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Charting Their Own Course: Resources for Teaching about China’s Youth

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I begin this review of resources for secondary teaching about youth culture in China with a bit of encouragement. To those for whom the mere mention of “youth culture” evokes an unknowable world inhabited by unforgiving digital natives, fear not. Early in my survey of resources, I realized that to do this topic justice, you must cede certain ground to your high school students—doing so will pay dividends in your classroom. If you provide the perspective on China’s youth and allow students to do the bulk of the exploring, you will illuminate major issues in China today while satisfying students’ desire to uncover trends among their peers.

I suggest taking a broad view of youth, looking at teens and young adults in their twenties as well as their “role models,” yuppies in their thirties. Classroom resources are scarce; opening the discussion to a wide cross section of young people will deepen the pool of materials and the richness of the unit. I propose tackling this topic through the student-centered research project described in the first part of this essay that reveals the diversity of the 379 million young people born in the 1980s and ’90s and explores issues facing them. The project assumes students have some background on the Mao and post-Mao periods. At the very least, a source or two that outlines these periods is a prerequisite for an in-depth look at youth today. If you need to provide this background for students, and there is little time to teach it, consider showing clips from the three-part DVD series China: A Century of Revolution. Alternatively, you can assign students sections of Global Studies: China, a collection of essays compiled for the classroom.

Youth is a wonderful lens for studying Chinese history and society throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I highly recommend preparing for this unit over time, adding primary source readings on youth for each major period. Patricia Ebrey’s collection of primary sources, Chinese Civilization, provides excellent short selections on the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the Cultural Revolution, and the events leading up to the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen. All are political events in which youth played a central role. This prior focus on youth will illuminate perspectives on contemporary young people and provide a richer context to study them. However, it is not necessary for the project introduced here.

The second part of this essay provides basic background on the post-1980 and 1990 generations with sources for each topic. Finding sources for the secondary level was a challenge: I regret the minor coverage I give to important aspects of youth/youth culture. Some of the materials contain profanity or sexual content (as noted); review materials carefully before turning students loose to investigate. Otherwise, students should have fun and be creative.

Student Research Project

PART ONE: Explain to students that they will get to know their Chinese peers better through a project that culminates in preparation of a profile on Chinese youth for a company or organization that wants to penetrate China’s youth market. Before students can do this, they need to find out who makes up this group of a few hundred million. Students will become acquainted with their target market by breaking the large group into smaller groups, a practice called “segmentation” in business. In class, briefly review two sources to introduce this concept: a fun, one-minute YouTube video “Target Market Research” and the article “Segmenting Your Target Audience.” Then, brainstorm ways to “segment” China’s youth, challenging students to come up with as many classifications as they can. Examples include gender, community (urban/rural), political attitudes, education, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, job, etc. As a class, formulate a list of key subgroups to research that will help students generate profiles later on. Examples include “urban high school students,” “rural migrants,” “young entrepreneurs,” etc. Next, divide the class into small groups and have each group select one of the subgroups to research. During the research phase, students will want to learn as much as they can about the lives and lifestyles of people in their subgroup. Providing sources from the next section will help students focus and plan for further research. Have student groups informally present their findings to the class, including quotes or clips from their best sources. Follow up with a discussion comparing and contrasting subgroups, noting trends in Chinese society that affect some or all.

PART TWO: Jigsaw the groups and do a simulation that puts the new student groups to work for a multinational company or organization of their choice. Inform students that they have been hired to create a profile of China’s youth for a company/organization that wants to penetrate this market. The students will need to tailor their profile to the company’s products or services, noting who would/would not be attracted to the products and why. Students should choose a product and create a mock ad campaign as an example of what might appeal. For real-world guidance on the composition of an ad, direct students to information on the Small Business Administration Web site: “What’s in an Ad?” and “Avoid These Pitfalls.” Conclude by having students give a formal presentation to company/organization executives (your class) that includes a visual element such as video or performance. Executives should be prepared to ask probing questions about youth in China and why the product will sell.

Cover of Cosmetic Surgery and Beauty Magazine.
Cover of Cosmetic Surgery and Beauty Magazine.

