China’s young rebels (linglei )

A long and detailed article in the latest Time Asia takes a look at a number of talented young radicals in China (including Chun Shu, author of bestselling novel Beijing Doll) who turned their backs on the conventional, went off to do their own thing and achieved fabulous success.

These are true rebels — dropouts complete with body piercings and up-the-system clothes and unhidden contempt for the status quo. Their story is fascinating, showing just how far it is possible to go in today’s China.

But the overriding message is that, yes, there are freedoms and opportunities in China today that only a few years ago would have been utterly unthinkable — but that still, there is a definite line in the sand that these rebels know they must not cross.

It’s easy, then, to understand why the control-obsessed Party isn’t terrified of linglei, why labor camps aren’t filled with cliques of neon-hued punk wannabes or herds of dropout Bill Gates types. Superficially, China’s linglei are suitably outrĂ©: the piercings, the leather jackets, the defiant dropout pose affected even by nerdy kids like IT entrepreneur Wu.

But, in many ways, linglei are like dogs wearing electric collars that know just how far they can stray without getting shocked. No one’s jumping the invisible fence, because if they do, they might just end up in a gulag. “We’re distracted by all these new things, like new clothes or new computer games,” says Chun. “It doesn’t give us too much time to think about politics.”

Even so, reading about what these people have accomplished at such tender ages and within such a confining system — it’s quite beyond belief.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 4 Comments

A very good pick, Richard! Makes me think of Ms. Leylop who is now travelling on a road less travelled by her peers from the generation born in 1980s.

One question which the article could have probed deeper into and I am most interested in, is why the linglei people are all born in the 1980s and not the 1970s. The transition into a market economy is one short answer. But I suspect there are deeper historical forces at work (i.e. cultural revolution, death of Mao and disillusionment in a dominant ideology, etc.)

January 31, 2004 @ 4:09 pm | Comment

Andrea, I think you answered your own question very well. Education in the 80s, especially later in the decade, may still have been by rote, but it was nothing compared to the mind-scorching anti-education doled out to young people during the cultural revolution. I feel so sorry for people growing up during that time….

January 31, 2004 @ 4:14 pm | Comment

Interesting article especially where they talk about the Chinese punks who are very pro China. I’ve noticed that T-shirts of old communist heroes (especially Mao) sit side by side with Eminem and Metallica T-shirts in the skater type shops in Chengdu.
And I saw a kid in A Kurt Cobain shirt queing up to see the Chirmans bloated corpse in Tianamen last summer. Maybe its a throw back to the days when communism was seen as rebellious. Plus that most of these kids don’t know what really happened during The great leap forward, cultural revolution etc.

I was really surprised to hear some chinese friends who are big fans of Cui Jian to repeat the same party line on Taiwan and Tibet to me. They didn’t seem to know anything about the Tiananmen massacres.

I think it could be a mistake to see what we might take as western rebellious values as actually posing any challenge to one party rule.

January 31, 2004 @ 9:14 pm | Comment

Agree totally David. This rebelliousness is many things, but it is not political. Today’s young people are very pro-government. Not surprising, after the launch of Deng’s campaign to instill a love of country bordering on xenophobia around 1992.

January 31, 2004 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

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