The Apolitics of Rebellion xuelin zhou

In February 2004, Chun Shu, a Beijing teenage writer, appeared on the cover of Time Asia. Chun, along with another high school-dropout-turned-writer, Han Han, punk rocker Li Yang, and computer hacker Man Zhou, were described in Time's lead article as the embodiment of disaffected Chinese youth and were labeled linglei, a word used to carry negative connotations of''a disreputable hooligan'' but in the official dictionary defined as ''an alternative lifestyle'' (Feb. 2, 2004). While it is remarkable to see Chinese linglei youth in the cover story of a prestigious Western magazine, we should be aware that Chinese youth, whether they were linglei or mainstream, did not always occupy a large enough space in society for ''an exercise in self-expression" or ''a mannered display of self-conscious cool.'' Far from that, there had been extremely limited options for young people in terms of lifestyle. In the process of growing up, youngsters were invariably required to learn from their elders, with everything being arranged for them: lifestyle, leisure interests, behavior, and values. Throughout China's long history of social development, youth had remained largely in oblivion. One reason for this is that traditional Chinese culture tended to ignore this stage of human life by regarding aged people as children and young people as adults.1 One advantage of this cultural outlook was to skip over the rebellious teenage period.

This ''unity'' of order regarding age patterns remained ultra-stable until the late twentieth century, when Chinese society was undergoing unprecedented tremendous change. Of all the strands that interweave to make up the period, the concept of autonomous youth is particularly conspicuous. The new generation thought and behaved in a different way from their elders.

They took a critical attitude toward social reality and formed their own subculture in antagonistic relationship to the establishment. This new cultural phenomenon shocked the more conservative sectors of society and has generated various interpretations, such as ''juvenile confusion,'' ''moral collapse,'' ''spiritual vacuum,'' ''political indifference,'' ''generation gap,'' ''post-Cultural Revolution syndrome,'' and so on.2

Globally, one problem in studying ''youth culture'' is how to define the term. ''Youth'' can be understood biologically, with reference to those who have not yet reached full sexual maturity, and to a period of radical transformation from dependent childhood to responsible adulthood. Sociologically, youth can be referred to as an intermediate phase of life in which the individual develops an autonomous personality and establishes a clear place in society. But a precise definition is never possible since youth, in terms of the conditions that determine the age of this stage, changes historically. Various components of social conditions, such as the development of education, employment patterns, disposable income, and even diet, all play a role in the shaping and reshaping of youth. Even the biological maturation of the body can occur earlier in some cultures than in some others. Despite the complexities associated with the word, though, ''youth'' retains its meaning in relative terms as a period ''between,'' a period of transition, a period that is fluid and exploratory. Terms that crop up frequently in discussions of modern youth culture include the following: marginalized, flexible, transient, spontaneous, hedonistic, subversive, and nonconformist. This list of associations can be compared with a typical Western account such as Robert Chapman's 1953 essay ''Fiction and the Social Pattern,'' which described the young adult years in New Zealand as a period of freedom between the controls of childhood and the conformity of adulthood:

As soon as reaction becomes possible—when they start to earn between fifteen and eighteen . . . [their] reaction takes the form of a rebellion, which seems, but only seems, to be a rebellion against the pattern. Actually, to strike out against parental authority ... to assert or experiment with other values and practices . . . this is the normal course over the ten years between seventeen and twenty-seven. A period of adolescent and post-adolescent Sturm und Drang seems to be an inherent part of cultural patterns deriving ultimately from the European complex; though not being a part, apparently, of all cultural patterns.3

For a long time, conventions in China regarded the ages 15 and 25 as the lower and upper thresholds marking the beginning and ending of youth, but as recently as 1982 the duration was expanded to include the age group between 14 and 28.4 This duration of 15 years can be further divided along the lines of Margaret Mead's landmark Culture and Commitment, which speaks of three different cultural styles: the pre-youth period (14-17), the co-youth period (18-22), and the post-youth period (23-28).5 Though the ages of the young central characters in the films I shall be examining are never clearly revealed, their background and experience as shown in the movies suggest that they are living on the borderline of the latter two periods.

