China’s Generation Gaps

As income in China grows increasingly urgent, James Palmer examines another divide in Chinese society less frequently scrutinized in the West: the generation gap between young Chinese and their parents, which one 26-year-old interviewee describes as “a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap.” From Aeon Magazine:

Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and rares they don’t quite grasp, and of clinging to little alcoves of their own kind. In their relationships with their children, they remind me of the parents of the Indian and Bangladeshi kids I grew up with, struggling to advise their children about choices they never had to make. Yet for all the dissonance that geographical dislocation creates, the distance between a Bangladeshi village and a Manchester suburb is, if anything, smaller than that between rural China in the 1970s and modern Beijing.

Immigrants often have a stable set of values from their home culture from which to draw sustenance, whether religious or cultural. But for the children of the in China, there’s been no such continuity. They were raised to believe in the revolutionary Maoism of the 1960s and ’70s, and then told as young adults in the late 1970s that everything drilled into them in their adolescence had been a terrible mistake. Then they were fed a trickle of socialism, rapidly belied by the rush to get rich, and finally offered the hint of a liberal counter-culture in the 1980s before Tiananmen snatched it away. In the meantime, traditional values condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ in their youth are being given a quick polish and propped up as the new backbone of society by the authorities.

[…] However, while the relationships between the post-1980 generation and their parents are fraught with bitterness — whether over careers, houses or — the distance between them and their grandparents is, curiously, much smaller. ‘My grandmother took my ambitions to be a journalist seriously,’ said Lin Meilian. ‘And she was the first person to teach me English, from when I was very small. I had so much more in common with her than my mother.’

Lin continued: ‘My grandmother grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, when China was much closer to the world, and so she understood how I see things.’ It was a sentiment widely echoed, and not just because of the usual grandparental affections. The cosmopolitanism and potential of a time before China closed its gates bridged generations, but so did the willingness of grandparents to talk about their past.