Background Information and Sources by Topic

The transformation of youth culture from Generations X to Z in our country has been dramatic, and even more so for China. Not only have the younger generations witnessed remarkable changes in Chinese society since reform, they are a product of post-Mao liberalization. Known as the “new generation,” youth born in the 1980s and 1990s are the first to grow up in the consumer culture of the ’90s, free of the ideological imperatives of the past and political yearnings of the 1989 students. Most of today’s urban youth are singletons, China’s so-called “little emperors,” who engage the world in new ways and pursue the “good life.” They search for personal fulfillment, enjoying a lifestyle their parents could not have imagined. While urban youth still study hard to make it into the nation’s best universities, there are other paths to education and ultimately to success; money paves the way.

Older Chinese describe the younger generations as “open,” “free,” and “individual.” Life is about “me.” Switching jobs, brands, boy/girlfriends, and hair color are par for the course. Youth change musical tastes often, listening to Gangtai pop, jazz, rock, or hip-hop. They gain status through consumption, from the personal style they create through the cell phones they carry and the brand-name Western and South Korean fashions they wear (typically knock-offs), to the restaurants where they eat, and the transportation they take. For young women entering the workforce, success is increasingly a competition between beauty and talent. The former can be bought via China’s rapidly growing beauty industry. Ads for skin-whitening creams and plastic surgery dot the cities, as do billboards advertising the new “Chinese dream,” a car and suburban home. Young people try on new images for size, experimenting with products, trends, and even sex at an early age. This is not the generation of youth I knew when I lived in China in the mid-’90s, among college-age ambitious yet conservative youth born in the ’70s. Today’s urban youth combine new and old influences in interesting ways for an ever-changing style that sets the standard in mainstream youth culture.

Screen capture shows three people are talking
Screen capture of the Tudou Web site at view/XpQChd-kbE8/
Screen capture of the opening page of Young and Restless in China.
Screen capture of the opening page of Young and Restless in China.

Youth of the post-1980s and 1990s also express themselves online; they are China’s version of digital natives and immigrants. People under thirty comprise sixty-nine percent of China’s netizens, part of the world’s largest online community. Young Chinese netizens are plugged into the world—writing about themselves in blogs and online novels, breaching firewalls to connect globally, and posting clips on Tudou. They IM, download music and games, read news, and watch American TV shows. Despite government efforts to control content, online users are exposed to freer media and opportunities for independent networking.

Screen capture shows students are taking class in the classroom
Screen capture of the “Our School” section of Life in New China: Images
and Words from Beijing Youth.

There are several sources that plug into the lives and lifestyles of Chinese urban youth. I highly recommend the Frontline episode “Young and Restless in China,” available online. The film profiles adults under thirty-five over a three-year period (2004– 2007), including entrepreneurs, migrant laborers, a hip-hop artist, and others. China Rises contrasts the lives of up-and-coming artists with those of Shanghai’s urban poor. A source with a lighter take on youth culture is China’s New Culture of Cool. The authors create composite characters and trace “cool” through yi (style), shi (food), zhu (living), and xing (mobility). It’s unfortunate that the composite characters are just that, but the book does a good job explaining the varied experiences of urban youth: the play girl, the striver, the modern conservative, and the rule breaker. Sources that deal less with youth culture and more with school culture are Life in New China: Images and Words from Beijing Youth and Wide Angle’s “China Prep.” The voices of urban youth come through in different pitches through this collection of sources. Together they tap into the opportunities and instabilities in the shadows of the new society: the socioeconomic inequalities, ideological void, pervasive corruption, and separation of families chasing economic success.

Screen capture of a Chinese rapper
Screen capture of rapper Wang Xiaolei in Young and Restless in China.
Image of two women are dancing in the nightclub
Shanghai nightclub scene. Image courtesy of ImagineChina. ©ImagineChina.

These issues and more feature heavily in the expressions of China’s linglei, a term recently rehabilitated from the derogatory “hooligan” to the contemporary “alternative.” Some linglei youth are obvious: the rapper Wang Xiaolei in “Young and Restless,” or the troubled heroine in Chun Shu’s Beijing Doll, based on the author’s life as a teen and devotee of Beijing’s ’90s rock scene. Both drop out of the system, rejecting, at least temporarily, customary routes to success. Some have suggested linglei is a fad, not an identity. In Brand New China, Jing Wang attributes teens’ obsession with punk rock as an outlet from the stress of college entrance examinations that fades upon university admission. In contemporary youth culture, boundaries between linglei to signal “cool” and mainstream commercial youth culture are unclear. The Webzine Coldtea showcases linglei attitude; the images tell all, but beware of stray profanity.