Film both reflects and helps to reshape society. In the late 1980s, China saw the production of a multitude of ''youth problem'' films, such as Sunshine and Showers (1987), Coffee with Sugar (1987), Samsara (1988), Masters of Mischief (1988), Rock Kids (1988), Out of Breath (1988), Obsession (1988), Half Flame, Half Brine (1988), and Black Snow (1989).6 Previously, little effort had been made in Chinese cinema to explore in detail the lifestyle, emotions, and attitudes of these freewheeling young men and young women. In these films, conventional heroes—workers, peasants, and People's Liberation Army soldiers—were replaced by angry and alienated youth, who formed a new type of screen hero and emerged as a new déclassé stratum of youth in contemporary China. The characteristics of these ''new heroes'' are summarized by a veteran Chinese film critic as follows: First, they have a low educational level. Because they passed their school years during the Cultural Revolution, when little schooling was available, they display an anti-intellectual tendency. Their cultural inferiority complex manifests itself as mockery and deflation of intellectuals (whether university students, writers, or professors). Second, they either have no regular job or give up a profession to make their fortune as wheelers and dealers. Third, they are ultra-hedonistic, adopting an irresponsible attitude toward life and tending to see it as a mere game. Lastly, they disdain conventional moral criteria and social norms. They indulge in promiscuous sex, make money unscrupulously, do whatever they want to do, defy the law, and behave like delinquents.7

In other words, the young people to whom critics like Shao Mujun allude lived on the periphery of society, having neither respected social status nor lofty ideals. (And they did not have aspirations to these things themselves.) Coming from the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, they despised the existing social order and orthodox morality. Their emergence on the silver screen was not only indicative of a transforming society but also suggested the coming of a ''beat generation'' in Chinese film. In many aspects, these youth films provide a wealth of substantive images of socially and culturally marginalized youngsters. The underlying argument of the present chapter is that the emergence of these ''youth problem'' films, as an indication of a

Samsara (1988) examines the changing political and moral conditions for young people in China, such as Shi Ba (Lei Han) and Yu Jing (Tan Xiaoyan).

burgeoning youth culture, provides a touchstone of the tremendous changes occurring in China since the late 1970s.

This essay looks at Chinese youth's deviations from conventional values in the 1980s with particular reference to two ''youth problem'' films, Masters of Mischief and Samsara. I place their ''rebellion'' under scrutiny on two levels—domestic and social. But I conclude by arguing that the ''rebellion'' represented in these ''youth problem'' films is more of style than content in a progressively commercialized society.

Both Masters of Mischief and Samsara were based on the works of a Beijing popular writer, Wang Shuo.8 Masters of Mischief was about the rise and fall of a Three-T Company (Trouble-shooting, Tedium-relieving, and Taking the blame)9 set up by three unemployed youths. At first sight the company's name and the film's title may seem to contradict each other, as what the three T's refer to does not give the impression that these young men are ''masters of mischief.'' But this ambiguity is soon removed as the story develops. A young doctor is too busy with his patients to date his girlfriend, so he asks the company to arrange a stand-in for him. A young self-proclaimed writer is worried because he has never won any literary award, so he turns to the company. The latter subsequently stages a fake (Three-T) literary award ceremony for him. A young wife is feeling depressed but has difficulty in getting hold of her husband as an outlet for her anger. In this case, the company sends a staff member to take the blame. A stout middle-aged man approaches them for help because all his life he ''has never been able to do what he wants.'' He comes to the company with the hope that he can have a chance to slap Yu Guan, the company's mastermind, ''two times, just two times!'' After a series of such seemingly ridiculous events, the company is forced to close down because a customer who has employed them to look after his bedridden mother brings a suit against them for negligence. The film ends with an exaggerated mile-long queue of people outside the closed-down company's gate, all waiting their turn to be served.

