Chinese life goals have shifted from making money to finding meaning, say authors

Asia House Literature Programme Manager Jemimah Steinfeld (left), Alec Ash (centre) and Rob Schmitz (right). Chinese today are dreaming for much more than material wealth and their dreams are more individualistic than in the past. This was topic of the literature event 'Chasing dreams: the common man in China today' held at Asia House.

Asia House Literature Programme Manager Jemimah Steinfeld (left), Alec Ash (centre) and Rob Schmitz (right). The Chinese of today are dreaming for much more than material wealth and their dreams are more individualistic than in the past. This was topic of the literature event 'Chasing dreams: the common man in China today' held at Asia House.

Chinese life goals have shifted from making money to finding meaning, say authors

13 October 2016

By Naomi Canton

There was a time about 30 years ago when everyone in China dreamt the same dream: to increase the country’s GDP and achieve economic growth.

But in modern China individuals now have their own dreams and are no longer thinking about ‘nationhood.’

The new Chinese are looking for meaning in life and are less interested in material wealth, stability and security. Protecting the environment is also seen as more important than economic growth in their eyes, according to authors Alec Ash and Rob Schmitz.

They spoke about this clash of the generations in China and the aspirations of young Chinese at a book talk at Asia House titled Chasing dreams: The common man in China today.

American National Public Radio’s Shanghai Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz describes characters living in a two-mile street in Shanghai in his book Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road.

Speaking at the literature event at Asia House, in conversation with Asia House Literature Programme Manager Jemimah Steinfeld, he said he chose the characters for his book based on generations, as he felt the generation gap was critical to understanding China.

China’s generation gap

“A generation in China can span just eight to 10 years because of the rapid economic change that has taken place in the country. People of every generation in China see the world in totally different ways,” he explained.

“When you look at how Chinese President Xi Jinping defines the Chinese dream – which he describes in 2013 – it’s all about the great rejuvenation of China. For Xi the idea is ‘Yes, you can have individual dreams but your first dream should be on the rise of China and the rejuvenation of country.’”

It was similar to Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again,’ he said.

But he said he did not think the Chinese public listened to it much.

“The people on my street, when I asked them about the Chinese dream, they were busy dreaming their own dream,” he said.

‘People’s dreams have gone beyond material wealth’

“There was a time for about 30 years when everyone was on the same page – to raise the country’s GDP. At that time the country and individuals had the same dream: to make money, but now people have gone beyond that, especially in places like Beijing and Shanghai. They are going beyond material wealth. They are dreaming about justice, religion, sending their children abroad. These dreams have gone far beyond what they used to be,” he explained.

Alec Ash’s book Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, covers a specific generation: children born in China between 1985 and 1990, of which there are 100 million. It is set in Beijing.

“There was an alignment with the dream from top and bottom before,” Ash agreed.

‘A disconnect between the dreams of Xi and the dreams of the people’

“Now there is a disconnect between the Chinese dream as defined by Xi and the dreams of Chinese people such as the ones Rob and I wrote about and that dream is more about personal fulfilment,” he said.

“If Xi would like China to be stronger and a little bit more assertive, his definition of the dream on posters and murals, his idea is: ’you should participate in our vision for China, a stronger and assertive China, be a better citizen’ but on the ground level I think people are much more interested in the American kind of Chinese dream – eg the man who sells accordions in Rob’s book. There is, from what I have seen, an aspiration to transform not your country, but transform your life,” he explained.

China’s economic rise has in some ways created this, Schmitz explained, as China has seen incredible growth for 30 straight years – cities transformed in a short space of time.

“People are thinking: ‘Why can’t I have that? Why isn’t that happening to me? That should be possible for me’,” he said.

Ash explained: “If you were born in the 80s or 90s, then your parents were born in the 50s to 70s, so they were born in a very unstable period of China’s history.

“When they came out of that period of chaos, I think the mentality was go for the iron rice bowl – make sure you have a stable job and find a partner for life. Their children, the generation who are being told to go to a good university, find a stable job, which means a state-owned enterprise or bank, they don’t want it – they see all these different role models and opportunities now. They might want to be an entrepreneur or a rock star,” he said.

For the first time with this generation, risk can be rewarded, explained Schmitz. That was never the case during the Mao years [1949 – 1976]. “Then risk was punished,” he said.

“If you stood out in any way back then you could lose a lot. Now for the first time the young Chinese I know who have done quite well for themselves have risked something and that is how they made it – they did something counterintuitive,” he said.

“Parents in today’s China don’t give great advice to kids as they simply don’t understand modern China,” Schmitz said. “Lots of the new generation have to pretend they are taking advice from parents while doing opposite. They often just lie instead.” Being freelance remains anathema to the older generation.

It’s not just about jobs; it’s also about the meaning of life. Young Chinese are valuing something else now beyond material wealth.

