Cultured youth in China

Trento, 3-4 October, in the workshop “Chinese youth under socialism from Mao to Xi – experiences, images and literary representations”, I will present a paper titled Cultured Youth: Hipsters with Chinese characteristics?

Click here for the programme of the workshop.


Dali is a famous tourist spot in Yunnan. Whereas two decades ago, the village was populated by Western backpackers, enjoying a breakfast of muesli, yoghurt and banana pancakes, by now the place is filled with Chinese tourists. Many of them are part of the “cultured youth” scene – wenyi qingnian – dressed in long cotton dresses or trousers, with a straw head, writing by hand, preferably with a fountain pen, letters or postcards, listening to folk music, and strolling through the country side. Meanwhile, they are all the time busy taking pictures and selfies with their mobile phones, to subsequently post on social media, performing their cultured lifestyle. Can we speak of Chinese hipsters here, or is something more going on? And how does this youth culture relate to that other related group of “little fresh youth” – xiaoqingxin, a group influenced by Taiwanese and Japanese aesthetics of purity, freshness and freedom?

In my paper, I will draw on Chinese reports on these youth cultures, I will make brief excursions – rather than close analyses – to three movies whose structure of feeling closely resonates with this youth culture: Derek Tsang’s Soulmates (2016) from Hong Kong, You Are the Apple of my Eye by Giddens Ko from Taiwan (2011) and The Summer is Gone by Zhang Dalei from China, 2016. The different locations of production are significant here, as the cultured youth culture is a profoundly trans-Asian phenomenon. In addition, I will draw on three focus groups with students from different universities in Beijing, held in the spring of 2017, who feel close affinity to this culture. My point here is not so much to present a subcultural analysis and probe into its potential for resistance, instead, I want to analyse the creative and aesthetic sensibilities of this youth culture, explore the conditions of possibility for this specific structure of feeling to emerge, and reflect on its trans-Asia dimensions. And, as I will show, it is the latter dimension that serves as the backdoor through which politics can somehow slip in again.