The balinghou

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The balinghou

Shanghai, July 2012. All photos by Bruno Barbey/Magnum

Chinese parents bemoan their children’s laziness and greed, but this generation of young people has had enough

James Palmer is a British writer and editor who works closely with Chinese journalists. His latest book is The Death of Mao (2012). He lives in Beijing.

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In 2004, fresh off the plane in Beijing, I was asked to judge an English competition for high-school seniors. My two co-judges were pleasantly cynical middle-aged sociologists, both professors at Tsinghua University. After listening to the umpteenth speech about how China used to be poor, but was now rich and powerful, I remarked to one of them that the students seemed a little sheltered.

‘They don’t know anything!’ she spat. ‘They don’t have any idea about how people live. None of this generation do. They’re all so spoilt.’

It’s a view I’ve heard time and again over the past eight years, and one of which the Chinese media never tire. The young get it from left and right. This January alone, the jingoistic Major General and media commentator Luo Yuan condemned the young for being physically and mentally unfit, ranting: ‘Femininity is on the rise, and masculinity is on the decline. With such a lack of character and determination and such physical weakness, how can they shoulder the heavy responsibility?’ Meanwhile the writer and social critic Murong Xuecun blasted them in the US magazine Foreign Policy because ‘fattened to the point of obesity with Coca-Cola and hamburgers [ ...] the young generation only believes official pronouncements; some even think contradicting the official line is heretical. They do not bother to check the details’.

There’s a measure of truth in these criticisms. The year I arrived, when I was going through the near-obligatory expat period as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer and editor, I had to forcibly drag a 19-year-old out of a classroom after he threw a temper tantrum, drummed the floor and refused to leave. Murong’s claim that the young unwittingly swallow government statements doesn’t stand up in an era where official credibility has been shattered by social media tools, but one can see where Luo’s claims are coming from. Ironically, the children of army officers seem especially pudgy. The teachers at a senior academy attached to an army base described their bullet-headed charges to me as looking like ‘stubby wobbling penises,’ and held private competitions as to which student was the most ‘sausagey’.

Food metaphors are telling — older Chinese want to know: ‘Why do they have it so easy, when we had it so hard?’ The main target of this slating has been what the Chinese call the balinghou — young people who were born after 1980, who never knew food rationing and were raised after China’s ‘reform and opening’ began. I’m talking here of the urban middle class, who dominate Chinese media both as purchasers and consumers. The raft of criticisms being levelled has very little to do with the actual failings of the young, but is a symptom of the yawning, and unprecedented gulf between young urban Chinese and their parents.

Zhang Jun, a 26-year-old PhD student, described the situation: ‘It’s not just a generation gap. It’s a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap.’ Lin Meilian, 30, and a journalist, bluntly stated: ‘I have nothing in common with my mother. We can’t talk about anything. She doesn’t understand how I choose to live my life.’

Parents who spent their own twenties labouring on remote farms have children who measure their world in malls, iPhones, and casual dates

This kind of distance is not unique to China. But most other countries can claim far greater continuity between generations. My adolescence in Manchester in the 1990s was different in degree, not in kind, from that of my parents in Bristol and Sydney in the 1960s. But the parents of China’s post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children’s lives, and then add to that dating, university life and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties labouring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones and casual dates.

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 mores 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 Cultural Revolution 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.

The young get slammed for their supposed materialism, but it’s a set of values their parents hold more dearly still, since the one constant source of security for their generation has been money. Money — at least the fantasy of it — has never abandoned them. ‘The Chinese love money,’ the PhD student Zhang told me, ‘because it has no history’. Having gone through the gangster capitalism of China’s rush to wealth, the older generation’s bleakly amoral attitude toward how to get by can shock their children. Huang Nubo, a poet, rock-climber and billionaire property developer, now in his fifties, has been one of the few people to talk about this openly, speaking of the ‘devastated social ecology’ in an interview with the Chinese magazine Caixin. But Huang is a rarity, and cushioned by his own wealth; far more parents are concerned that their children aren’t doing enough to get on.

While immigrants dream of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, or professors, domestic Chinese ambitions mostly lie elsewhere. Doctors are poorly paid, overworked, and unpopular, thanks to a flailing and corruption-ridden medical system. Lawyers are bound to the vagaries of the ever-shifting judicial system. Professors earn marginal incomes and rely on outside work to get by. The priority for Chinese parents isn’t professional standing or public achievement, but money and security, regardless of what the job involves.

Old makes way for new in 2012 Shanghai Old makes way for new in Shanghai

Zhang is a fast-tracked young academic who regularly attends high-level diplomatic and security conferences. (She was the only person I talked to who asked to use a pseudonym, conscious of her own Google sensitivity.) She said: ‘My mother can’t understand anything of what I do, especially since it doesn’t come with any “perks”. Last new year, I was home and my cousin was there too. He’s a pharmaceutical rep. What that means is that he sells fake or overpriced drugs to hospitals, with the collusion of the doctors, and they split the profits. And my mom kept saying: “Oh, why don’t you go into business with your cousin! He makes so much money!” She knows what his job involves but she never thinks of it as wrong.’

Chinese parents pour money into their children’s education, but they also spend on short cuts. Most can’t afford to do what one acquaintance’s billionaire mining family did when he failed to get into Tsinghua University: buy him citizenship in the Dominican Republic so that he could attend Tsinghua as a ‘foreign student’, with cash as his only qualification. But they could do as Zhang’s mother did, and bribe her teachers every term to sit her at the front of the class, so that she wouldn’t be lost among the other 50 or 60 students.

It’s still possible to forge a career in China based on merit, though that’s becoming harder as the rich and well-connected pull the ladders away. Take the arts, where just participating in a national-level dance competition requires a minimum payment of 20,000 or 30,000 yuan (approximately $3,000 to $5,000, in a country where average incomes for urban residents are around $500 per month).

‘The actual winner is chosen by talent. But you need to fork over the money to the judges to be in the running. So the girls either have to rely on their daddies, or they have to find new “daddies”,’ a 21-year-old dancer told me. In music, one of the country’s top conservatories, once an incubator for greatness, now requires students to buy private classes from the director at 5,000 yuan ($800) a time. If everyone else is playing dirty, even the most honest parents are left with little choice for their children’s future, and some rue their own idealism. Han Suzhen, 57, a retired schoolteacher, commented: ‘We didn’t raise them in a way that adapts well to this world. We taught them ideals that were instilled in us, a kind of innocence. But today everybody is chasing the things we were taught not to value: we were taught to give to society, now they’re taught to get for themselves in any way possible. It’s the exact opposite. There’s nobody talking about ideas or freedom.’

