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September 6, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright September 6, 2009 Alec Ash. Used by permission.


In 1915, in Shanghai, Chen Duxiu founded a magazine called qingnian zazhi (青年杂志), or Youth Magazine. Soon after, it was renamed xinqingnian (新青年): New Youth. Perhaps Chen came to feel that the youth of the times had something new to offer China, or that his writers had something new to offer China’s youth. Either way, the magazine and the name captured the spirit of the New Culture Movement which led to May 4th. New Youth aimed to call China out of its Confucian slumber with plain, angry writing by the likes of Lu Xun and essays promoting democracy. Later, it more heavily promoted Marxism and eventually provided an intellectual base for the Communist Party which Chen co-founded in 1921. The name was iconic for a China fresh out of imperial rule, standing up for a new and fairer future.

The next ‘new youth’ to publicly embody this spirit was the Tiananmen students, who with the same fighting words challenged the very new China which the magazine had helped to create. They failed. But now, thanks not to protests at Tiananmen but the slower crawl of global integration, there is a ‘new new youth’ of around my age: in or just out of university. Zhang Shihe, a 56-year old blogger and political activist quoted in the Los Angeles Times, gives them a less flattering but possibly catchier moniker: “the stupid generation”.

“They were raised on Coca-Cola and Western movies,” Zhang enjoys himself, “and they’re very isolated from their country’s history”. Well I appreciate, Mr Zhang, that the LA Times is ruthlessly selective, but I can’t help but question how much time you spent talking to this “stupid generation” before dismissing nearly a hundred million young people from the future of China. Of course, no-one can describe this new new youth except themselves. But here are six of my acquaintances from a year’s study at Peking University who I feel capture some key angles of a multi-faceted generation pretty well, and who I follow on my blog,Six.