A COLLAGE OF CHINESE VALUES
by Evan Osnos
Which picture from the China project stays with you most? How did you meet?
It is hard to pin down the one image that made the deepest impression on me—as many of them did. But if I had to pick one, I would say the photograph of Avril Lui (above) taken in Guangxi Province. Avril had recently graduated from university in Hunan Province, and I met her when my translator and I went to a place teaching English as a summer course. Her statement was: “We are the lost generation. I’m confused about the world.” This photograph seems to have struck a chord with many of the young Chinese who have viewed it. I think the pace of change has been so rapid in China in these last two decades that many of the young are in a spin which has left them somewhat confused. Their parents’ generation had a clear idea of what their identity was and the better life they were struggling for. Now that that better world has arrived it can be argued that life for the Chinese youth might have more opportunity but has in turn become more complicated with difficult career decisions, an increasingly materialistic society, and a complex relationship with the West. All this contributes to a sense of confusion. Avril is also referring to the fact that her parents generation rarely talks about or acknowledges the Cultural Revolution that had so much impact on Chinese society at the time—or for that matter any history, particularly, of more recent times. There is a sense amongst some young Chinese that they have arrived; but, where from, and has it been worth it? I also like this photograph because of the classic building in the background and the traditionally dressed man in blue on the bicycle. These visual keys are a nod to the world from which China has so recently arrived from.
What has surprised you most about the kinds of things people choose to write? What do we tend to misunderstand about Chinese youth?
This was my first visit to China. I made the trip because I presented myself with a question that I could not answer: Who are the young Chinese and what do they think about life? This meant that I had few theories on what I would find. I knew little on entry to the country but left with a head crammed with thoughts on Chinese youth. Something that a number of those I photographed touched on was the issue of the single-child policy and the difficulties that has caused for so many. I realized just how hard it must be to be a single child and provide all the care and support for your parents as well as try to maintain your own life.
I was also interested by how many of those I met wanted to reach out to the West, to strengthen international relations but not be told what to do by Western powers. I think what surprised me most was the rising concern for the rapid increase in materialistic values and rampant consumerism that has spread through the country. This is reflected well in the photograph of Rainbow Su (right) who is worried that his girlfriend might not marry him because he does not own a house. I think what many of those outside China most misunderstand about Chinese youth is their relationship with politics. There is an assumption in the West that surely the young Chinese must want democracy, but for most young Chinese this is an abstract concept. The West would do well to remember that in twenty years the Chinese Communist party has delivered year-on-year growth of around eleven per cent, which has resulted in over four hundred million being lifted out of poverty. The Party has delivered on economics and opportunity, and, therefore, for most young Chinese, democracy is not only an alien idea but one that is not necessary. With a change in leadership China is about to enter a new and increasingly difficult period, so we will see if that attitude remains.
If you were forced to enumerate a few of the recurring values that you encountered in China, what rises to the top?
I think the outside perception of Chinese youth is one of a mass of people with limited individual identity. I came to realize that perception is clearly wrong. Although it can be argued that society in China is becoming more materialistic and selfish, the care and concern for their parents by Chinese youth is something that those in the West could learn from. The ability to rebel and conform simultaneously is something unique to Chinese youth. The desire by Chinese youth to succeed and to grab what opportunities come their way whether that is in education or business is impressive. In the West, even with the current economic difficulties, we have become lazy and complacent.
Photographs by Adrian Fisk.
Top: Avril Lui, twenty-two, graduate student, Guangxi Province.
Middle: Rainbow Su, twenty-two, student in software engineering, Guangdong Province.
Bottom: “Huge historical and cultural differences still exist between the East and West. Do not tell us what to do.” Li Qisheng, thirty, computer-science teacher, learning English.