As has been the case for much of China’s history, the most attractive prospect is an official job. On paper the salaries are low, but even an unimportant job in the extended hierarchies of officialdom comes with guaranteed benefits and security for life, known as the ‘iron rice bowl’. A midlevel position is a licence for extortion and string-pulling. Zhang told me: ‘My cousin, the drug dealer, keeps pestering me. “Why don’t you become an official? Then I can tell my business partners I have a relative who’s an official, and we can both make money.”’

Jobs in one of the giant state-owned enterprises, such as the oil behemoth Sinopec or the ‘big four’ banks, are the next best thing. These state-backed jobs are also tizhinei, ‘inside the system’, with all the attendant perks of generous expense accounts, strong social security and, at the right level, regular pay-offs. That’s why they come with a price tag, whether in cash or in guanxi, an everyday Chinese term for influence, favour-trading and nepotism. Getting an initial opening requires parental backing. When a list of candidates for an entry-level job in a provincial state-owned enterprise was leaked online in December, it included the most influential relatives of each applicant.

Not every post can be bought. Li Xiang, a handsomely fey 25-year-old, is in the middle of the examination and interview process to become a central government official. ‘But it’s frustrating for me because my parents both work for the central government,’ he said. ‘There’s a rule that you can’t be in the same department as your immediate relation. The central government application system is much cleaner than the local government or the state-owned enterprises; you can’t buy or influence your way in.’

He outlined the pros and cons of his move as we ate a pricey 400-yuan steak meal. ‘It means a significant pay cut for me, from 10,000 in my current job to maybe 6,000 yuan, after tax. The first year or two is on probation, at 70 per cent of that. But the hospitals designated for officials are the best, especially the central government. The job is safe. Social security is strong. And I really do want to serve the people. That’s why I applied for an advisory post to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference [China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament]. My parents were mad at me! They yelled at me for going for a position without any power.’

Daily Weekly

Like Li, many of the post-1980 generation — contrary to their reputation for greedy materialism — want to help others. Levels of volunteering are higher than ever, though still significantly lower than in the West, and college students or young white-collar workers are the primary founders of NGOs. But to their parents, charity can be a dirty word. ‘One of my friends has a sick wife, and very little money,’ said Zhang, the PhD student. ‘I wanted to give him 500 yuan to help him, but while I was waiting to meet him, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, telling me I was a fool. Every time I give money to someone, I feel like I’m being cheated somehow.’ Another person I interviewed said: ‘If I tell my mum I gave money, she berates me because I don’t even have an apartment of my own yet.’

Failing to support your elderly parents can get you a jail term

And for parents whose own dreams were frustrated by history, the temptation to force their children into the path they wanted for themselves is even stronger. When I first met Luo Jingqing, with her confidence and air of slight world-weariness, I assumed she was older than her real age of 24. We talked over lunch in Element Fresh, an upmarket Shanghai-based chain popular with young professionals like her.

‘My mom wanted to be a professional woman,’ she told me. ‘She went to a foreign languages high school to avoid having to be sent down to the countryside [a Maoist policy of the 1950s to ‘70s whereby ‘educated youth’ from the cities were sent to live among farmers]. It was that or join the army. From there she was able to get herself into the university, when it reopened, then after graduating she was assigned a job at the Japanese embassy. She met my dad there later, when she was 27. They got married because he knocked her up, at least that’s what my dad says. They’re divorced now.’

‘She always told me I ruined her life,’ Luo continued. ‘She’d tell me never to have children, because they spoilt everything. She told me that getting pregnant had wrecked her career, that it was my fault her life had stalled and she had ended up trapped by my father. She started telling me from as early as I can remember. Isn’t it ridiculous?’ She laughed, as people sometimes will when telling you about terrors long left behind. ‘But, really, she just wants me to be her, the person she never managed to become. She wanted to be a doctor, so she really wanted me to become one. I remember yelling at her, “I’m not what you want me to be, and I never will be.”’

But trying to resist parental directives is tough. Ironically, one of the few consistent ideas to survive all of China’s years of chaos has been the extreme debt owed by children to parents, most clearly articulated in Confucian philosophy but drummed in by a thousand aphorisms and pious tales. ‘Filial piety is the root of all virtues,’ as the saying goes. ‘Love what your parents love, respect what they respect,’ instructs another. This burden weighs particularly hard upon daughters. One typical morality manual issued by a Confucian nationalist organisation in 1935 taught that ‘women are born with filial famine and ethical debt. So the purpose of their lives is to clear that debt.’

No culture values the serpent’s tooth of a thankless child, but it’s hard to imagine, in the modern West, a college dean getting front-page media coverage for returning to his village to wash the feet of his mother, or schoolchildren being made to practise kneeling to thank their parents. Even the law backs this generational fealty; failing to support your elderly parents can get you a jail term, though this, like most Chinese laws that don’t directly benefit the government, is vanishingly rarely enforced. There was even an attempt to make visiting elderly parents mandatory.

These Confucian ideals have never matched reality. Chinese also has its share of idioms about filial impiety, like the description of a hypocrite as someone who ‘neglects his parents and gives them a rich funeral’. And indeed, the old are frequently abandoned or neglected. Next door, in prosperous South Korea, with the longest unbroken Confucian culture in the world, the elderly are poorer, more likely to still be working, and four times more likely to kill themselves than the already suicide-prone Korean young. The suicide rate among older Chinese lags just behind Korea’s, and has tripled in the past decade. But in Korea and China alike, disobedience to parents is theoretically held up as the worst of all possible sins.

Older Chinese men and women enjoy a game of Mah Jong Mah-jong, Shanghai 2012

Parental authority over children is often enforced with the crack of a stick. One of the standard imprecations to small children is ‘I’ll beat you to death!’ The concept of ‘Tiger mothers’ might have caused a fuss in the West, prompted by Amy Chua’s notorious 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But in response, much of the Chinese media feted ‘wolf dad’ Xiao Baiyou, a Guangzhou businessman who wrote a book, originally called Beat Them into Peking University (2011), in which he smugly boasted of the atmosphere of totalitarian sadism he imposed on his four children, including beating them for arbitrary offences and denying them friends or play. In a French restaurant in Beijing, Zhang, the fast-tracked PhD student, showed me her calves, pitted with long white marks visible through her stockings. ‘They’re from when my mother used to cane me when I was little,’ she said.

Family pressure is exacerbated by demographics. In the past, the burden of parental expectations was spread between several siblings. Today, the one-child policy has left the post-1980 generation at the bottom of a suddenly inverted pyramid. This has hit the marginally prosperous urban middle class the worst. In the countryside, family planning was lax enough that most twentysomethings have one or two siblings, while the rich were able to afford the fines to have a second or third child, although sometimes widely spaced apart. But among young white-collar workers, each couple has to bear the burden of two sets of ageing parents, plus any grandparents tough enough to still be around. And with social security shaky at best, parents look to their children for security in old age.

