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February 11, 2006


by Sascha Matuszak

Zhuang Jian is at once typical and atypical of his generation. He was born in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and was but a small boy when it ended. For him, being "Sent Down to the Countryside" was one of the best times of his life, running wild in the fields, chasing swine and fowl.

He was 12 when the Opening Up began and spent his teen years rejecting Chinese Culture as vociferously as the Red Guard who stormed the country while he was a child. Everything had to be from the Outside: music, art, books, clothes, thought, shoes, cell phones … He was a student himself in 1989 and identified with the rebels of the day, long haired and defiant. Cui Jian was among the few Chinese musicians he would listen to. To him and most like him, Hu Yaobang was a good man and Li Peng and Old Deng were the repressive Old Guard.

As Progress reared its head deep in the Chinese interior, here in Sichuan, Zhuang was cutting edge. He downloaded music from his home when netbars were just coming out, he backpacked into the Tibetan hills while most Chinese stared dumbfounded at big hairy white people strolling down Chengdu streets carrying life in a bag. He was hip before everyone else even knew what a dj was. His films made it to Paris and Sweden and he dated foreign women.

He left Dali and Lijiang as the tour groups arrived and he bought a Jeep when they first came to Chengdu and retreated into the mountains, away from what China had become for him, away from the businessmen donning camping gear bought especially for their yearly trip, away away away.

And it was there, very recently in fact, that he finally discovered what had always been there: what it means to be Chinese. What it meant in those bygone days, already misted over by the smog of industrial and hi-tech output, virtually buried under GDP figures and concrete and tile three-star hotels.

Zhuang finally remembered the essence of what he is. Not the empty words proclaiming "5000 years of history" that grace the lips of Mainland Chinese everywhere, but the Chinese soul: the Gentleman of the Analects, who walks the Way; the warrior of the Three Kingdoms, the brother of the Rivers and Lakes. The exemplary person that 5000 years of experience can help create.

The superficiality of a money driven, greed dominated, corrupt and unjust society was revealed to him as naught but a thin film covering a treasure trove of thought, knowledge, legends and myths, wisdom and folklore, beauty and tragedy – the whole human spectrum. A spectrum easily lost in the chaos of Development that grips China today.

Zhuang is joined by his contemporaries in this rebirth, the Renaissance of the Chinese soul. Chinese between the ages of 35 and 45 have done the rebel thing, the foreign thing, the business thing and now, slowly, they seem to be doing their own thing. To speak of a rebirth now, across China, could be premature, but to speak of a counter-culture, as solid and as real as the middle class the papers speak of? Sure. It is natural for the two to rise as one.

It has become not just popular, but somehow necessary for Chinese to visit the old towns, to drink tea in the small lanes, to build restaurants and hotels that are more than just tile, concrete and glass. Like anything in China, the true sentiment of a growing slice of the population gathers opportunists like stones gather moss, but some the most successful Chinese businessmen today were the children of the 70s, the kids who went through the transition from Maoism to Dengism to modernism … some of them are returning to what was virtually wiped off the map when they were but babes.


Wang Xiao Qing is at once typical and atypical of her generation. She is a young Master’s student at Sichuan University, studying design, born in the mid-80s, while Zhuang was a teen. She is up to date with the most cutting-edge Japanese design work out today and she admires it. She has traveled to Nepal and SE Asia, picking up dozens of knick-knacks, scarves, clothes, rings and impressions along the way.

She loves Israel and yoga, she wants to go to India to learn more and eventually open a yoga shop here. Or perhaps go to Israel on a scholarship studying Jewish culture. She dates foreigners, listens to foreign music, wears her own interpretation of foreign fashion – be it Japanese, Indian, European, American … and speaks excellent English.

At the same time, she professes a deep dislike for all things Japanese due to "past crimes." Her family is very traditional, with a domineering, conservative mother and a grandfather famous for writing a poem upon a monument to the massacre of Communist troops by the Nationalists in Chongqing. Decisions are done by family committee. She is quick to defend "our China" and just as quick to judge "you foreigners." She is at once patriotic to an ideal and a traitor to the system that conceived of it.

She is being pulled in one hundred directions by one hundred separate viable dreams, wishes, hopes, obligations, fears, desires and so far none have them have managed to climb atop the mountain of her consciousness and claim victory.

She could be a classical case of identity crisis, the crisis that affects every individual on this planet at some time or another. Hers is a uniquely Chinese crisis: she rejects traditional China as useless while revering her grandfather’s timeless sense of self. She revels in being different yet despairs when her peers point it out to her, she needs to get away but is obligated by tradition and her own heart to care for her family.

Her generation may be the voice of China that will most indelibly be associated with China’s rise, the generation raised during China’s rise.

The Riches Available …

Wang Xiao Qing’s mirror image is Michelle, who is at once typical and atypical of her generation. She went to school and also excelled, especially in foreign languages. Her abilities went hand in hand with China’s current needs: intelligent, increasingly worldly and determined.

And Chinese.

She worked hard and learned management and training from experienced European and American professionals. Taking the good and leaving the bad, just like the Chinese government slogans always say. The good includes a Columbia-educated foreigner.

She learned so proficiently, in fact, that her company was eventually bought out by a Hong Kong training firm. The Hong Kong people put her in charge. The HK firm led to another job, then another …

She speaks Wall Street, dresses Manhattan and is pure Shanghai. She has done everything anyone could ask of her: made it big in a country of opportunity. Her success is what has the migrant worker sitting on a bus for 48 hrs to get back to the factory after spending a week with his family during the Spring Festival.

Her success is the Chinese Dream, the American Dream – the ideal of the mainstream. Naturally, the Chinese Dream of the mainstream will be rejected, warped, ridiculed and transformed by Chinese Dreamers – the counterculture.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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