Screen capture of  a man
Screen capture of Mian Mian in Shanghai Nights documentary.
Cover of Beijing Doll.
Cover of Beijing Doll.

The counterculture will intrigue students as it informs them of the limit-pushing behaviors possible in China today. The documentary Shanghai Nights (2004) offers an online clip of Shanghai’s nightlife with thirty-eight-year-old Mian Mian, known for her late-1990s novels based on her sexual conquests and drug addiction. The clip is tame, but the Web site includes excerpts of her banned (yet widely circulated) novel Candy,with explicit references to sex and suicide. China Rises “City of Dreams” provides online clips of a rock musician who, like many contemporary young artists, incorporates traditional Chinese elements in his work, unearthing cultural roots blurred by commercialism. “Young and Restless” rapper Wang Xiaolei’s music and lyrics are online as well.

As linglei and other youth critique society, so society critiques them. In most sources mentioned here, your students will find evidence of the critiques of the new generation, positive and negative, in the words of youth and their elders. Through Chinese Eyes provides articles from the late 1990s critiquing post-1980 “little emperors.” More can be found online in The China Daily. Students will want to consider the challenge young Chinese face, known as the 4-2-1 problem. An urban only child may one day be burdened with supporting two parents and four grandparents without the help of a sibling or reliable pension system. The stakes are high in the younger generations’ ability to rise to the challenge. Parents scrimp on themselves to provide a better life for their child. One has to wonder if part of parents’ “spoiling” of children into young adulthood has to do with providing a safety net in a society that no longer offers one. The recent outpouring of young volunteer support for Sichuan’s earthquake victims may boost confidence in the abilities of this generation to think beyond themselves.

American students may be tempted to join in the critique as they investigate political attitudes of youth. I would encourage them to focus their attention on how Chinese youth are evaluating their world. As China’s urban culture explodes, students might assume political attitudes have undergone similar changes. Not so, writes Matthew Forney following the Tibetan uprisings:

Many sympathetic Westerners view Chinese society along the lines of what they saw in the waning days of the Soviet Union: a repressive government backed by old hard-liners losing its grip to a new generation of well-educated, liberal-leaning sophisticates . . . Educated young Chinese, far from being embarrassed or upset by their government’s human-rights record, rank among the most patriotic, establishment-supporting people you’ll meet.

Screen capture of a segment of 2008 China Stand Up.
Screen capture of a segment of 2008 China Stand Up.
Image source:

Many of today’s young people focus on fulfilling their dreams rather than sacrificing self for a political ideal. The authors of China’s New Culture of Cool anecdotally observe goals of youth, “Help China succeed, have new experiences, connect with others, be an individual.” Beijing Spring does not feature prominently in the minds of young people. Martin Wang, lead singer of The Lanterns, says, “There’s a lot of . . . silly revolution in our history. All the people, they just want to change the country, make it the best country in the world in one night. We‘ve got to make everything [happen] just slowly, slowly.” College-age youth corroborate this view as they talk politics in the podcast “Young China.” A few dissenting voices can be heard in the documentaries, criticizing and sometimes resisting local authorities on issues that affect them directly, but most come from older generations.

Among the loudest voices on political matters are “angry youth” (fenqing), referring to China’s young ultranationalists with fiercely anti-Western or anti-Japanese sentiments, often aired on the Internet. The YouTube clip “2008 China Stand Up!” by graduate student Tang Jie, circulated after the Tibetan riots, accuses Western media of plotting against China. Those who believe Tang’s opinion is based on the Chinese media alone should think twice: “Like others his age, he has no hesitation about tunneling under the government firewall,” writes Evan Osnos.

Reactions to angry youth vary, from supportive to disdainful. What is the role of the state in all this? The party planted the seed of nationalism, promoting patriotism among youth in an effort to unify a stratified group. However, “the CCP . . . is losing control over nationalist discourse.” In China Rises, students will see examples of popular nationalism through interviews with entrepreneur Lu Yunfei. Lu runs an anti-Japanese Web site and organizes protests—both shut down periodically by the government. Ironically, through popular nationalism, students will perceive a gap in the political attitudes of state and society, and recognize that people have different ideas about what a strong China looks like, which may or may not conflict with the state.

