of people back home regard China.
I think because of the way that it’s presented. I get it. I’ve worked in newspapers. Bad news sells! I used to joke with my old teacher that in China, only good news is news and then outside China, only bad news is news.
I get that they need to sell newspapers, and I am of course also attracted to the darker sides. Because of that though, China, at nearly 1.4 billion people, have become these soulless, faceless victims, which I don’t think holds up.
Road to China
CL: Tell me a bit about your China route. How did you end up here?
I’ve been asked this question a thousand times, not just from the book but just from living here as long as I have. I used to joke that what originally attracted me to China was the food. Ever since I was born, we’ve had dim sum every single weekend. It’s like that “Jewish and Chinese people love each other” kind of thing.
I remember just arriving in Shanghai and walking around this really rubbish downtown area and calling my dad and saying, “Oh my god, this is the best place in the world. I found it Dad.”
Because at the time, it was before the Olympics. Every single year the economy was jumping up. The pollution was at least a little bit better. There was a sense of optimism; I imagine it is what 1960’s New York must have been like. Absolutely intoxicating. From that moment, from day one, it became much more than just the food…though the food has always played a constant.
CL: Why did you go back to Beijing instead of Shanghai?
I had been to Beijing a few times prior and thought it was kind of this awful, communist monstrosity and I couldn’t figure out why anyone liked it. And then I was talked into it, and I’m pleased with that. It still has a bit of communist monstrosity to it but it also has a lot of charm. I base my book there because I think it has a lot of things happen in Beijing. It is where most big social movements either start or crystalize, so it is kind of the China story in a lot of ways.
There is also, of course, no one single China story, which is kind of the point.
CL: Let’s get back to your book. What makes the generation that you’re talking about different than past generations in China?
God, everything. I think one of the biggest things is choice. Past generations just didn’t really have a choice. When you look at the parents of the later b?línghòu (the generation born after ’80), most were born during the Cultural Revolution. Earlier, and they were born around the Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine. They had all of their choices dictated from above, where they would work, who would they marry.
Grandparents, who also raise these kids, are even more different. It is very common in China to not be raised primarily by your parents but by your grandparents. The grandparents had even less choice.
I was speaking to a girl the other day whose grandmother was a concubine and her grandfather had left his initial marriage for her grandmother.
With that said, I think there is also a lot of continuity. The choices that this young generation have can be a bit illusory. The parents still have a lot of say in who their kids are going to get with. They listen to their parents quite a lot and when they don’t, they make quite a point about it. Simply not listening to your parents here is an act of rebellion in ways that it isn’t back home for us.
If I ask someone back home what their job is I won’t follow up with “Well what do your parents think about it.” But here, people will often assert quite emphatically, “I’m doing this because I want to do it. This is not what my parents want me to do.” That in and of itself is an act of rebellion.
CL: So is this generation more individually focused than past generations?
Previously, you were part of this big collective. Now there is more focus, or at least what seems to be more focus, on the individual. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that is how it is.
I get into the LGBT community, and they often describe the need to conform to society. Lots of them don’t come out to their parents because it is seen as a disappointment to the harmonious society, to their parents’ wants and desires.
CL: Your book has the word “Sex” pretty front and center. I read a funny retelling of your book launch at the Asia House in London. The bar was drunk dry of Pinkster Gin. Lots of flirting towards the end. It sounds far livelier than most China book release parties, attributed in part maybe to the nature of the work. Tell us a little about sex in your book.
I’ve always been someone who has spoken quite openly about sex. In high school I was into Sex and the City. The school magazine decided to have me write a column that was a spin on Sex and the City called “Sex in the Sixth Form,” the last two years of high school in the UK. It was a massive hit. That was the first time I wrote about sex.
CL: Sorry, Sex in the Sixth Form? That is a killer title.
Their tagline was “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex and isn’t afraid to ask” for Sex and the City, and ours was “Jemimah Steinfeld knows good pecs (chest muscles) and isn’t afraid to ask to see them.” Good fun. The teachers loved it, too.
CL: I can put this in, right?
Of course. So I was always comfortable with talking about sex, not prone to blushing. Now in China, they are far less comfortable talking about sex.
CL: Lots of blushers.
I try to be very aware of that. I would really judge the interview accordingly. There is no point in making people feel awkward because they’ll tense up. If you see it as sex and you’re expecting “50 Shades of Red,” you’re not going to get that. I don’t think we need to know about what kind of things, specifically, people are doing in the bedroom to discuss Chinese sexuality.
With that said, I do cite a few trends, which are more “intimate”. There is a huge erectile dysfunction problem right now, which I think it sort of telling about China. I have asked a lot about it but it hasn’t been easy. That is what I consider my Great Wall of China.
For me it’s much more about the sexual cultures. I think that’s much more interesting, because sexuality and relationships really come to define a large portion of young people’s lives. These were the conversations I was hearing all around me. The pressure to get married, the pressure to make decisions about relationships.
This is something that is really distinctive with the b?línghòu and jíulínghòu (born after ’90 generation). Their parents didn’t really have this choice in who to marry or even sleep with. But for the kids now, they kind of want to be hedonists, in lots of ways really, and obviously sex is the one area in which you’re most hedonistic. But they’re not being entirely hedonistic yet. It was extremely interesting figuring out where all the kinks and the quirks are.
CL: So we’re not talking about the specifics of sex life necessarily.
