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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16

Flashback: It's Not All About Money
Eleven years after the Tiananmen protests, China's young thinkers are once again finding inspiration by challenging cultural conservatism
By GEREMIE R. BARME

Consumerism. Computers. Cash. The three C's seem to define today's urban Chinese youth. But after years in the doldrums, serious literature and the art of angst are also experiencing something of a revival. While the auto-eroticism of wannabe grunge writers like Shanghai Baby Wei Hui and her regional clones might be the fad du jour among pop authors, China's reforms go deeper than just sex, money and karaoke.The situation is similar to 1989, when students protesting corruption, nepotism and a lack of democracy shocked the nation. Outspoken young critics are again finding an audience, and new trends in the commercial publishing industry mean that their disenchanted outbursts have an audience.

Yu Jie is arguably the country's most prolific and outspoken young essayist. He became an author while studying at Peking University in the mid-1990s, producing samizdat booklets of essays for distribution primarily in the capital's university district. Gradually his work made it into the pages of prominent literary journals. In 1998, he emerged as a national figure and commercially successful engagE writer when his first two collections of essays were published to widespread acclaim.

Among other more sentimental revelations about life, love and hope, Yu, who is now 28, is not embarrassed to declare his nostalgia for the 1980s. For him—someone who "didn't catch a ride on the last train of that decade"—it was a time when serious writers had mass appeal, an era before love stories and martial arts fiction dominated popular culture. It was also a time when young thinkers and activists enjoyed a sense of social mission. "The historical significance of 1980s intellectuals can't be overestimated," he writes in his essay, Intellectuals: An End or a Rebirth? "They shared a simple and clear idealism, an indomitable desire to participate in history and an unprecedented self-awareness regarding the status of the intellectual. They hoped that in the space of a decade they would be able to complete the historical mission that had taken a period of centuries for Western intellectuals to realize."

To some, the 1980s was a time of confusion, naivete and self-importance, which led eventually to bloodshed when Beijing cracked down on demonstrators on June 4, 1989. Yu Jie rejects such revisionist thinking. And he despairs that his peers who feel that way are "avoiding the pressing issues of the here and now." He asks: "In a society in which everything is up for sale, has the role of the intellectual really come to an end?" One could argue that Yu's criticism of his generation reflects disappointment at the lack of influence that writers like himself now command. China's masterful satirist Wang Shuo (himself a youth icon in the late 1980s and early '90s) is even more harsh in his criticism of Yu, referring to him as a canny hypocrite who knows "whom to blast and whom to present bouquets to." For Wang, Yu is a commercial writer on the make, a man all too ready to play the aggrieved cultural dissident when necessary.

Yu Jie's fans, however, view him as a voice of conscience who, like the literary paragon Lu Xun some 80 years earlier, is issuing a "call to arms." He champions the rhetoric of social commitment—a rhetoric that over the past century has often helped send demonstrators into the street to agitate for social and political change.

The spirit of idealism and cultural independence is not limited to Yu's writings. Around the time of his debut, a vocal group of writers came to prominence through their fiction, poetry and criticism. In late 1998, 54 of them, most in their late 20s and 30s, responded to an independent survey on the state of the arts in China. That survey was published under the title Rupture and reprinted in book form early this year. The slim volume is nothing less than a condemnation of both official and non-official culture that rivals the ferocious, mass denunciations of the Cultural Revolution.

According to its Nanjing-based organizers, the Rupture inquiry was a "performance" or "happening" that was designed to be provocative, even aggressive. By framing the event in terms of a "rupture," the authors are playing on the notion of cultural disconnect and intergenerational conflict that provides much of the defining vocabulary of 20th century Chinese history. These provincial writers used their outbursts to agitate against the cultural dominance of Beijing literary cliques—official and non-official—and to stake out territory for alternative voices that supposedly represent something younger, more authentic and more regional than the tones that issue from "the center."

Nearly all of the respondents make clear that the cultural establishment—the associations and awards sponsored by the state—has little or no relevance to their work, or at least not until such honors are bestowed upon them. Han Dong, one of the Rupture organizers, says that outside the "corrupt old cultural order," two other literary worlds are now functioning in China. One consists of commercially viable and politically adroit writers, many of whom are also known to international readers: Mo Yan, Su Tong, Wang Shuo, Wang Meng. The other group comprises younger writers, like those surveyed in Rupture, who have a "natural distrust and caution in regard to the literary environment" and the ruling "literary order." They believe they represent a fringe element in the written culture that is all too often overwhelmed by major players in Shanghai, Beijing and even Taipei. These writers, Han claims, do not brazenly oppose orthodoxy. Rather, the literature of independence that he and others espouse reflects the individualism that has grown—and found a commercial outlet—in recent decades.

Despite the long years in which political ideals, social conscience and gestures of sincerity have been lambasted and mocked in Chinese pop culture, or equally perverted and exploited by Communist Party rulers, there are signs of intellectual life. During the boom in online publishing in the past year, for example, numerous forums for cultural debate have flourished on the Internet. By day the participants study for or work at jobs that will provide them with the kinds of consumer delights enjoyed by their contemporaries throughout Asia and the rest of the world. In their private moments, however, many are posting articles and comments on all of the topics—and more—that excited the activists of 1989. To them, Yu Jie, Han Dong and the Rupture folks are anything but yesterday's news.

Geremie R. Barme, a professor of history at Australian National University, is the author of In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture and Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

government ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: GOVERNMENT
National Pride: Patriotism makes a comeback

Sport: The basketballer denied an outside shot

Invisible Fences: Authorities keep a rein on kids partly by not telling them what is and isn't allowed

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Home Sweet Home: Citizens now aspire to buy a flat

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Big Think: Intellectualism did not die with the 1980s

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