Not surprisingly, the most visible manifestation of this is in buying property. Only a minority can afford to buy property, but they buy it young — at a median age of 27. The rural migrant workers who built China’s new compounds will never be able to afford to live in their own constructions, but most of the twentysomething white-collar workers I know own their own Beijing apartments, usually costing somewhere between 1 and 3 million yuan, and bought on incomes of anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 yuan a month.

‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle’

The money comes from parents, who often pour their entire savings, combined with cash borrowed from friends, other relatives, and sometimes even illegal banks, into their child’s property in the capital. The pooling process was given a boost after the financial crisis of 2008, when the stock market plummeted while property remained white-hot. The house ownership obsession has gripped both generations: it’s virtually impossible, among the urban middle-classes, to get married without one family providing a new flat for the couple.

‘Look at these,’ exclaimed a friend as we visited a book shop, gesturing at the racks directed toward advice for the young. ‘All of them say the same thing; marry and get an apartment by 27, settle down, have kids. They’re a trap laid by our parents to get us to do what they want.’ Chen Chenchen, a canny newspaper colleague of mine, didn’t see it in such conspiratorial terms: ‘We’re becoming closer and closer to our parents because we’re bound together by property, and we’re getting more conservative as a result. At first, we thought we could afford to have values. But then we realised our parents were right, and the iron rice bowl is the golden rule. I resisted my parents pressuring me to buy a Beijing apartment in 2008 [when she was 24] but succumbed in 2010, and I’m glad I got it in time. Now we know that money is the most important thing.’ Liu Juncheng, now 60 and a retired taxi driver, echoes this sense of drifting towards a kind of parity. ‘It seems like our children, like us, had a lot of hope for society, but that their views changed real fast because of society; they got lost.’

But parental expectations can fray relationships further, too. ‘I have a friend the same age as me,’ Luo the young professional said, ‘whose parents just paid the down-payment on her apartment. But her mom has been staying with her since November, and she wants to stay on. It’s a one-bedroom flat.’ Buying their children apartments isn’t just a simple investment for parents, but a guarantee, at least in their minds, of an old age spent in their children’s house. This was once an expected social norm, eased by large households and communal families, but with an increasing number of the elderly living alone, a financial bond to their children’s property provides extra leverage.

Apartments are also an inextricable part of the dating game, especially as people move into their mid-twenties. Among the middle class, the parents of the groom are expected to provide an apartment for the new couple to live in if one hasn’t become available already. Like many renters, I’ve had more than one lease broken after my landlord’s son set a wedding date. ‘We call boys “China Construction Bank”, because you have to build for them, and girls “China Merchant Bank” because you can sell them,’ commented my friend Min.

The media often deplore the commercialised nature of young love, exemplified in 2010 by Ma Nuo, a contestant on a dating show; when asked by an unemployed contender if she would ride with him on his bike, she replied: ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.’ It’s true that the bling-laden snapshots of triumphant gold-diggers on dating sites and boastful blogs are deeply off-putting. But the criteria that parents give matchmakers, or advertise on placards that some of them carry around parks at the weekend while looking for suitable spouses for their unmarried offspring, are just as centred around salary, car and apartment.

The love life of another friend, who uses the English name of Sally, demonstrates the commercial and class realities of today’s dating scene. Like many stories in China, hers sounds like a didactic Marxist fable of the 1930s, except without the happy ending where the now liberated woman joins the Communist Party. At university, Sally dated a rural boy who was a student representative and, highly unusually, a sincere believer in Communism. ‘He was so honest,’ she told me, ruefully. ‘He wouldn’t even take pencils from the student council room to use for himself.’

But he couldn’t live up to the standards that Sally and her parents expected. She wanted a boyfriend who could buy her the phones and handbags she aspired to, while her parents wanted someone from a wealthy or well-connected family who could walk into a guaranteed career after university. She soon dumped him and, helped by a new nose paid for by her mother, snared a wealthy boy on campus.

A couple of years into the new relationship, however, she found the positions reversed. After being introduced to her boyfriend’s parents, his news was grim. ‘I can’t marry you,’ he told her bluntly. ‘My parents expect me to marry a girl of my own class.’ But, he reassured her, he was quite happy for her to be his mistress, and his multimillionaire father had agreed to put aside the funds he would need to support her.

From a purely economic perspective, it was a deal that made sense. Yet as well as security and comfort, Sally also wanted at least the illusion of romance, not a nakedly commercial deal. So she broke off the relationship and began looking again. ‘But I’ll be honest,’ she said bleakly, ‘my mother told me: “Don’t think you can get that kind of boy again, because you’re not a virgin any more.” I sold myself without getting the best deal possible.’

Women are in an ambiguous position in the marriage market. The gender imbalance caused by the one-child policy and gender-selective abortion, resulting in 120 boys to 100 girls in some areas, favours them. But they also face the barrier of being labelled ‘leftover women’ at 27, an arbitrarily fixed target rigorously enforced by the older generation.

Even the All-China Women’s Federation, a supposedly feminist organisation run largely by female officials aged over 50, publishes articles on its website warning against the social dangers of unmarried women and the terrible fate that awaits the 28-year-old singleton. ‘My mother keeps calling me and reminding me I only have a couple more years to find someone,’ commented a weary 25-year-old friend. ‘Of course, she wants me to pick one of the boring losers she keeps trying to set me up with.’

As soon as the sought-after wedding ring is in place, parental pressure switches to the production of grandchildren. A wonderfully cynical flowchart was circulated this Chinese New Year, showing the barrage of demands and criticisms from relatives aimed at young people returning home for the holiday. If you’re single, why aren’t you dating? If you’re dating, why aren’t you married? If you’re married, why don’t you have children? And if you have children, why aren’t they putting on a show for us? When the child arrives, however, so do the in-laws, producing even more friction as parents, baby, and grandparents cram into a one-bedroom apartment.

Chinese expectations of marriage are often described as ‘traditional’ by the media, but they’re an odd mix of the post-Maoist quest for security and the trappings of Western commercial romance — the diamond ring, the white wedding dress. In response to social and parental prodding toward placing material concerns first, some young Chinese have invented a new term, ‘naked marriage,’ meaning getting wed purely for love, without house, ring, ceremony or car. The idea promises romance, but opinion is decidedly mixed, even from the young. A 2010 poll on found that the majority of young women opposed the idea, seeing it as a way for men to dodge their responsibilities. Tellingly, the majority of young men supported it.

‘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 takes a certain grit to dodge convention altogether. Luo, the young professional, saw no need to play the dating game at all, instead living with a moderately impoverished foreigner in his mid-thirties. ‘My mother has stopped pestering me about it, but I know she’d rather I was looking for a conventional Chinese guy, with an apartment and a career. My father says it’s OK because my boyfriend is English, not a Yankee or a Jap. But I witnessed their whole miserable marriage, so I’m pessimistic about men. I gave up any ambition for a family. I don’t have the ability to give happiness to a kid. I can’t even take it on myself. And I don’t want to have to think about how many houses to leave the next generation.’