Paul Clark succinctly sums up the storyline of Samsara as follows:

The chief protagonist in Samsara . . . lives without a family: his parents, high-ranking cadres, have died. Shi Ba makes a living in the private sector greatly expanded by Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms of the 1980s. Like other entrepreneurs with social and political connections, Shi Ba dabbles also in some illegal business. Success brings threats of blackmail. Resistance to the demands brings a severe beating. From then on Shi Ba drifts. Refusing to join a friend in blackmailing foreigners, he marries Yu Jing. This relationship proves a disaster. One evening, in a macho act, Shi Ba throws himself off a balcony.10

Historically, ''home'' in the Chinese cinema had been dominated by a morally perfect father figure. A source of wisdom, the father functioned as an absolute authority ''to preserve order and maintain structure.''11 His position was seldom, if ever, challenged. This ethical code guiding the power relationship between senior and young generations had cultural and historical roots. An important concept in the traditional Chinese culture was that of filial piety [xiao], which for hundreds of years had been a yardstick of morality by which the domestic power relationship was judged. In the early years of Confucianism, the concept of filial piety merely carried the connotations of innocent and sincere relations between father and children. This subtext was in subsequent dynasties distorted by a strong sense of hierarchy. According to an updated interpretation and requirement of the code, a son should completely obey his father. The position of a child within the domestic space was low—even his marriage was arranged by the elders of the family. Gradually, this ethical code, coupled with that of loyalty [zhong], became important principles of running a family as well as governing the state. By modern times, ''filial piety'' was synonymous with ''absolute subordination'' on both domestic and social levels.

Naturally, the "rebellion" initiated by the Chinese angry young men in the 1980s started from "home." In the immediate years following the Cultural Revolution, as Li Yiming observes, "both the critiquing of totalitarian politics and the longing for liberal politics were associated with a political mythology as symbolised by 'father.' He was either described as a totalitarian authority or portrayed as a liberal-minded leader."12 Some early Chinese films of the New Era began to attack the deified representation of "father."13 On the level of everyday practice, members of a younger generation had finally learned to use the domestic sphere as a space to express their discontent in the 1980s. The extraordinary authority of the father began to teeter, although he was unwilling to ''step down from the stage of history." One task of these youth problem films was therefore to delineate the conflicts and contradictions arising from the increasingly large gap between members of young and old generations.

Shi Ba in Samsara was a typical ''new hero," preferring an unfettered and unrestrained life. Believing himself a ''free man," he did not like others, not even his mother, to interfere with his private life. On one occasion, he told his girlfriend what he thought of his deceased mother:

My mum was a mother with Chinese characteristics. She always hoped that I could live the same life as everyone else. She believed it her responsibility to ensure me to live as meaningfully and significantly as she did. When others joined the army, she wanted me to follow suit. When the fashion changed to getting an education at college, once again, she wanted me to be among them. She always hoped I should join the Communist Party and marry another Party member. She spent her whole life arranging things for me, but she never bothered to ask me what I wanted to do myself. When I quit my job in extreme depression, she was so irritated that she went to join my father in the netherworld.

Yu Guang in Masters of Mischief was the only young adult with a living father in these youth problem films. A revolutionary veteran, Yu's father reprimanded his son for having set up a Three-T company, which, in his eyes, was absolute nonsense. What the three youngsters did was ludicrous to him —''If people like you are needed for troubleshooting for the public, why do we still need the Communist Party?" On one occasion (the only occasion) in the film, the father and the son have a face-to-face encounter, which is paradigmatic in its tit-for-tat conflicts between the junior and the senior, each of whom sees the world in his own way. This particular scene sheds much light on the generation gulf in a society experiencing profound changes in all aspects.

