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Film and China’s Youth Culture

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China’s youth have been featured extensively in Western media reports in 2008, with the coverage reaching a crescendo as China prepared to host the Olympics in August. Whether in defense of the Olympic torch relays or in criticism of Western reporting about events in China—highlighted by the response to the rioting in Tibet in March—youth within China, as well as those studying abroad, have demonstrated their patriotism by defending the country against what has been considered unwarranted criticism from the West. Sometimes called “Angry Youth” (fenqing) or “neocon nationalists” even in relatively sympathetic accounts, the vehemence displayed even by those seeking or having already obtained advanced degrees from Western universities has shocked and dismayed many observers who had predicted that this new, highly educated, materialistic and “Westernized” generation would be taking the lead in moving China toward democratization. At the same time, in a seeming contradiction, at least some knowledgeable observers at the Olympics expressed their surprise at the “sizable undercurrent of hope here that the United States will top the medal rankings,” and that “the Chinese really look up to the United States.”

How are we to understand the values of this generation? Does their defense of China suggest a rejection of Western culture? What do studies, including surveys conducted by Chinese social scientists within China, tell us about this generation, and are their findings consistent with Western reporting? Finally, and most relevant for this article, what has been the influence of film—both Chinese and American–on youth and popular culture? These are difficult questions, and the analysis presented here relies heavily on survey research and other empirical data that has been published in the Chinese media, supplemented by interviews.

Perhaps surprisingly, just as Western observers have been concerned that Chinese youth have become neoconservative nationalists, Chinese educators, social scientists, and government officials have become equally concerned that Chinese youth have been overly influenced by Western film, values, and popular culture. There is no contradiction, however, in concluding that both views have important elements of truth. If Western films and popular culture are influential in shaping the values of Chinese youth, particularly in terms of the rising tide of materialism and individualism, the rise of Chinese patriotism (or nationalism) derives from other forms of socialization outside of film. In the aftermath of the military crackdown on students in June 1989, the government adopted a series of policies designed to restore regime legitimacy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) made a strategic decision to de-emphasize the politics of socialist virtue and the increasingly discredited ideology of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Thought within the school curriculum, and replace these values with the promotion of patriotism and the inheritance of the great legacy of Chinese culture and Chinese history. This strategy has proved highly effective in persuading Chinese youth that the “peaceful rise” of China as a rich and powerful nation, able to take its rightful place among the leading powers in the world, has been the result of Party-state initiatives.3 Thus, materialism and patriotism can co-exist within the minds of Chinese youth and will rise to the surface and manifest themselves at different times and under different circumstances.


It is helpful to begin by briefly defining who we include under the “youth” rubric, using Chinese media discussions as our guide. During the first decade or so of the reform era that began with the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee (in December 1978—when Deng Xiaoping became China’s de facto political leader), the Chinese press commonly referred to those who had lived through different eras of Chinese political history as generations (dai) and, following Western social science categories, addressed the “generation gaps” (daigou) that distinguished and divided those who were born at different times and therefore had experienced different political campaigns.

For example, those who had spent their youth as Red Guards (1966–1968) during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976, according to Chinese official periodization) were considered the “Third Generation,” while the Fourth Generation referred to those born in the 1960s. The Fifth Generation was made up of those born in the 1970s who came of age in the 1990s. As the reforms deepened and the behavior of young people became increasingly influenced by global trends, Chinese media accounts adopted a variety of new expressions to refer to “the unconventional, individualistic, and fashion-conscious youth of the 1990s, reflecting not only an orientation toward materialistic pursuits, but also a corresponding decline in knowledge of traditional Chinese culture.” As one scholar discovered during his research, Chinese children have become more familiar with Ronald McDonald than with The Monkey King.