However, while the relationships between the post-1980 generation and their parents are fraught with bitterness — whether over careers, houses or marriage — 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.

Zhang told me how her grandfather had gone mad from persecution, leaving her grandmother to raise four children by herself. ‘My grandmother was a factory boss,’ Luo the young professional said, ‘so she suffered during the Cultural Revolution. It’s funny, because actually my grandfather was a landlord’s kid. He was carried to school on the neck of a servant. He became a mid-ranking officer in the army, but when the crowds came for my grandmother, he just blended into them. Then they dragged her away and locked her in a “cowshed” [an improvised prison] for the next few years.’

‘So your mother saw her own mother dragged away and betrayed by her husband when she was five or six?’ I asked.

‘I suppose she did. My grandfather just disappeared for years. There were three children, and the oldest sister had to look after them all. She was 14.’

This information had not come from Luo’s mother, who, like most of her generation, had kept silent about her own suffering as a child. During the Cultural Revolution, having the bad blood of intellectuals or landlords meant schoolyard persecution, improvised beatings, less rations, and being blocked from every opportunity. Turning in your parents was never quite as fetishised as in the Soviet Union, with its cult of the martyred schoolchild Pavlik Morozov, supposedly murdered by his family in 1932 for denouncing his own father. But it happened. A Chinese acquaintance of mine, now in his fifties, once described having to kill his own brother to stop him turning in their parents for owning banned books. Even if others might denounce them, children were made to sign condemnations — ‘Even though she gave birth to me and is my mother, she is a counterrevolutionary and is my enemy.’ Tens of millions witnessed their parents being harassed, humiliated, beaten, imprisoned or killed.

Li, the aspiring official, had a closer and healthier relationship with his parents than anyone else I talked to, in part because he had made the effort to understand them. ‘They struggled when they were my age. They worked hard to become someone I [might later] respect. My mum is from a really ordinary family, just workers, so she fought hard to get into university. And my grandmother didn’t think she was good enough for my dad. She really thought in class terms, even though she changed her own name and moved north so as not to be persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. She was the child of intellectuals, and her whole family was in Shanghai. When she went back to try and find them, there was no trace, all gone: parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.’

The worst story of parental abuse I heard came from a young woman who asked for anonymity. I’ll call her Lily. Smart, successful, and pretty in a fragile way, her relationship with her mother had been one of constant maternal disdain or insult — she’d been called ugly, lazy, stupid — culminating in an incident when she was 24. Lily received a long letter from her mother which told her she was adopted, that her various flaws proved that she wasn’t her mother’s child, and that this was why her mother had been unable to love her, and never would. In tears, Lily called her father and demanded to know why he had never told her. ‘What are you talking about?’ he said, confused, ‘I was there when you were born.’

Eventually. Lily’s mother half-admitted that the letter was a lie, concocted in another fit of hatred and bitterness. But a seed of doubt remained. The most convincing evidence of her real parentage, Lily thought, was her curly hair. It came from her mother who was born in the early 1960s to a widow who had a brief fling with a visiting Italian Communist with an eye for opportunity.

‘So your mother grew up half-foreign and illegitimate, in the middle of a witch-hunt for all things foreign,’ I said. ‘I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for her.’

‘Maybe,’ Lily said. ‘We never talked about it.’

Correction: We printed the following in error ‘This information had come from Zhang’s mother‘. As of 8th March it correctly reads ‘Luo’s mother’.

Read more essays on demography & migration, general culture and life stages


  • kranthi askani

    wow...great article...thank u

  • rejuvyesh

    Great article. Didn't realize so much more was common between China and India like spending for education and seeing marriage in purely materialistic terms.

    • James Palmer

      I'm always fascinated by China-Indian comparisons - I've never been, probably should. One difference is that China is a lot more homogeneous regional culture was very badly battered by Maoism and the Chinese idea of state identity. Indians have the multi-kid thing, though, or is there a tendency to focus intensely on one kid as the "future" of the family as there can be in Africa?

      • rejuvyesh

        Yes, that's for sure that the Mainland China is quite homogeneous in comparison to India, so its more difficult to draw generalizations. Higher education especially the Ph. D (that too from a foreign university), is a bigger deal in terms of status in Southern India than the north. Generally, unless the "one" kid is a boy, you wouldn't get the sort of intense focus as you are talking about. Gender bias too steeped to erode so quickly. Add to the fact of the rampant dowry system, you get the idea. On the other hand, talking about Indian politics,I can no longer see any political party which really has some sort of ideology (except the leftists whose support is rapidly dwindling). Yet due to the cultural baggage, most politicians still pay lip-service to the socialist ideal.

      • kyushuphil

        Please let me say thank-you, too, from Japan.

        Thank you for your decent, prescien, reporting, and for your willingness here, too, to engage with the many with Disqus here online who also spot this excellence and, more, the terrific sadness carried in it.

        I teach at a high school in the mountains of Kyushu, a high school for the "hikikomori" and others damaged by parents who've all really helplessly thrown themselves into the consumerism-conformity syndromes.

        The one ominous piece missing from seeing these societies so twisted by the old Confuciansim factor -- in addition to factors of more recent 20th-century history -- is the venality of the West, particulary my own U.S., where Corporate America distorts, exploits, and endangers all. Worse, the media and corporate academe -- most all of both -- for careerism buy into the most venal habits (especially the enuch departmentalism of corporate academe).

        So, James, I have a reuest. Please consider next doing a piece based on ex-pat interviews there in China. You know that England and America both have solid, poignant literature on the bathos and human ruin of materialism, added to now by much fine writing on environmental dangers. So, please, do a piece on how fellow ex-pats know of this great literature -- or don't know of it -- as they play their roles in the corporate-guided frenzy now seething in so many where you live.

        • DC Musicfreak

          Trying to hijack this great thread with poorly digested bumper-sticker sloganeering is really missing both the nuances and the main points.

          • kyushuphil

            What nuances and main points do you like most?

            Or, can't you be troubled to say? Or is your own literacy limited to the tweet-worthy minimalism which you need, for some reason, to parade?

  • James Palmer

    Also should credit my wonderful friend James Tiscione for helping me find some views from the older generation.

    • James Salsman

      James, do you think the new minimum wage law, the new 20% capital gains surcharge on selling unoccupied housing, and the new ETF commodity investments will start filling up some of the 100s of millions of unoccupied units and alleviate any of these pressures you describe?

      • James Palmer

        The minimum wage still doesn't take workers anywhere near the point of affordability in the core cities; as for the 20% tax, that could mean something, but I'm not sure how solid enforcement will be in practice. There's a lot of dirty money flowing through the real estate market too; for instance there's a building chain (quite famous) in Beijing's CBD that has 10-15% occupancy but are basically used as vehicles for Shaanxi illegal coal money.