The scene opens with Yu's return "home." Earlier that day, Yu's father had been to the Three-T Company, arguing with a staff member there and urging his son to go back home, since he had not seen Yu ''for a very long time." Yu opened the door only to find that his old man was practicing qigong by standing on his head. Later in the scene, when the father, in an attempt to understand his son's thoughts, asks, ''What on earth have you been doing these days?'' the latter only mimics the inquirer's head-standing behavior. This physical misplacement (with one character standing on his head while the other is talking) suggests that neither can listen to, not to mention accept, what the other has to say, stressing a lack of communication and comprehension between the father and the son. The old man's revolutionary belief and morality prove to be mere clichés for the young man to laugh at. For example, the father exposes his heart by saying, ''You don't know how much I worry about you. You're a grown-up man now. Why do you still fool around everyday? You should think about your future and see how you can do something meaningful for the people and country.'' But his sincere words and earnest advice only became a target of ridicule, and the son asks in retort,

What on earth do you want me to say? Would you be happy if I called myself a bastard, a parasite? What the hell have I done to make you so unhappy? I didn't murder anyone, or set fire to any house. Neither did I go to the street to demonstrate. I've always behaved myself. Have I bothered anyone? I know you want me to look forward and determined, pushing out my shoulders and holding up my head with pride. I'd be a good boy in your eyes then. But isn't that kind of life a bore! All in all, I guess I'm a bit vulgar . . .

Yu's evaluation of his own way of doing things (''I'm a bit vulgar . . .'') is a far cry from what his ''fathers'' expected him and his generation to be (''successors of revolutionary courses''). On the other hand, and on a social level, Yu's self-description as ''a bit vulgar'' demonstrates the surfacing of a ''plebeian culture'' [shimin wenhua] in a society that found itself being increasingly driven by consumerism. The 1980s to Chinese youth were a time when all sorts of ideas were mixed together, a time when the boundary between elite culture and mass/popular culture blurred. All that had been established was being challenged and questioned. While old rules were being destroyed, new ones were not yet being established. This sense of nihilism and hedonism is succinctly captured in the style of Wang Shuo-esque decon-struction in a scene from Masters of Mischief.14

The scene depicts a fashion show, with a huge T-shaped stage, across which a parade of cat-walking models represent main figures of the most sig nificant social and political events in twentieth-century China. Here we see May Fourth students, warlords of the Republican period, old-Shanghai prostitutes, peasants, landlords, soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Kuomintang generals (KMT), revolutionary workers, Cultural Revolution Red Guards, intellectuals, bikini-clad bodybuilders, rock 'n' roll kids, plus emperors and ministers from traditional operas. Initially, these people, belonging to different ideologies and classes, frown and scowl at each other. But when the rhythm of the background music changes to disco (an imported Western cultural form and a symbol of modernity and the open-door policy), headshaking turns into handshaking. The models dance to the fast beat, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, all in a sign of rapprochement. A traffic policeman stands among them and tries desperately to maintain order, but seems insignificant and helpless. The picture presented here is reminiscent of that delineated in the famed opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.

Standing at a crossroads and being devoid of a destination, Chinese youngsters would express their discontent and frustration by parodying what their elders had valued. Further, the essence of''plebeian culture'' is badinage, parody, and earthiness. What received the ridicule and parody in these youth problem films covers a large spectrum: from education to literature, from art to fashion design, from Communist leadership to orthodox Marxism, from commercialism to modernism. One such ''rebel'' scene is from Samsara, in which a stone-faced PLA soldier guarding the national flag on Tiananmen Square is ridiculed by Shi Ba and his peers as a robot. The significance of the scene lies in its style and setting. In terms of style, the construction of the scene relies on the frequent use of POV shots and shot/reverse-shots, which presents a clear and sharp contrast between two different value systems: individualism and collectivism. Since 1949, individualism had been condemned as a decadent bourgeois ideology. Individual aspirations were given very little, if any, public space in the socialist discourse. But this ideology was reexamined (and reevaluated) in films such as Samsara.15 In terms of mise-en-scène, Tiananmen Square is situated at the heart of Beijing, China's political, economic, and cultural center. No other place in China can provide Chinese youth with a more appropriate space to express their discontent and rebel against the establishment.

