Academic journal article Ethnology

Generation KU: Individualism and China's Millennial Youth

Academic journal article Ethnology

Generation KU: Individualism and China's Millennial Youth

Article excerpt

The People's Republic of China is undergoing dramatic changes, most of which have their roots in the government-initiated reforms of the 1980s. However, many of the current changes are being driven by China's younger generation, China's equivalent of America's millennials. One of the most prominent of these changes is a new kind of individualism valued by China's millennial youth. A key indicator of young Chinese attachment to this new individualism is the pervasive use of a new slang term associated with it, ku. Ku is the Chinese version of the American slang term "cool," and like cool, its emergence as a pervasive youth slang term is the verbal icon of a youth rebellion that promises to transform some of the older generation's most enduring cultural values. (China, youth, slang, culture change)


It is all but impossible to discuss China today without acknowledging the significance of its increasingly rapid pace of change. Change is evident in economic development, especially in major urban centers like Shanghai and Beijing, and in the new official attitude toward private enterprise that is, to say the least, supportive. These overt trappings of change are part of a global process that has made marketing by major corporations a force whose power and immediacy may exceed those of the various religious or political philosophies the world has seen so far. Corresponding to this economically driven change are other transformations that are particularly apparent in the educated youth of China's millennial generation (Hooper 1991; Marr and Rosen 1998). Of course young Chinese respond to the forces of globalization in a variety of ways, many of which are mutually contradictory. Some may pointedly speak out against commercial forces while others readily accept them or embrace the commodities that are their agents in the popular media of films, music, television, and the Internet.

The millennials are the children of the Cultural Revolution generation. Largely because of globalization, their viewpoints and attitudes are profoundly different from those of their parents. A central feature of these attitudes is a kind of individualism that stands emphatically opposed to the collectivist spirit promoted during the Cultural Revolution, an individualism that is influenced by Western pop culture and is linked to the new Chinese slang term "ku," derived from the English slang term "cool." The ku of China's millennials is not a carbon copy of Western styles. There are different ways to be ku in contemporary China, but all reflect Western kinds of modernity and individualism.

The adoption of the word ku as a basic slang term symbolizing the values of a current generation of Chinese youth is similar to what occurred in the U.S. twice during the twentieth century, first in the 1920s with the term "swell," and again in the 1960s when swell was replaced by "cool" (Moore 2004). In each case a fundamental transformation in values, driven by adolescents and young adults, was accompanied by the emergence and widespread acceptance of a new slang term of approval. China today is experiencing a similar transformation in values among its youth. The acceptance of new values by young people in the face of resistance by their elders is a pattern commonly found in modern societies where popular culture flourishes via mass media. It is also common for the younger generation to emphasize its association with their new values via a pervasively used slang term.

In the case of ku, the newly adopted term is revealing in that it comes from a basic slang lexeme originating in Western popular culture, but is semantically linked to features not associated with the meaning of the Western term. In fact, the semantic modification of this slang term highlights what is most prominent in the way young Chinese identify themselves as distinct from their forebears.

Ku is written with a classical Chinese character (also pronounced ku) whose original meaning was "cruel. …

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