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Embracing Western Ways While Cleaving to Tradition

Traditional Chinese attire is now a fashion trend.


Young people are happy to celebrate traditional

and foreign festivals, as long as they are good fun.

Colorfully coiffured Chinese youth dressed in up-to-the-minute grunge listening to rock music as they walk, or sitting in a group discussing last night's NBA league match are common sights in China's large cities. Western, particularly stateside, youth culture is rapidly incorporating itself into everyday urban Chinese life. What does the country's youth and society in general feel about this cultural onslaught?

The Mighty Wave of Western Culture

In the 20-odd years since implementation of the reform and opening-up policy, Chinese youth has ostensibly embraced Western culture. They eat at any one of the 600 McDonald's or 1,000 KFCs in China, flock to NBA League and Italian Soccer League matches and watch Hollywood rather than domestically produced films. Hollywood earns 1 billion yuan, the greatest part of Chinese film market, while Chinese cinema goers spend a measly 20 million or so yuan on locally made films. The CCTV sports channel showed live broadcasts of the NBA league tournament matches almost every evening, and all young Chinese basketball fans are avid readers of NBA Magazine and Slam. In a coastal survey among middle school students on the most popular sports and entertainment personalities, Michael I. Jordan came first (26 percent), followed by Jackie Chan (18.6 percent), and in a further three surveys between 2002 and 2003 Hong Kong's Andy Lau and Jackie Chan and British footballer David Beckham came top. Zhang Yan, junior student at the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China, admits, "People my age are attracted to Western trends and products because they are so advanced and innovative." In her circle, anyone who fails to converse convincingly about international sports stars is considered a hick; the same applies to unfortunates that wear domestic rather than Adidas or Nike brand sports shoes. Middle school and primary school students are particularly prone to Western fads, the majority of them more enamored of Harry Potter and Finding Nemo than any domestically produced books or animated cartoons.

The youthful preference for Western leisure pursuits extends to holiday celebrations. Of China's numerous traditional festivals, only Spring Festival is unanimously observed by young and old. Others, such as the Lantern Festival and Dragonboat Festival, are overshadowed by Father's Day, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and Christmas. Parents are, in addition, more than a little alarmed at how readily their offspring accept Western concepts of marriage and sex. According to a survey among young Beijingers in 2000, only 30 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement "It's fine for lovers to have sex whether or not they intend to marry." Furthermore, the proportion of participants under the age of 20 agreeing with this sentiment was 16 percent higher than those above the age of 30. There is genuine concern about Chinese youth's apparently unconditional acceptance of Western culture; many fear it may lead to moral degeneracy.

Deep-rooted Chinese Traditions

Everyone in China, young and old, acknowledges that Western culture has indeed influenced the lifestyle and values of the younger generation. But to what extent? Have today's young people internalized Western influence to the "dangerous" extent people imagine?

After reading a media report on the high assimilation rate of Western culture by Chinese youth, student Zhang Yan was skeptical. According to her observations, Western influence is not that strong. She and her schoolmates made their own survey of several hundred young people aged between 15 and 30 in seven cities of diverse geographical locations and degree of development, including Beijing, Chongqing, Xining and Weihai. Its outcome endorsed her view. In answer to the question "What do you think of Western food," only 10 percent expressed a particular liking for it, while 62.55 percent said that it had novelty value, but that they could take it or leave it. As regards attitudes towards the family, only 15.03 percent upheld the Western view of personal freedom and independence as paramount, and 44 percent found it unacceptable. This suggests that young Chinese people still espouse traditions of familial responsibility. Zhang Yan's findings are further endorsed by Professor Fang Ning, an expert on Chinese youth at the Institute of Political Science under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Professor Fang believes that Western influence on morals and social values as reported by the media is exaggerated. In answer to the question "Why you like Western films?" most respondents said they were fascinated by the scientifically spectacular aspect of Hollywood movies and also the insights they bring into psychological interaction, but that was as far as it went. All this would indicate that Chinese youth is interested in Western products but not in being assimilated into the culture from which they emanate.