        • Lizzy Z

          About the 20% tax, there are increasing fake divorces in core cities and crowded people wait in endless queue to sell their properties. : (

      • blah blah internet is fun

        give it another 15 years. every couple in their 20's and 30's nowadays will be saddled with 5 apartments ... our parents bought like crazy since there is nowhere to park the money and it was so cheap in the late 90's. i don't know what my cousins are going to with all those apartment.

        my dad said when you budget for a building project, you budget 30% for nebulous purposes. i was little shocked by this number.

    • 李侑鋼 Andy Chaisiri

      How did he go about getting these interviews?

  • Dustin

    Just found this site and I love it! Great article, very informative.

  • Silvia Simeonova

    Very very very good article! Thank you!

  • 李侑鋼 Andy Chaisiri

    Great article, it was very uplifting. Shows that within just one generation how the quality of life for mainlanders has dramatically improved, that a person can be born into an Orwellian nightmare state where sons betray mothers and famine wracked humans eat the dead, and raise children whose primary concern is what apps to put on their iphone.

    I really like the part where the kid relates to her grandmother born in the 30's, China is finally returning to being Chinese.

    • BW

      Funny, I didn't get that at all. Having lived in China for the most part of the last 13 years, and also in the late 70s, I feel this generation is more out there and disconnected socially and culturally than almost any previous one. Most aspire to plastic surgery, luxury cars, no real connection to their parents' generation that has provided this wealth through pure toil or through exploitation, bribery, siphoning off government money that should have been put into building better school in Sichuan, stronger bridges, better bullet train lines. Mainland Chinese with money run overseas if they can and to what? No matter how much money they have, will they ever fit in?

      "The teachers at a senior academy attached to an army base described their bullet-headed charges to me as looking like ‘stubby wobbling penises,’ and held private competitions as to which student was the most ‘sausagey’." Improved?

      • 李侑鋼 Andy Chaisiri

        >>Funny, I didn't get that at all

        and you never will

      • Joyce W

        As a post90 teenage I can be sure to tell you that you will see it in the near future

        • orthorim

          Where there's great strife, great help will arrive.

          Something's got to give and I think the Chinese mainstreams relentless pursuit of material things might implode that whole myth faster than any well meaning advice.

          I always have great faith in the next generation. It is the future.

          • Billie Chan

            I am the next generation, I don't see the future.

    • Dick Leigh

      My boyfriend has told me his relationship with his grandmother is way closer than the one he has with his parents. His parents are combative, nosy busybodies that constantly tell him what he wants and needs in his life.

      His grandmother on the other hand, is loving (unlike his parents) and supportive of him even when his parents weren't.

      Now she's in a nursing home, because none of her children want to be burdened with the task of taking care of her. It's mostly her grandchild (my boyfriend) that visits her and makes sure she has enough warm clothes and that she's eating right.

      His parents are the type to moan about Western imperialism and constantly push him to make more and more money, all while failing to notice how they're betraying Communist/Confucian ideals.

  • rep3

    Best article I've read on modern China in ages. Cuts through the old culture mish mash like a hot knife through 5000 year old butter. Hope to read more insightful articles from you sir.

  • XiaoLan

    Do you have a link to that Huang Nubo article? Thanks

    • James Palmer

      It's at work; I'll put it up in a couple of days.

  • Peter Arthur

    Excellent readable and informative article, even for someone who's spent the last 9 tears in China. Maybe you could take on the weird and wonderful world of the jiulinghou next?!

    Just one small quibble:
    "Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference [China's largely rubber-stamp parliament]". Actually that would be the National People's Congress, NPC, which fulfills some of the of roles of a parliament in a liberal democracy (albeit, as you say, with a large and well-worn rubber stamp.) The CPPCC is even more decorative and virtually powerless - a glorified think tank cum talking shop whose delegates sometimes don't even know how they were appointed. Its main purpose is to sound out ideas and suggest or propose legislation which the NPC may or may not deign to consider. Apart of course from showcasing the exotic dresses of China's eternally grateful, happy and smiling ethnic minorities - oh AND giving the billionaires who didn't manage to buy their way into the NPC a little face.

    • James Palmer

      Peter, you're quite right; I always forget what the CPPCC is supposed to do, much like its members ...

  • Holly Chang

    A beautiful piece. So true. I witness this every day with friends and co-workers. Thank you for writing this.

  • Tom_Zarek

    Sounds kind of like a more cynical and dystopian version of the USA before the late 1960's

  • aelena74

    Excellent, I really enjoyed this piece

  • heresiarch

    Great article! Particularly glad to see someone point out the ridiculousness of the older generation complaining nonstop about the materialism of the younger generation, pausing for breath, then launching into complaints about how their kid isn't making enough money or marrying a rich enough spouse. They worked themselves to death so their kids wouldn't have such a hard life and now they're bitter that their kids don't work as hard. If the 80后 are so lazy and/or mercenary, their parents have no one to blame but themselves.

  • fdawei

    Many thanks, James, for this clear-eyed view of society. These are just but some of the topics discussed with students, most of whom are high-level executives in leading Chinese and Fortune 500 firms in Beijing. They also recall and relate a number of episodes from their parents and grandparents, which you also cite.
    A disturbing factor is that many of these executives are over-working their children, force-feeding them on extracurricular English, piano/violin/guzheng lessons, not to mention basketball and even swimming to give them an all-round education in preparation for things to come.

    A frightening aspect for many of the younger executives is the hopelessness they feel about their future, especially in regards to marriage, wealth, owning a house, and then having to purchase one for their parents.

    One student tearfully recalled the enormous pressure her mother placed on her to marry the handsomest student in her graduating class so her mother would be assured of having a good looking grandchild. The baby was born with a cleft palate and the daughter was blamed for the disability for having pre-marital sex with the boy she really loved but could not marry.
    In my 16 years in China, I have come across many stories similar to the ones you write about, James. A truly fascinating society.

  • Jme72

    This article could use a book club meeting, a few, to properly discuss all aspects thoroughly. Really amazing read. I related to the bit about Korea, being a naturalized citizen with a Korean parent, the concept of felial piety and parental discipline. I've spent years trying to understand and forgive. What I also find fascinating is the Machiavellian methods Asian cultures use to gain security and money and position. A real eye opener as to where they (we) have risen from and the speed in which these cultures have evolved. A rags to riches story, if you will, but across generations. I recall living in a once rural area quickly sold off for development. You would see highrise condos, multimillion dollar homes, skyscrapers, and around the corner a ramshackle trailer. At a traffic light, a BMW on one side, a hay truck with "farm use only" on the other. In general, the US has made the transition from rural to urban both socially and economically with more finesse than it seems China has. We're definitely not as conflicted. Everyone unabashedly pursues the American Dream. However, I sense a change coming. The pseudo intellectual pursuit for fairness and leveling the playing field for all no matter the merit is breaking us from within. The entrepreneurial spirit that made us strong is being strangled by ideology. Many feel we're heading dangerously towards socialism and its many inherent pitfalls. We should take a lesson from China.

