Toward Individualism - China's Culture at a Crossroads
Barber, Ben, The World and I
Along busy Huaihai Road in central Shanghai last summer, the rush of the modern age was sweeping away the last external vestiges of the old order. Almost. Pretty girls in short skirts strode confidently past aged grandmothers peering into the McDonald's, which was crowded with the younger generation. In Starbucks, young high-tech aficionados sipped their caffe lattes. But when a Western visitor tried to shoot photos at the busy street beyond the plate glass windows, a worried manager quickly stopped him. It was forbidden.
Shanghai is exploding. For those familiar with the old Asia, the feverish pace is reminiscent of Bangkok during the 1980s, when growth was 13 percent a year, the highest in the world. But while Bangkok was rushing to build forty-story skyscrapers, those in Shanghai are sixty stories high, draped in scaffolding with cloth signs advertising for tenants.
The building boom has its downside, however. The prosperity that comes from spearheading the country's modernization and prosperity in the last six to eight years has opened a rift in Chinese society. The old ways remain hostile to much of the new lifestyle that has come with the boom: short skirts, sex before marriage, provocative novels, political diversity, the Internet's access to the outer world, and the clash of generations. One North American college teacher described the old system well, asking that her identity and the inland city she worked in be withheld. "There's no short skirts in the inland," she said. "In my city, girls and boys live with their parents until they are 25, and then their mothers tell them who to marry.
City vs. country
"When one girl in my class--she was 22--slept with her boyfriend, he told his friends and it got around," said the teacher. "She was so ashamed and depressed she tried to commit suicide. In my city, none of the kids are having premarital sex, and they are still totally controlled by the mores of their parents." In Shanghai, however, flush with money from joint ventures with international corporations such as Proctor and Gamble, young people have begun to break away from the strict sexual taboos that were part of traditional morality and were enforced since the communists took power in 1949.
"Lots of us young people are living with our boyfriends," said one young college graduate, 25, who also spoke only on condition that her name not be published. "But we do it because we have come to Shanghai for university or jobs and are far from our parents," she explained with a giggle. The fact that the newly Westernized youth must hide their sexual freedom from their families is one sign that the new culture has barely penetrated the mass of the 1.3 billion Chinese. Conservative mores still rule the hinterland away from the leading edge of modernity, while the new sexual and social freedom is limited to areas such as Guangzhou, formerly called Canton, adjacent to Hong Kong; the capital, Beijing; and Shanghai, the traditional site of foreign influence ever since Western nations set up shop along the Bund riverfront some hundred years ago.
A recent poll published in Newsweek's international edition reported that only 28 percent of young Chinese felt it was very important to be an individual. In Thailand, however, where the modern age and Western contacts have had more than twenty years to take root and the free press and democracy have nurtured freedom and individuality, some 78 percent of young people said they highly valued being an individual.
Youth vs. the government
Mian Mian, a novelist in Shanghai, is one of the best-known leaders of the new movement that some have called nihilistic and others say is simply a sign of the longing for freedom from ancient and repressive social controls. She was pregnant and complaining about the treatment in the local hospital where she had just gone for a prenatal visit but welcomed an American visitor with her views on the new Shanghai. …