I don’t think I need to say that blogging hasn’t been a high priority for me recently. But I saw a piece this week that I need to share, even though it’s already been out there a couple of days and has received enormous interest. It’s by editor, author, friend and all-around genius (and I mean that) James Palmer. (I reviewed his most recent book here.)
His story that has gone viral is all about the balinghou, Chinese young people borne after 1980, and the many myths about them, namely that they are all spoiled brats with no social skills and infinite greed and a sense of entitlement. Not so fast, Palmer argues. In fact, those descriptors may apply more to their parents than to the balinghou. It is the parents, disoriented by China’s hyperbolic growth and relatively new focus on money, so different from their lives under Mao, who now see greed as the key to success, to survival.
[M]any of the post-1980 generation — contrary to their reputation for greedy materialism — want to help others. Levels of volunteering are higher than ever, though still significantly lower than in the West, and college students or young white-collar workers are the primary founders of NGOs. But to their parents, charity can be a dirty word. ‘One of my friends has a sick wife, and very little money,’ said Zhang, the PhD student. ‘I wanted to give him 500 yuan to help him, but while I was waiting to meet him, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, telling me I was a fool. Every time I give money to someone, I feel like I’m being cheated somehow.’ Another person I interviewed said: ‘If I tell my mum I gave money, she berates me because I don’t even have an apartment of my own yet.’
…And for parents whose own dreams were frustrated by history, the temptation to force their children into the path they wanted for themselves is even stronger.
This article is so brilliant, so intriguing, so well argued and so beautifully written that it generated a discussion from a panel of China experts including the likes of Orville Schell that is as essential a read as the article itself.
I’d like to quote nearly every line of Palmer’s article. This is partly why I am so down on blogging at the moment. There are many others who can offer more insight into China than I can, and there is no sense in my trying to add to it: Palmer’s article is as perfect as they come.
Let me just add that the myth of the balinghou as social misfits who’ve been spoiled to death, like all myths, certainly has an element of truth to it, as Palmer acknowledges up front. In my own research on the topic more than a year ago I spoke to several Chinese young people who grew up with no siblings, and they felt they were cheated — with no siblings they didn’t learn how to interact with their peers (or so they told me) and they lacked the social skills their parents had learned in their larger families. But that doesn’t mean they think only of themselves and have no moral compass. Greed is not their sole driver.
After reading the article (which you have to do) you may well feel that the ones who we should feel most concerned about are the parents, not their children.
[T]he parents of China’s post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children’s lives, and then add to that dating, university life and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties labouring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones and casual dates.
Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don’t quite grasp….
The young people’s sense of materialism didn’t spring up in a vacuum, but was instilled in them by their parents, suddenly living in a world with values radically different than the ones they grew up with in rural China.
There is much more to this article, and it is no surprise to see the storm it has generated. I would say it is the single best piece on China I’ve seen in a very long time, maybe years. It is gripping, and it is shattering. (Sorry, I don’t mean to gush, but I’ve rarely been so mesmerized by an article on China.) Read it now if you haven’t already, and if you’ve read it already go and read it again. Just two words to James: Thank you.
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.