  • sam

    exceptional piece. Thanks. Wish someone write with this eye on India

  • biglizard

    Thank you for your great article! As a balinghou Chinese myself, I found your article described the exact same situation of my currently relationship with my parents - huge gap, not only the generation gap, but more of others, which i found myself really hard to share with them, and i gave up to let them understand me. And your article provided an insight angle of view which I didn't find any on chinese medias, inspired me a lot. I think if you can post it in chinese media, you can find more 80s who share the same feelings as a lot of friends of mine who have the same agony when communicating with their parents.

  • Chenchen ZH

    There're some good stories but as an ordinary balinghou who grew up in a small town I just found they quite distant from the reality I'm experiencing. Yes to write a good article you have to find some eye-catching stories, but it's never wise to generalise a society on the ground of such extreme cases.

    P.S. "I would rather cry in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle" is a famous quote by Patrizia Gucci -- Maurizio Gucci's ex-wife who got her ex-husband murdered. She also refused the offer of parole in 2011 for she's 'never worked a day' in her life.

    • JamesP

      I don't think these are extreme cases - I didn't seek them out or cherry-pick them, and in fact left out some of the more serious cases of parental disruption I know. I put Li in because his relationship with his parents is very close. But they are very much about the urban-middle-class in the big cities, and of course it's a huge generation with plenty of variance, like anywhere else. But when it comes to the experiences of the *parents*, everybody's family stories are "extreme" simply because China in the 1960s and 1970s was so incredibly fucked-up.

      • JamesP

        Personal favorite story; the girl whose parents didn't tell her they were divorced until 13 years afterwards, because they were worried about her exam results ...

        • Beifang

          To be honest, I don't think you really know China, you don't know the reality in China at all. What you might know is just some so-called "stories". But it is a really intriguing article, you have done your job to raise many of the social phenomenons or problems to the foreigners even to the Chinese who don't know them well.

          • taipeir

            Stories are what we are left with when all is said and done. The Chinese are good at hiding their own stories when it makes them feel uncomfortable, does it make you feel uncomfortable?

            Perhaps, I'm still waiting to see a Chinese movie that is filmed in a historical period after 1947!

      • cc

        Sorry but I'm with Chenchen on this point. I'm sure you didn't just cherry-pick them for the drama, but the rate of domestic violence is shockingly high compared to what I grew up with. My guess(?) is that people cluster -- maybe people with a bad childhood and dysfunctional family tends to go in the same industry(like in press or legal)? Or are more easily found in bars? Anyway I'd like to point out many (if not most) of the Chinese family are just like any other family -- loving and caring, with just a little more pressure throw in the middle.

        • orthorim

          They're just as loving and caring as anywhere else they just go about it in a different way.

          Every parents want the best for their children. In the west parents think the best is freedom to choose what they want - they think that will bring their kids the most happiness.

          In China perhaps some think the best is having a solid job, a respectable income, or even riches, and a family of their own.

          Different perceptions.

        • Dick Leigh

          A little more pressure? I know Chinese people that were beaten by their parents if they got a B+ or worse on an exam.

      • Chenchen ZH

        Then I guess my sense of estrangement is because of my background -- which is not urban-middle-class? In my home town -- a county-level town in north China, I don't know any 'incredibly fucked-up' family stories. Then I went to university in Shanghai, where many of my friends were from SH but I was not aware of any unusual inter-generational relationships either. Parents of my best friend, a shanghai girl, were divorced and she was informed. Some years later she moved to France to study, then work, then got married there. I was in her wedding; her both parents came, not quite comfortable standing together but still, they loved to come as parents to give their daughter their best wishes. I'm not picturing a country in which everyone is smiley and happy. Some are relatively trouble-free, some not, and actually many are not, but this not something that's particularly Chinese. I can see a few reasons for unhappiness mentioned in the article that are 'non-western', like arranged marriage. Apparently those who are most affected by this are in South Asia.

        • orthorim

          Maybe you've already discovered the greater truth - the truth that hides behind all stories like that, stories of distant countries where things are so different and where this and that is so extraordinary...

          I've lived in Europe where I grew up, in California where I worked for 10 years, and now in SE Asia for the last 10 years and the one thing that I felt almost immediately here in SE Asia is how those things that matter the most to people everywhere are exactly the same.
          Love, parents, children - those are the same thing the world over, the things that move us deepest are also the ones we all have in common. Our deepest desires for love and happiness - the same no matter where we go.

          The different cultures and traditions around a place are really just a very thin veneer on top. We as a people tend to concentrate on the differences - and yes they are interesting, just as I found this article very interesting. I want to learn more about China, this enormous country that's becoming ever more important. But I also know that people are the same in China as they're everywhere else. I respect cultural norms, but they are not who we are.

          • Chenchen ZH

            I really like the way you put it. I didn't live abroad as long as you did but I have exactly the same feeling. The more countries I traveled to and looked at with care, the clearer it seems to me that the commonalities between peoples are much more powerful than differences. Talking about differences is fun at table, is attractive to young audience. But eventually what touches (or hurts) your heart is nothing novel or exotic.

  • Lizzy Z

    Great article! What you write is exactly what I , as a "balinghou" journalist, have been through.

    p.s. this article is translated by some reader into Chinese and is widespreading on chinese social website. Haha!

    • JamesP

      I saw the 豆瓣 translation and comments; if you've got any other links they'd be appreciated.

    • blizzardhhj

      damn! I'm on the half way of translation, now you tell me somebody has done it? Noooooo....

  • Grace Sia

    Fantastic Article - definitely worth reading and truly shows the values gap between the current asian generation and our parents. Turns out its more universal than you'd think.

  • Josie

    Beautiful and heartbreaking article. Thank you so much for bringing these voices and stories to light.


    is there a Chinese translation of this article?

  • Peter

    As a balinghou Chinese born in the countryside, I do often feel quite marginalized and disoriented. TO make things even worse, I am GAY. How am I going to meet my parents' high expectations like finding an Iron-Rice-Bowl job, getting married, and having children. I have nothing to say when facing my parents and feel pretty sure that they will never understand me. Just can't imagine how things will be in five years or ten years. I must have been born in the wrong place and at the unfit time.

    • James Palmer

      Peter, I sympathize deeply, butI hope you don't get caught up in the trap of forced marriage for the sake of the parents; so often a course to misery for all parties. If it's any consolation, I think things may be better in five or ten years just because a consciousness of gay rights is spreading very fast, although it takes a long time to filter through the countryside. In my experiences with young gay Chinese, some parents can be surprisingly understanding in the end, however difficult the road. But if you can find other common ground with your parents, rather than just seeing the gulf, you might find that process easier when it comes. Good luck.