By 2004, however, as global cultural trends continued to wash over China, another description for youth became popular, with its meaning endlessly discussed in the Chinese press. “The post-80s generation”(baling hou) now refers to roughly 200 million of those born between 1980 and 1989, and reflects the complexities of a youth cohort seen by Chinese sociologists as inherently contradictory in its values. An understanding of their motivations, beliefs, and behavior is still evolving. For example, they are seen as “reliant and rebellious, cynical and pragmatic, self-centered and equality-obsessed,” as well as “China’s first generation of couch potatoes, addicts of online games, patrons of fast food chains, and loyal audiences of Hollywood movies.” In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, however, young people were often in the forefront as volunteers in rescue efforts, and state media outlets that had branded this generation as “spoiled, egotistical, aloof, and rebellious” began to reappraise them for their patriotism and love of Chinese culture. Although there is now a “post-90s generation” who are just beginning to receive press coverage, in general when we refer to Chinese youth, we will be examining this post-80s generation, now between nineteen and twenty-eight.

A man standing in crowed with a Western man looking at him on his side
©Walt Disney Pictures


In seeking to assess the influence of Chinese and American films on Chinese youth culture, it is helpful first to examine their exposure and receptivity to these films. Unlike earlier generations of Chinese youth, these “twentysomethings” have had a great deal of exposure, not only to Chinese films, but also to those from the West and the rest of Asia. The first blockbuster Hollywood film to be imported and shown theatrically was The Fugitive in 1994, when Chinese film authorities, noting the precipitous decline in box office receipts of domestic films, invited Warner Bros., followed by other Hollywood studios, to partner with the China Film Export and Import Corporation, in releasing ten “excellent” foreign films a year on a revenue-sharing basis. Since then, the Chinese film industry has struggled to compete with a Hollywood product that has key advantages in terms of production and marketing budgets, internationally prominent and glamorous stars, and “high concept” stories that are simple to understand and intended to appeal to global audiences.

The Chinese government has sought to limit exposure to Hollywood films and control its domestic market in a number of ways. For example, there are limitations on the number of imported films that can be shown theatrically each year, as noted above. Chinese film authorities also exercise tight control over which foreign films to approve for domestic distribution. In addition, there are blackout dates for imported films at various times each year, including the most popular months for film viewing, to ensure an audience for domestic films. In 2007, there were four blackout periods, with the first running from June 20 to July 11, the second running from July 21 to August 12, the third running from September 15 to October 30, and the fourth running through December. Submitted films based on themes the Chinese government disapproves of are routinely vetoed. Among the topics that will virtually ensure a veto, as noted below in the details on the recently published censorship criteria, are excessive horror or superstition, homosexuality (as in Brokeback Mountain, despite director Ang Lee’s prominence and popularity), excessive violence, and overt sex. Some popular films, such as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, are approved only after cuts are made. The June 2007 release of Pirates in China topped the box office, even though it was missing more than ten minutes. According to the Chinese media, the cuts were necessary because Chow Yun-fat’s role as a Singaporean pirate was seen as “vilifying and defacing the Chinese and insulting Singapore.” As the Chinese magazine Popular Cinema [Dazhong dianying] noted, “The captain, Chow, is bald, his face heavily scarred, he also wears a long beard and has long nails, images still in line with Hollywood’s old tradition of demonizing the Chinese.” Many other examples of such cuts or outright bans could be given.

Another strategy used to protect domestic films is to limit the number of prints or the length of a film’s run in theaters. For example, after the massive success of Transformers, Harry Potter had its print count cut to 450, while The Bourne Ultimatum, and Live Free or Die Hard were restricted to 150 prints each and forced to compete with each other, since both were given a November 12 release date. At the same time, the Chinese-Hong Kong co-production, The Warlords, was distributed with more than one thousand film prints and digital copies.

Domestic films also face a variety of constraints, with censorship arguably the most damaging. In an unusual gesture, following the rejection yet again of a ratings system by Chinese film authorities and the controversy over the theatrical showing of a censored version of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution in China, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television announced a list of film censorship criteria in March 2008, encompassing ten kinds of content. Since the Chinese censors have seldom been this forthcoming, it is useful to enumerate some of these restrictions. Films deemed unacceptable are those that promote pornography, gambling, violence and subordination, films that disclose state secrets, cause harm to national security, national pride and interests, and films that violate national religious policy, or promote cults and superstition. Typically, nine types of scenes are cut, including promiscuous and perverted sexual activity, rape, prostitution, homosexuality, masturbation and revealing genitals, vulgar dialogue or music, and sound effects that have a sexual connotation, murder, violence, horror, evil spirits and plots that confuse good and evil; details of crime, sensational gory scenes, violence and drug abuse, as well as excessively horrifying pictures, conversations, background music, and sound effects.