‘There is a desire for young Chinese to have a value system’

“I feel there is a great desire for young Chinese to have a value system other than what the Government, their parents or their traditional culture has offered, in order to add value to their lives and give meaning to their lives, so there is a religious renaissance happening right now in China. Religion played a pretty big part in at least two of my characters’ lives,” Schmitz said.

“One character becomes a devout Buddhist at the end of my book and one gets sucked into an underground church where the congregation are asked to give 10 per cent of salary to the church.

“Religion has been suppressed for so long it makes sense to me there would be scams of this nature so there is a perfect atmosphere to be taken advantage of,” he said.

"People in China are looking for something beyond money," says author Alec Ash

People in China are looking for something beyond money, according to author Alec Ash

“In cities now we are seeing people looking for something more than money, something beyond this mad grab for resources,” Ash said. “I think that was the defining thing of people born in 80s and 70s China. For them there was a rush for money at a certain price – maybe a moral vacuum – and now the generation afterwards is looking at the generation before them and is looking for something else, which could be religion or starting your own bistro and I think that’s representative of a broader place where China is right now. ‘What now? We have already achieved a lot of the economic goals’ is what people are thinking.”

Ash is also keen to debunk the myth that the Chinese people are disinterested in politics and only interested in wealth.

“They want China to change and reform and improve on many levels – but they don’t want to totally change the system to achieve those goals or rock the boat,” he said.

Revival of interest in ancient Chinese culture

There is also a strong, growing patriotism towards China and a revival of interest in China’s ancient history and culture, Ash explained.

Many students who have gone overseas when they get back to China they become more nationalistic, he said. That was the case with one of Ash’s characters.

“That takes many different forms,” Ash said. “On one level it is coming from the government. There is a drive to renovate and redo places in the image of the ancient past. So where once an establishment was gaudy, perhaps modelled on Venice or Paris, now most government officials would say it should have to have Chinese characteristics and have a courtyard. That ties into the broader movement from the top level of China which is an assertion of Chinese culture,” he said.

“At the bottom level people can be proud of their culture now too. It’s no longer topic non grata in China, unlike during the Cultural Revolution when people had to destroy it,” he said.

“There is not a lot of it about though. Ancient Chinese culture does have 4,000 years of history and I think it’s a shame so much of it has been lost in the past century. Taiwan and Hong Kong do a better job of preserving it. But at least now there is a Government-led rejuvenation of it,” he added.

Schmitz said a recent survey had asked young Chinese what the greatest threat to China was in their mind and rather than ISIS or climate change, the majority ranked the influence of the USA on Chinese culture as being the greatest threat China faced.

“That says a lot about young people,” he pointed out. “There is a love-hate relationship with the USA and the West now. Many young Chinese have travelled to US and the West, often studied there and so on, but when they come back they form their own opinions about what they like and don’t like and I think there is a need to dig deeper into their own culture as a result,” he added.

In the 1990s the US was a shining example for many people in China, Ash explained. The change began after the financial crisis of 2008, he said.

“That was a turning point when China became a little bit more bullish and confident and that came to the fruition when Xi Jinping took the reins. That broader state of the world has trickled down to a lot of people. I think they may like the USA but feel they may have opportunities in China. It’s no longer ‘let’s get out of China’,” he said.

’60 per cent of Chinese would sacrifice economic growth for the environment’

So can we expect to see change in China? There is already a lot more environmental awareness, both authors agreed.

In the same poll that Schmitz mentioned earlier, 60 per cent of Chinese surveyed said they would sacrifice economic growth for the environment.

“We have seen a number of people in the last five to eight years protesting factories and chemicals – there is a high awareness of environmental issues,” Ash said. “The people from Mao’s generation were all about taming the environment. Now there is more consciousness of protecting the planet and awareness that China has a big role to play.”

“There are changing attitudes to sex and dating and broader things such as individual rights and the role of society,” he continued. “It may be things will change in 20 to 30 years. I think it’s already happening – just that the people at the top belong to a different era and underneath them society is moving in a more positive direction,” Ash added.

“Xi’s generation born in the 40s and 50s grew up in the Mao years where they survived a famine, and saw members of their family die and starve to death,” Schmitz said.

“Their mentality is one of survival. That’s how they see the world: we must survive. The young people in our books have a very different world view and I think that will have a profound impact on China.

“Once the Xi generation has died and the generation born in the 70s, 80s and 90s comes to power, we will see potentially some interesting changes in China. There still will be some sort of element of survival but we will see a different worldview and that will shape policy. Predicting China is dangerous though as anything can happen and that’s what makes it a fascinating place,” Schmitz concluded.

On 22 November renowned author Fuchsia Dunlop will discuss her latest cookbook Land of Fish and Rice which contains recipes from Jiangnan in East China. For more information and to book tickets click here.

To read about upcoming literature events at Asia House click here. 

To read stories on previous literature events held at Asia House click here.