Cultural revelations

Issue: 138

Sally Kincaid

Paul Clark, Youth Culture in China (Cambridge University Press, 2012), £18.99

Paul Clark is a professor in Modern Chinese Popular Culture at the University of Auckland, so there is no doubt this book will end up on the essential reading list for university courses in Chinese culture in the future. This is an extremely well researched book—the notes and bibliography alone take up 30 percent of the entire publication. So this itself will provide a useful starting point for any further studies in modern Chinese culture

Clark sets out to investigate youth culture in China over the last five decades. He focuses on three key years: 1968, 1988 and 2008.

Clark starts by briefly describing the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 where young people were told to “sweep away the forces of evil”. However he gives a far more detailed description of the events of 1968, when Mao needed to restore order, in the cities.

The youth were told to leave the cities and not just to spread the word to the peasants but also to learn from them. This period of the Cultural Revolution allowed youngsters to leave their parental home and travel.

Over 10 million left their families and followed Mao’s call to go “up to the mountains and down to the villages”. Clark describes the hardship many of these youngsters faced, but also how there was a cultural explosion as these school and college students entertained not only themselves but their peasant hosts. They wrote and performed plays, operas and songs, even setting up cinema screens in the villages.

I found the most interesting section was the way young people are using the internet to try and reduce their alienation from society. Just like in the West there is parallel language developing via text, instant messaging such as QQ or MSN, some of which, Clark points out, does have a political twist. So to invite friends to eat and drink was referred to as fan fubai (oppose corruption), as in “let’s go and oppose corruption!” He further explains that this is a crafty commentary against the Communist Party’s abuse of power at all levels. I was disappointed that Clark did not develop this more, as there are many examples of the way online language is constantly being adapted to get round repressive online censorship.

I was also disappointed with this book as I kept thinking there is more to tell. The historic events in 1989 were almost mentioned as an afterthought.

Clark describes how young people in China are far more likely to watch entertainment programmes on television than news but doesn’t explain why there is a lack of interest or trust in the official news in China.

It is not because young people in China are not interested in politics: millions were communicating via Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) about the recent US election. They were quoted as saying it was far more interesting than the Chinese election two days before as at least the outcome was uncertain.

Finally, those of you who have ever had the misfortune of having to sit thought Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor on a Saturday night will be pleased to know that there is a Chinese equivalent—Supergirl, which 10 percent of the television owning population watch each week. However, unlike Clark, who believes this show adds to the youth culture in China I feel it is the equivalent of suggesting that the introduction of McDonald’s and other Western fast food chains has improved their diets.