Film cover for Transformers

If the censorship criteria affect domestic films more than Hollywood, even the specific policies to limit Hollywood’s penetration have only had a limited impact on the exposure of youth to American films. First, with high ticket prices most young people cannot afford to see theatrical films on a regular basis. Second, and more importantly, Hollywood films of virtually every type are widely available to anyone through very inexpensive pirated DVDs that cost less than one dollar US (six Chinese Yuan). For those who want higher quality (known as DVD-9 in contrast to the cheaper and poorer quality DVD-5) the price rises to nine Yuan. Third, even this minimal expense is no longer necessary. Most Chinese students now simply download the films they want for free from the Internet. The download time depends on the image quality in proportion to the size of the film file. With a broadband connection it can take from one to five hours to download a recent film (older films take longer). Even the high definition Blu-ray films—also widely available in pirated versions in stores or from mobile vendors—are available online, although the file size (at least 4.4 gigabytes, but often considerably larger) necessitates a much longer download time (many students do it while they are sleeping at night so it’s ready in the morning). Ironically, the success of downloading has been effective in limiting the sale of pirated DVDs, although this is probably not the solution the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had in mind. There are a number of methods used to download a film—BitTorrent (or BT) is popular for example—and it’s very easy to discover through a Google search which films are currently available online. Fourth, glossy, high quality film magazines that focus on Hollywood are widely available at reasonable prices, further fueling the desire for Hollywood films and the American dream.

If the exposure to Hollywood films beyond the small number admitted under the quota system comes primarily from home video or one’s computer screen, the most popular domestic films are often seen in theaters. For example, one authoritative survey of the audience for the popular New Year’s Films (hesui pian), which tend to be comedies, action films, or costume epics and are shown each year between December and February, found that 61.5 percent saw such films in theaters, 50.8 percent watched them on the Internet, 40.4 percent watched the DVDs, and 23.6 percent saw them on television. Such surveys also make clear that the large majority of the audience for these films—as is the case with Hollywood films—is young people. One survey found that 46.6 percent of the audience was between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, with another 29.8 percent between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-five. For summer films a similar survey found that 61.1 percent of the audience were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine and a further 11.7 percent were seventeen or below.


Given the widespread availability of Hollywood films in China, how do Chinese youth assess these films in comparison to Chinese films? It is difficult to present an accurate picture because of restrictions on the theatrical showings of Hollywood films and the banning or editing of edgy or controversial Chinese films. However, it is worth examining briefly some box office data. Even with restrictions, Hollywood films have done very well in the Chinese market, generally taking around forty to forty-six percent of the box office in the last five years. Before China’s film agreement with Hong Kong in 2003, that effectively removed Hong Kong films from the import category, Hollywood routinely had well over fifty percent of the China film market. The most popular film of all time in China is still Titanic, which brought in 320 million Chinese Yuan in 1998, twenty percent of the total market that year. The most popular film in recent years was Transformers in 2007, with a box office take of 207 million Yuan.