Despite the film's ridicule, parody, and even rebellion, Samsara did not portray Shi Ba's mocking of the established system as a deliberate scheme. Shi's act (of encouraging two girls to tease the guard) was, to borrow George Melly's words on the British ''angry young men'' movement in the 1960s, more ''an immediate and spontaneous reaction to life at any given mo ment.''16 Like his linglei peers, Shi did not intend to transform the current social order or to propose a new one. This lack of political subversion can be understood on three levels. First, the masses never became an independent political power in the long social history of China. ''Plebeian politics,'' either as a concept or in substance, never existed in Chinese discourse. The young rebels in films (as in society) were by no means unified but acted like ''a plate of loose sand.'' Second, the established structure was so powerful that the masses could only ''rebel'' in the crevices of society. When they had a face-to-face confrontation with authority, they would withdraw. For example, in Masters of Mischief, Yu Guang was late for a date with a girl on Chang'an Boulevard. He tried to take a shortcut by leaping over the cycle railing (a defiant act) but was promptly spotted and stopped by a traffic policeman (a symbol of authority). To escape a fine (punishment from the authority), Yu had to pretend that he had just escaped from a lunatic asylum (marginalized sector of society). As in Samsara, the two girls were mocking the guard only within a maze of traffic railings (rules and regulations of mainstream society). Third, such a lack of political subversion was in the nature of the youth subculture itself. When youth rebelled against the dominant culture, they were at the same time seeking ''a compromise solution'' and were caught ''between two contradictory needs: the need to create and express autonomy and difference from parents . . . and the need to maintain . . . the parental identifications which support them.''17 In order to ''create and express autonomy and difference from parents,'' young people might stay uncommitted, refuse to decide on a formal career, and not give themselves fixed future goals to pursue,18 but they would do little more than that.

Not surprisingly, these youth problem films managed to escape the censors' sharp scissors. In the eyes of the censors, these movies would not have much negative influence on audiences in political terms. Their significance, to quote Shao Mujun, lay more in the fact that they could ''satisfy the audience's desire to explore the political and sexual taboos on the one hand, but not offend authority at the same time. They reflect social reality, but do not totally focus on the dark side.''19 Another Beijing-based film critic, Hu Ke, similarly observes: ''Masters of Mischief was just like a standard product of the Three-T Company. It can relieve tedium for the audience and bring them cheerful laughter. In so doing, suppression caused by political and sexual taboos gets relieved to a certain extent. In the process, each audience member finds a socially harmless outlet to let off his unconscious aggressiveness and sexual desires.''20

In a society rapidly moving toward consumerism, even the weak elements of political subversion expressed through youth in these films would soon dissolve. As a matter of fact, the trend was already visible in these films. Consider the opening sequence of Masters of Mischief, a collage of scenes around Tiananmen Square, an explosive juxtaposition of a variety of images which subtly capture the mood of an urban panorama and present a gallery of images picked at random from a rapidly expanding metropolis: bustling Chang'an Boulevard flanked by a concrete forest of modern-style buildings (some still under construction with cranes towering to the sky); vehicle flows in the middle of pedestrians and hordes of bicyclists; a floating population from rural districts mingling with urban residents and foreign tourists; the Five-Starred flags flying alongside the Union Jacks and the Stars and Stripes; voices through loudspeakers urging passers-by to view a kung fu film starring Jet Li and to visit Chairman Mao's mausoleum; instances of body piercing; rock 'n' roll dancers; sarcastic slogans on the T-shirts of punk youth. This sense of contemporaneity is emphasized by sounds and voices from the boulevard, the marketplace, and Tiananmen Square.

These images, including the sound track, displaced the conventional connotations of "square" (associated with the memory of revolution and the political movements of different historical eras) with apolitical and commercial elements. In fact, by the mid-1990s, the revolutionary connotations of "Tiananmen Square" had disappeared completely and "square" itself had been replaced by plaza (shopping mall or commercial shopping center).21

Often the question was asked: "What is left after [the urban hooligans] discard nobility, negate faith, mock ideals, and destroy social order and morality principles?"22 These young urbanities would certainly not "idle away'' their youth. While the protagonists of these youth problem films were in a vital sense refusing to conform to the established regulations of "adult society," they would find it hard resisting the temptations from a newly emerged consumer society in an increasingly globalized context. From this perspective, the angry and alienated youngsters portrayed in the 1980s youth problem films were the forerunners of the linglei youth covered by Time magazine in the new millennium.

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