    • orthorim

      You must learn to see your parent's flaws and misconceptions as what they are, yet still love them, not resent them.
      It is the hardest thing, not just in China, but world-wide, not just for gay people but for everyone. It is universal.

      When our parents judge us, it hurts. But we have to realize it's not reality.

    • Jeffrey

      Peter, I've been told that parents from the country-side are more likely to accept their LGBT children. What do you think? For your sake, I hope it's true. Don't worry, the world is becoming a better place, even in China for LGBTs. My fiancee is from Taiwan, and he came out to his parents and it was no problem. While Taiwan and China are very different places, let's at least hope that China will follow a similar track towards accepting LGBT individuals.

  • Lewis

    Absolutely brilliant article.Chinese people today are basically slaves to their parents. Life for most Chinese is a total nightmare.

    • Liang Chen

      Bullshit, I was born in 1982 and I think I am quite independent. Maybe the reason is that I started to live in campus when I was 9 years old because I am from countryside of China.

      It is funny that you westerners always jump to conclusion so fast based on several stories.

  • R Kahendi

    This was quite an intriguing article. Kudos.

  • Sc

    how i hope my parents could understand English, so they can have a look at your feature. i'll translate it to them. thank you for writing the story.

  • Tuscan Tony

    You've read it a few times in the comments already but it bears repeating; this is an excellent article James and you've really "rem acu tetigisti"'d urban and rural China today, according to my friends in the know!

    Well done.

  • forfrosne

    Incredible article, thank you

  • Linda

    Dear James,

    Thank you so much for this amazing article. As a jiulinghou (even worse!) currently studying International Relations in the United States, your article really resonated with my relationship with my parents and family back home. I will be coming back to China for the next two years to teach in the countryside. Rest assured that not all of us have given up on our optimism, values, and drive to help others.

  • YS

    James, thanks for this great article. One thing that intrigues me is that when it comes to the parents of the Chinese bailinghou, most of your examples (or samples) are mothers. Do you have any thoughts or observations about the men in that generation of the 50s and 60s? BTW, it is my bailinghou daughter who sent me this piece.

    • James Palmer

      Partially that's because most of the people I talked to were women, so the maternal relationship is always more intense. I think the men tend to focus more on the career pressure and less on the emotional/cultural pressure, but there's also a bunch of issues to be unpacked involving loss of economic status/power during the 1980s, especially in the lower-middle urban class.

  • James


  • j.kimchi

    The sheer selfishness of these young chinese girls is appalling.

    • James Palmer

      The decision to concentrate to some degree upon women was partially because women talk about these issues more openly and easily in China. Look at "If You Are The One," a super-popular dating show, where if guys talk about their families, either too lovingly or too critically, they get no bars (zero votes). (Another observation of my colleage Chen Chenchen). And it happens, in all seriousness, that my three closest guy friends in their 20s all have remarkably good relationships with their parents ...

      • Dick Leigh

        So true. Western eyes look at Chinese men and see scrawny unmasculine men, but Chinese men are expected to behave and look a certain way, and deviating from expected male behaviour or appearance inevitably causes problems.

        I mean, I have a pierced ear, and that alone caused all kinds of waves. My students kept asking me if I was gay, and when I was getting my visa renewed, they had to spend an extra 15 minutes photoshopping my earring out of the picture (after I told them it was impossible for me to remove the earring without pliers).

    • Ryan

      A great article!
      But I have to say that I fully agree with Kimchi's commitment.
      The popular dating show can't represent the real Chinese life value, nor those young Chinese single women who speak English.

    • orthorim

      I don't think that's an issue - am also a white guy living in Asia and yeah naturally the friends you'll collect are unusual as they speak English and most here don't (or not well enough). So your circle of friends will be different from the average local guy.
      That said I don't even think there is such a thing as an average guy - everyone is from a certain social group, rich or poor, artsy or business like, simple or academic.
      I think you can find out a lot about a society by talking to young women - they're the spear head for trends, and they are where things are going. Even in so called patriarchic societies. I think the author talked to these girls not because he can't speak Chinese but rather because they are the envy and role models at the moment - modern, successful, etc. They are the Chinese dream.
      Myself I find I can learn a lot about a society just being here; interacting with people every day, and observing what's happening. It's not the great mystery that many foreign visitors think it is. People are people everywhere. There are so many more similarities than differences, especially when it comes to those things that matter most.

  • Ed

    An excellent, thought provoking and utterly horrifying article. What a world to live in. I've never felt so grateful for being lucky enough to be born in England.

  • Rudi Stettner

    This generation has parents who grew up in the cultural revolution and
    grandparents who saw China under Japanese occupation and in the throws
    of civil war. This lends a distinct local flavour to a generation gap
    that vaguely reminds me of my own pampered self absorption that
    contrasted to my parents being shaped by the Great Depression.

    The Palmer article was interesting not only for its penetrating look at
    contemporary Chinese society, but for the point of comparison it
    provides with growing up in America, and the influence that social
    change has on the lives of individuals.

  • Stephanie

    Great article. I'm an American married to a Chinese man from the generation you speak about, and so much of what you write about lines up exactly with stories he has told me. Thank you for taking to time to write such a well-thought-out, insightful article!

    • grace

      nobody cares about your opinion.

  • James Francis

    Excellent read - thank you!

  • curl of the burl

    Thanks James (both of them!). Brilliant article. I lived and worked in China on and off for 8 years and you've reiterated a lot of what I saw but wasn't sure if it was only due to local customs and ,furthermore, was unable to put it so eloquently.

  • jonmonroe

    Good stuff. I enjoyed the observation about military personnel having fat children -- one of the most reliable barometers of official corruption is the weight of the spoiled son.
    Interesting to see how Chinese pragmatism is playing out in all this. It is like a safety net for failed attempts at idealism. I think that is the connection between the survival of filial piety and the state of the current generation. Excessive family devotion carries the values that make it possible for people to live without a functioning civil society and to live with corruption and tyranny. A sobering lesson in the balances struck within cultures.

  • wangsta

    did anyone else catch that? 'imprecations'?

  • floranw

    Recommended by Bill Siggins. Heard the writer also works with Global Times. Quite a wonderful article. The author must have a very keen and long observation to Chinese culture. Lots of opinions are quite refreshing, combined with his own thought.

  • Taipeir

    I enjoyed this article a lot as somebody who has spent over a decade in Taiwan. Taiwan did not have as much upheaval as China but nevertheless the Confucious culture and obsession with money is shared.with ethnic Chinese everywhere.

    I myself have known many 30 and 40 somethings in Taiwan who, after some initial resistance, 'obey' what their parents tell them because that is the easiest way to get ahead in life i.e. inherit property and wealth.

    It's very difficult to make money on the poor salaries in this part of the world and many give up independence to take the money from their parents, the parents know this and use the money to control their offspring and tell them what job to do, who to marry, where to live etc.