Film cover for kung fu panda

Fortunately, there are a fair number of surveys asking youth and other filmgoers to compare Chinese and Hollywood films. Several points are worth noting. First, the surveys make quite clear that Hollywood films are favored over local films. For example, at the Ninth Annual Film Festival for University Students, in Beijing in 2002, over one thousand students representing more than twenty schools were asked to choose the films they liked the most. Around forty-six percent chose Hollywood films; fewer than seven percent chose mainland Chinese films. About twenty-six percent chose Hong Kong films, followed by European films at around twenty-one percent. When asked which films they liked the least, around fifty-six percent chose mainland films, while fewer than seven percent chose Hollywood films. Their reasons for disliking domestic Chinese films included, in declining order, poor quality, competition from television, competition from Hollywood, the serious influence of piracy, and poor marketing and publicity. More recent surveys present a similar picture, although the assessment of mainland films has improved, largely because almost all the successful mainland films are now co-productions, particularly with popular Chinese actors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. One typical survey of the film audience in Shanghai in which forty-three percent of the sample were between twenty and thirty years of age and forty-seven percent had university degrees found that seventy-five percent favored imported films while only twenty-five percent favored Chinese films. One recent survey comparing the film preferences of the ten- to fifteen- and fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds concluded that mainland films were less favored than Hollywood films or those with teen idols from Taiwan or Hong Kong.

One of the most interesting recent cases, in part because it led to a debate in the Chinese media, surrounded the release of Kung fu Panda. While some self-appointed cultural critics objected to an American film about a Chinese cultural treasure, particularly in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, most commentators praised the film and lamented the fact that martial arts and pandas are both national treasures, but a film of the humor and quality of Kung fu Panda could never have been made in China, precisely because they were national treasures. As with the controversies over various political decisions made during the Olympics (e.g., the lip-synching incident in which a more attractive young girl was substituted for the actual singer), decisions on panda films are too important to be left to artists and filmmakers; the political authorities would have to ensure that any Chinese film on this subject was appropriately reverent. In one online survey about Kung fu Panda conducted by China Youth Daily, around seventy percent of respondents had already seen the film while only 7.6 percent said they were not planning to see it. Further, over sixty-two percent said they like American animated films and about forty-six percent liked the Japanese variety. Only fourteen percent liked Chinese animated films. As many as eighty-two percent felt that the biggest weakness of the Chinese films was a lack of creativity.


Determining the influence of a cultural product on attitudes is difficult; determining the influence on behavior might well be impossible, as we have seen in the various legal cases in the United States that have sought to link specific crimes to the lyrics of a popular song or the content of a violent film. Inevitably, some of the data is anecdotal. For example, upwardly mobile middle class youth in urban areas, perhaps the primary consumers of Hollywood films, have noted in interviews how such films have begun to affect their behavior. A young Chinese woman, fired from her job at a trendy magazine, explained to a New York Times reporter why she sued her former employer: “We’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies—they feature weddings, funerals, and going to court . . . So now we think it’s only natural to go to court a few times in your life.”

It has not been uncommon to use scenes from Hollywood films to explain developments in the United States to an unfamiliar Chinese audience. The most chilling example was 9/11. In Surprise Attack on America, a best-selling VCD (Video Compact Disk, the precursor in Asia to the DVD) marketed in China, there are frequent clips from Hollywood films and the use of soundtracks from popular films interspersed with the documentary footage. Early on in this 100-minute video, after showing the destruction of Manhattan’s Twin Towers, the narrator suggests that such dramatic footage would be hard to find (nanyi kandao) in a Hollywood film. Nevertheless, Hollywood films are repeatedly used as reference points, presumably because it is assumed that the audience’s knowledge of America often comes from these films, and because of the wide availability of pirated copies of such films in China. Thus, to familiarize viewers with the location of the Towers and New York’s financial district more generally, there is a quick cut to Charlie Sheen sitting at his desk in a bustling office in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. To dramatize the sheer magnitude of the damage to that section of Manhattan, scenes of Godzilla, in the 1998 Hollywood version, rampaging through the city follow the collapse of the Towers. President Bush then presides over a press conference, which merges into a bombing sequence from Pearl Harbor. Indeed, the Phoenix TV announcers repeatedly compared the events of September 11 to scenes in Pearl Harbor and Air Force One. The theme music from Jaws reappears periodically to accompany the narration. As one observer suggested, the announcers apparently felt that such references to Hollywood films were necessary to persuade the viewers that the events were in fact real. Paradoxically, to the average Chinese they also seemed to be only the most dramatically violent Hollywood movie to date. The mixture of fantasy and reality was tangible, with one shop assistant at Xinhua Bookstore in Beijing telling a foreign reporter: “Before people were interested in the movies, but this is more compelling. What happened in New York could have happened in a movie, but this is real life. It’s better.”