The extent to which the younger generation accepts Western influence is closely linked to age and place of residence. The youth in China's large cities have a greater scope of access to foreign trends, fashion and attitudes than those in middle-sized and small cities. They are consequently more likely to subscribe to it. Yu Jun, now in his late 30s, was a college student in the mid-1980s, when liberal concepts born of wholesale Westernization were widely embraced. At that time, Yu Jun and his peers led a lifestyle strongly influenced by the West. Says Yu Jun, "Staying single was very much in vogue and some of my former classmates have still not married -- not because of Western influence but because the single life suits them." Of people twenty or so years his junior, Yu Jun believes, "On reaching maturity they will reassess and return to tradition."

Student Zhang Yan's comment conveys a still clearer picture of contemporary Chinese youth. "Chinese youth is fundamentally incapable of casting off traditional influence, particularly when it comes to family values. For instance, when my American teacher came to China, he did not bid his mother a formal farewell before getting on the airplane. Could a Chinese person do the same? On the other hand, to many foreigners it seems that Chinese students deny themselves a life of their own. They are appalled at how their Chinese peers study on weekends instead, like them, of spending their free time exactly as they choose. Unlike their Eastern counterparts, Western students are overwhelmingly hedonist in outlook. This may explain why many overseas Chinese students find it difficult to blend into Western society, as it is very hard to break away from traditions formed over thousands of years. Some Chinese youth think they know and understand the West and its ways, but their knowledge is superficial. Stanley Rosen, a professor at the Department of Political Science of University of Southern California, said in a lecture in August 2004, "When I ask my Chinese students why they chose to study political science, they tell me it's a visa shortcut. After a year of study many switch to computer science or an MBA as both bring better job prospects. The Department of Political Science is regarded merely as a springboard for Eastern students, and some even start doing a little trade while they are still here. They are very pragmatic." Professor Rosen does not believe there is a similar phenomenon among American students.

Chinese and Western Fusion

In this era of highly developed media culture, young people have more contact than ever with foreign culture. According to CNNIC statistics, by June 30, 2004, China had had 87 million Internet users, most of them young people. Coupled with the openness and diversity of modern society, this means that young Chinese people now seek their cultural orientation within the ambit of Western culture.

In contrast to the youth that wholeheartedly allied themselves with the liberal trends of the 1980s, however, today's young Chinese have a more rational stance on Western culture. They do not unconditionally accept Western concepts, nor do they regard Western culture as the be all and end all of civilization; today's young Chinese people absorb elements of both the East and the West. In 2000 a sample survey carried out on 2,500 participants in Tianjin on the topic "Chinese youth, their values and outlook on life" showed the number of those that follow Western concepts of marriage and sex to be minimal. For instance, only 7.7 percent of students and 7.2 percent of young people in other occupations agreed with the proposition: "Sexual liberation is the landmark of modern civilization and an inevitable aspect of love;" while an overwhelming 73.3 percent in both groups refuted it. Most young people interviewed also rejected feudal moral concepts, as demonstrated by the 54.4 percent of students and 51.4 percent of other young people whose answer to the question: "Is the life of chastity expected of women a traditional suppression of humanity?" was "yes." This is another sign that Chinese youth do not accept Western mores wholesale and that their attitude to traditional culture is influenced by informed and rational contemporary cultural theories – a sign of social progress.

On the surface, certain aspects of the Western/Eastern youth lifestyle have so blended as to make them indistinguishable. The commonly held view among young people, as expressed by one representative, however, is that: "Certain social changes relate to social development. For instance, many of my friends have decided not to marry until they reach 30, but this decision is based purely on the pursuit of a higher quality of life fostered by social development. No one sees it as stemming from Western influence, yet two decades ago, such an attitude would have been condemned," says Wang Zhuo, who chooses to stay single. In the Tianjin survey of 2000, 50 percent of students and young people in other occupations agreed with the statement, "Chinese and Western cultures both have weaknesses, and should develop in tandem as they learn from each other." Nearly 30 percent of respondents thought that, "World culture will eventually merge."

Hu Shouwen, president of the China Youth Press, states that although the entry of Western culture into China is a challenge, "We should not shun Western culture as it contains so many essential attributes that we still need to absorb." Zhang Qizhi, a well-known ideological and cultural historian agrees. He advocates education in China's fine cultural tradition, as its solid foundations allow a finer, more objective appreciation of Western achievements. (Our thanks to Zhang Yan of Renmin University for her contribution to this article.)


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