Image of a girl who is singing
Super Girl Contest winner, Li Yuchun.
Image source: Stareastasia Entertainment News.
Photo Credit:

Popular nationalism takes different forms among China’s ethnic minorities. Studying attitudes expressed in popular music is one way to incorporate the perspectives of some of these youth, in a minor way. I had hoped to find accessible sources on minorities’ participation in youth culture and came up short. Even so, they deserve inclusion. Nimrod Baranovitch’s scholarly work on popular rock music offers an entry into youth attitudes through lyrics. In contrast to the 1990s music of resistance, Baranovitch suggests political attitudes of Uyghur youth are softening. Their affinity for the pop rock music of two Uyghur musicians has changed recently: Arken’s apolitical music has gained popularity, while the acclaim of Askar’s politically charged music has declined. Baranovitch writes, “The sad acceptance of the late 1990s and early 2000s has been giving way to a practical accommodation, a coming to terms with the reality of a Han-dominated Xinjiang and a desire to make the most of it.” He quotes a Uyghur youth in Xinjiang who says, “Nowadays everyone wants to realize their potential. Young people are sick of politics. We don’t want to be victims anymore. . . .”

CD cover for Teng Ge’er.
CD cover for Teng Ge’er.
Image source:

Through a deeper look at rock music, students will notice the intersection of the attitudes of young people from various ethnic minorities and Han Chinese youth, as well as key differences. For a flavor of Askar’s and Arken’s music, a YouTube search produces a few videos. Ambitious students can investigate lyrics and fan attitudes in Baranovitch’s essay cited above. His book, China’s New Voices, includes the 1990s lyrics of Yi pop star Lolo and Mongolian musician Teng Ge’er, whose songs about their cultures are enjoyed by Han and non-Han Chinese. Rather than asking students to make generalizations about minorities based on the work of these singers, I suggest they investigate the appeal of these songs among youth who share the singers’ backgrounds and those who don’t, looking for common ground and points of divergence.

Also on the margins of youth culture are young people from China’s vast rural population. TV has made rural youth aware of the trends set in urban centers. Like their urban counterparts, rural youth watched as Li Yuchun won the Super Girl Contest, China’s version of American Idol. They soak up images of new China and plan ways to escape a future in farming. Youth migrate to China’s cities in big numbers. Of the 150 million migrant workers, the majority leave home before age thirty. They build China’s glittering skylines, clean restaurants frequented by yuppies, and sew fashions worn around the world. How do these young workers intersect with the new Chinese dream?

Western media has showered attention on rural migrants, particularly young girls working in factories that produce everything from socks to jeans. Sources that circulate their stories include China from the Inside, “Young and Restless,” and China Rises. The girls migrate to support family back home, and many claim to put a brother through school, placing their own goals on hold in the meantime. Work in the factory is grueling and wages are low, but the girls gain something, too, in terms of skills, earning power, and life experiences, both good and bad. These young workers factor distinctly in the supply side of youth culture’s material trappings, but they also participate as consumers. Girls spend the money they don’t send home on clothes, make-up, and entertainment. This is fueled by “their urgent desire to live up to the calling of the modern model of female beauty.” Their attempt to take in a sliver of the good life meets with prejudice from city dwellers. Caught between worlds, many girls have a hard time giving up their urban lifestyles to return home to marry, yet struggle with their status as outsiders in the city. Can rural youth consume their way to acceptance in the city? What are the barriers that separate them from their “cool” urban peers? How do the girls participate in the new culture of self-expression? Youth culture penetrates rural communities in noteworthy ways, proving that even those far from the centers of cool are relevant to the story.


What students will observe most profoundly as they investigate the lives of Chinese youth are generations negotiating change, carving out individual paths to success in ways they define. They will notice the costs of taking new paths, the dislocation of family members in pursuit of economic rewards, and the pressures on a society possibly more highly stratified than at any point in recent history. These young generations test limits, yet also reproduce the past in some ways. The ideological gap between American students and their peers remains intact despite the increasing proximity of their material lives. Nonetheless, common ground between them is also greater than ever. As your students become steeped in China’s youth culture, they may ask the question Bill Dodson posted in his blog, “Is China cool yet?” Dodson says no. What do your students think? Try this unit and find out.