Chinese political officials certainly have seen film, following Lenin, as a key socializing agent, and have sought to use “patriotic” films for propaganda purposes while limiting the exposure to Western films. Every year there are state-subsidized films produced to welcome the anniversaries of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (July 1, 1921) and the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (August 1, 1927). The year 2007 was particularly fruitful for the production of such “main melody (patriotic) films” since in addition to the eightieth anniversary of Army Day, it also marked the tenth anniversary of the reversion of Hong Kong to the PRC and witnessed the seventeenth Party Congress. Students (among others) are mobilized to attend free showings of these patriotic films, but they tend to be a tough sell. In the cities, they have to compete with popular Hollywood films and domestic action films or costume dramas, which are often co-productions with large budgets and major Chinese stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the US. In rural areas, the situation appears to be even worse. As one report noted, ninety percent of the films produced for rural primary and secondary school students as part of the patriotic education campaign in Sichuan province were never even shown. Although many government agencies were involved in this expensive project, none took responsibility.

There are other limitations to the influence of film on youth attitudes as well. First, the best theaters are of course in the major cities, and the film audience, particularly for Hollywood or Chinese blockbusters (dapian), is centered there. In 2007, the box office in China was 3.327 billion Chinese Yuan, with around eighty-four percent of the total generated from theater chains in the major urban markets. Markets in smaller cities and towns generated just over ten percent and rural markets took in only six percent. A survey in one Anhui province locality found that around one-third of primary and secondary school students in the rural areas had never seen a Chinese or Hollywood blockbuster film. Second, film has to compete with a wide range of other leisure time activities, such as television, the Internet, sports, music, window shopping at the local mall, and so on. Surveys have shown that watching films—particularly if it requires going to a theater—trails far behind alternative pursuits.

Nevertheless, the Chinese media has many articles on the dangers of Western cultural influence on China, including the penetration of Western values and Hollywood film. One of the most interesting— partly because it was circulated internally and not made available to the public—was a survey conducted by the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that primarily targeted students of history at thirty-three universities in various parts of China. Entitled “The Influence of Western ‘Cultural Penetration’ and Our Countermeasures,” the findings provide valuable information on twenty-one “very important questions” relating to youth attitudes. For example, with regard to belief systems, while only 17.2 percent chose “Strive to Realize Communism,” as many as 72.7 percent chose “Strive for Individual Success.” Another ten percent “didn’t know” their belief system. Over ninety-four percent said they had been influenced by Western culture, while over eighty-two percent acknowledged that Western video products propagate Western political ideas and a Western lifestyle. Despite this recognition, fewer than twelve percent were willing to negate such products. Most directly, as many as 51.2 percent identified themselves with American cultural concepts, while 31.7 percent said, in effect, that it was a non-issue (wusuowei). Only 17.2 percent said they did not identify with these concepts. The surveyors interpreted these results to mean that even those who claimed it was a non-issue were accepting or identifying with Western values, sometimes without even realizing it.

Other studies more specifically analyzed American films such as Independence Day, The Terminator, Air Force One, and Mulan, noting that Chinese teenagers have no clear faith or goals, lack cultural identity, and are indifferent to mainstream values. Because China lacks “international competitive (or soft) power,” Internet culture is monopolized by the West, and Chinese youth idols have been less attractive than their Western counterparts. These critics argue that Chinese culture faces the danger of marginalization.

Thus, if one only examined the influence of Chinese and American films, a persuasive case might be made that Hollywood films were far more influential in shaping youth attitudes in China, particularly with regard to the rise of individualistic and materialistic values. However, film is only one socializing agent and, while the Chinese government has not been particularly successful in using film to socialize its youth with regard to lifestyle issues, other elements of its larger strategy of socialization have been much more successful in promoting the patriotic dimension that has become such an important component of youth attitudes and behavior.