Well, I did talk about things like the number of sexual partners, whether they’re in long term relationships, whether they’re cohabiting. Some of them I found out whether they are virgins or not. Some of them are even more revealing. There is one girl who is completely sex-led in her relationship. She’s seeing a guy who she describes as being a complete idiot, but apparently he fucks really good, I think were her words.
If people are sleeping around more, how are they sleeping around more, what are the attitudes towards it, are they accepted by society, are they not accepted, do they feel comfortable doing it, and then, what are the pros, are they enjoying their sexual freedom, is it the men, is it the woman, are they happy with it, are they getting STDs?
Favorites from Little Emperors and Material Girls
CL: Sounds very revealing. Do you have a favorite story?
I do, actually. I think it is Viktor. He is very charismatic. He’s in a band in Beijing called Bedstars, called this because he thinks it sounds slutty. A rock band. He is quite unattractive and wants to have the Mick Jagger lifestyle, but he says he is too unattractive to get with too many girls. And when I interviewed him he was actually there with his girlfriend who he’s cheated on.
Viktor still lives with his parents at home and thinks he’s never going to earn enough money as a rock musician in this country as all the girls are into “pop shit,” I believe he said.
He therefore is starting up a sex toy company because he thinks you walk down the street and everyone looks innocent but behind closed doors they’re all into kink and sin. He wants to differentiate his store from all of the thousands of others that already exist on Taobao and on the streets of Beijing by importing the toys as opposed to selling the ones made in China. He thinks people are really concerned about quality, safety, all the “Made in China” scandals, really.
He was just very funny. He had this dirty sense of humor. He was quite politicized though he claimed he wasn’t at all. His thought process and his struggle summed up a lot of the contradictions and the issues that are kind of swirling around in these young people’s heads.
Other China Authors
CL: Who are some China authors that have inspired you or informed your work?
Quite a few. I remember reading Xinran’s The Good Women Of China, and that just blew my mind. And then Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, about Tiananmen Square. I’ve actually had the pleasure of meeting Ma Jian a few times, and I’m going to be meeting Xinran. I manage a literary festival in London, an Asian one, so I’m meeting Xinran in a few weeks to help launch her new book, which had me jumping up and down on my desk about. Those two are really brilliant, amazing people.
I also really liked Rob Gifford’s China Road. I’m recently quite into North Korean Literature. There’s one by Barbara Demick and she has written the most amazing book called Nothing to Envy. When someone can write non-fiction and make it read like fiction, that is right up my alley.
The something that actually happened, as a documentary person and a history major, but making those pieces accessible and readable, that is something I’m really attracted to.
CL: You’re back in London now. What’s next for Jemimah Steinfeld?
I am managing a literature program for Asia House in London. I’ve actually managed to find a job based in London where I can channel an interesting in China. So I deal with a lot of Chinese authors, which is great, both writing in English and in translation.
CL: You mentioned Xinran earlier.
Yes, and I was in conversation with Xiaolu Guo the other day, who is actually at this Bookworm Festival, I think in Beijing. I’ve also got A Yi coming, a Chinese top writer who has written a crime novel, which is being translated.
Writing is still my passion. I have an idea for a book that has to do with China. But if I do, it will be a historical book. One of my biggest interests is still history. It is really great writing about China and I’m interested in so many stories, but one of the biggest struggles is it changes so quickly. It is quite hard from the writer’s perspective to keep apace. Book writing is quite a slow process and the nation keeps surging ahead.
I would like to do a book where I can turn back and study all of the episodes that I’ve always been interested in.
A Wish list for China’s Future
CL: What’s next for China? Do you have any predictions in your area of expertise?
I avoid making predictions. China changes too fast for that. But I do have a wish list.
There is this naïve take that China is following a western model and I don’t agree with that. We love to look at a place and go, “That’s just like us!” No, I don’t think they are. There are quite a few bits that are similar to us but I think there is also quite a lot that is unique to China, or a lot of influences coming form Korea or Japan too, as much as from the West.
I don’t want China to be just like us. I think that would be really boring. I also think that there is this premise that “just like us” is a good thing, and I don’t think that our society is perfect whatsoever.
That said, I think there are some genuine struggles in this country to do with some things that are quite unique to here. I would really love women to shed the “Leftover” label (in reference to Leftover Women).
I would like LGBT community to feel they could come out to their parents. I think what these two both have in common is that they could really shake the heteronormative model that China really has where if you don’t conform to this “get married by the time you’re 25 to 30” model, you’re seen as being a failure both to your family and to society. I think they need to have a lot more room for different individual experiences.
I also think they need to start talking about sex more, honestly. There is a huge STI problem here; there is a huge amount of unwanted pregnancies. It is a complete screw up really in that respect.
I really hope there are some things they retain. They have a huge respect for elders, which I think we could learn a lot from. Not a respect for elders in the, “Yes I’m going to get married because my grandmother tells me to,” but I think a “Yes, I’m not going to shove you in a nursing home on the outskirts of the city” would be quite nice. Going to see our family more like the kids of the book going to see them and play mahjong with them. Respecting them and keeping them active members of our society.
CL: Last question. What do you think of Chengdu?
I really like it. I really, really like it. It’s got this aspect of it where it looks like other Chinese cities but there is something really chilled out and there is so much greenery.
Thanks to Jemimah Steinfeld for participating in this interview, we encourage everyone reading this to check out her book. You can find Little Emperors and Material Girls at the Chengdu Bookworm or on Amazon, either on the Amazon US Store or Amazon China.