    This often leads to people who are not fulfilled and who are living facsimile lives, lives not of their choosing. This makes for boring people. This makes for a boring society. This makes for a society that is not able to change at heart.

    The young generation have their own views, but in the end they are not strong enough to stand up and be counted.

  • Taipeir

    This single reason, the dependence of children on their parents far into adulthood, stops Chinese societies breaking new ground and being an influence in the same way that cultural influences out of America has done. It saps them of their strength, and it is the root problem of all Confucian societies. Confucian societies cannot change and lead , because they are rooted in top down follow the elders thinking.

    • Nick

      Taiwanese broke new ground in electronics. is it because of the engineers' training in USA?

      • Rex


        • Mike

          Hey that's rude! Ass hole

  • D R

    Well, this was a well-thought out article. It hits home with me. I am a 25 year old American male currently dating a Chinese girl (25 years old) who has an older sister and whose family is from the northern oil region of Daqing. I lived in Beijing and met her at the school I taught at.

    I am thinking of marrying her but I am a little scared now after reading some things here if I am going to be fraught with cultural complications and demands from her parents who are a product of the Maoist Cultural Rescript? I don't mind making concessions and giving her parents satisfaction that it is my duty to provide for her and help provide for them in their old age. But as an American interested in marrying off their youngest daughter, am I making an ill-prudent move here?

    I am assuming her parents will be a little easy on me because the older daughter has married a Chinese man. Had she been an only child, I am thinking it would not be the same.

    Any help or advice from Mr. Palmer or others that have particular insight would be much appreciated. Thanks a lot for the article. Awesome stuff!

  • Sally

    Wow, this is the best article on China I've ever read. Money, or economic stability has a special role in Chinese people's world view. Your analysis on that topic deserves another article. The mentality of economic survival is a function of the long history of poverty and unrest dated back to the end of 19th century, but it is made worse by the contemporary educational system and socioeconomic structure. Now everywhere is the cutthroat competition to be the smartest and the richest. This sense of competition creates a "individuals against the world" mindset which get reflected on a general lack of sense of community in Chinese society. The youth, both 80s and 90s, have hard time to relate to many demographical groups, ideologies, lifestyles, etc. Generation gap is only one side of this big problem.

  • Jess

    Having a chinese background, and growing up there for a portion of my life, some of this is very true, and others seem foreign to me. So thank you for a very thought provoking article, and educating me on the state of my home country. I'm very grateful for my parents for their decision to move out of China

  • Jenny W.

    As a likely equally sheltered Chinese American, this article was eye-opening for me and reminded me of some of my friends Chinese and non-Chinese. I found this while researching for a paper for my Anthropology of China course on "Chinese Children as the World's Most Coveted Consumers." Thank you for this great article!

  • evasara

    Mr Palmer sir, I'm a fan, I've read many of your articles and I find the writing just marvelous. I hope to see more of your articles and more of your books published, great, great respect.

  • Lu

    As a post 80 generation, I was on a fast-tracked(forced to stay without granting master's degree) Ph. D. candidate majored in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, however I dropped myself out because of my previously set goal of aiming to pursue advanced education(doctor's degree) overseas. I got the admission with tuition waiver and stipends provided but lacking the money(bank account) to prove that I have enough money to I left graduate school and decided to postpone my plan(dream) then back to the work force trying to make enough money to support myself(financially self-sustainable). I still hold my dream firmly and try so hard to make money(finally realized the importance of it). As a science nerd, I want to do science and with it, to improve our lives.

    I came to read this article because of your latest work on TCM. Thank you.

  • Alfonso

    "He’s a pharmaceutical rep. What that means is that he sells fake or overpriced drugs to hospitals, with the collusion of the doctors, and they split the profits."

    I thought i was reading about china not the states .....

  • Jim

    I lived in China for many years interspersed between the late 1990's until recently, and I still do business there now. I also agree that the article is superb and the phenomenon observed does explain a lot of behavior one will encounter in China today; this was all a big surprise to me when I started managing balinghou employees a few years ago - they were a world apart from the qilinghou college students I had met at the turn of the millennium.

    Generation gaps are easy fodder for cultural analysis, and China's economic, cultural, and informational rise is one of the great modern stories. I would encourage readers to understand a few limitations of these observations:

    1. China is a huge country and incredibly diverse, in some ways even more diverse than the US. For every clever insight, you will find far more exceptions and outliers. Perhaps Tolstoy is useful here? "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

    2. The "generation gap" lens does not so much reveal some dark underbelly of China (or Asia, as others noticed), but rather magnifies certain differences and dichotomies that are truly fascinating for anyone who seeks to understand both China and western societies.

    3. If you are reading into this article a judgment or "problem" with China, I don't think the author or any serious China watcher or overseas Chinese would agree with that negative interpretation. It's very hard to come to any conclusion about social phenomena being "good" or "bad" or whether we can predict consequences from that behavior. Even the subjects of the article themselves seem divided on the usefulness of the values being forced upon them. Again, great journalism.

    And back to my first point, as a qilinghou, the fact that I can so readily communicate with young Chinese about pop culture, values, families, sex, social life, goals, education, etc... is amazing. This article was not possible 15 years ago. Information and culture served up by the internet and increasing globalization has resulted in a massive cultural shift that has touched all generations of Chinese. Older managers and company owners I deal with may still be "traditional" in many ways, but awareness and the resulting struggle with The Other is alive and well, making my experience of China richer, more fun, more fascinating than ever. I've seen my Chinese contemporaries of diverse ages having the same positive experience, and no doubt joining us all scratching our heads about what this all means. Thanks, James!

  • Rice Cake?!

    James, I can't believe this article is written by a foreigner! I am studying Anthropology, but always feel that Western authors tend to over-interpret and misunderstand oriental cultures. But your portrayal is so real and appropriate in this article! This is by far the best social article I've read!

  • Zimon2

    Incredibly insightful, beautifully written. I hope to read more from you.

  • graceyu

    Really excellent article. I can't find a single inaccurate statement. As a Chinese-American who enjoys traveling around the world, I've always experienced the biggest culture shock when I visit family in China. The section about the cultural revolution was so on point that for a minute, I thought you had spoken with my family. Definitely have to send this to my family and friends.

  • Alice Zindagi

    Another sad side effect of this mounting pressure on young Chinese people is that they're forced to focus entirely on their education and careers, rather than their social lives, when they're young. Granted, you don't want to let young people focus solely on their social lives, but forcing them to ignore it is a source of an entirely new problem. By the time they're old enough to start dating, which their parents seem so desperately to want them to do, they've been out of the dating world for two or even three decades. They don't know how to interact with other people. They don't know what romance is. And they're at danger for unhappy marriages, divorce, and broken families. If Chinese parents are so intent on bending, breaking, and shaping their children into perfect little dolls, then someone needs to teach them how to actually approach the opposite sex: