Martian Language and Brain Damage

Prosperity Leads to Generation Canyons, not Gaps, in China

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SHANGHAI ( -- China doesn't have generation gaps. It has generation canyons. The biggest gap lies somewhere in the mid 1970s. That line is the clear result of economic reform, which separates the prudent conservatism of older folk from the colorful diversity of young people.

But a few years makes a lot of difference. There is a wide gap between those born in the '80s (the post-'80s) and those born a decade later (the post-'90s). It is a gap rooted in different life experience, different tastes, and in some cases, in different values.
P.T. Black
P.T. Black
The best way to see the post-90s generation in China is to visit them on the web. Skip past the hygienic Facebook-clones of and and dig a bit deeper.

My favorite sites are and They aren't the biggest social networks in China, but they are among the coolest. The photos on 360quan are particularly great -- kids going to extreme lengths to capture a perfect image.

Paris Hilton-esque sunglasses? Check. Guys in goth makeup? Check. Self-portraits taken from awkward, almost impossible angles? Check.

If you're lucky you will catch some of the most memorable style online -- it is called "feizhuliu." The name literally translates to "non-mainstream." It is a striking aesthetic, almost a lifestyle. It is polarizing, bizarre, and at times nihilistic. It's like punk without the conviction, flannel-rock without the dirt, and glam without the platform boots.

A typical feizhuliu web site features a series of self-portraits, all taken at extreme close-up. The main character (usually female) is kewpie-cute, with puffy prepubescent cheeks and massive eyes, always looking up at the camera to make her eyes look even bigger. Deeply influenced by Japanese manga, the eyes are sometimes Photoshopped to occupy the entire upper face. She puffs her cheeks out to make herself look younger, and purses her lips like a fish to exaggerate the effect. It is cutesy beyond cute, an aggressive helplessness that manages to look both innocent and calculating at the same time.

For boys, the effect is a bit different. Lean bodies are accentuated with long, tight clothes. Huge hairstyles explode from the head like a punk-rock lion in a lightning storm. Oversize mirrored sunglasses hide the eyes. Alternately, he wears massive heavy framed black glasses with no lenses.

Most important, though, is the closed mouth. A feizhuliu boy rarely opens his mouth, and when he does it is to stick out his tongue. With a bit of jewelry, a black-painted fingernail or two and skull belt he is the dark, fantastical elfin antithesis to the sunshine pop stars that smile from Coke cans and sneaker ads.

There are massive websites dedicated to archiving the glamorous ennui of the feizhuliu. Some are quite dark -- obsessive song lyrics, elaborate photo essays of staged violence. Even more disturbing are the heavily-trafficked images of self-inflicted violence, pink young skin marred with razor marks and scars.

But the majority of feizhuliu is about fantasy -- getting dressed up, outshining the celebrities. Kids wait until their parents aren't home, assemble their outfits, and spend hours meticulously creating and building on the lavish images they see in online fashion shoots and overseas movies.

Not surprisingly, feizhuliu is not popular with older generations. Even the '80s generation doesn't understand it. The mixed up weird language of the '90s kids (they call it "Martian language"), the extreme self-portraits, the blurring of manga fantasy with prosaic reality. It's all beyond the comprehension of people who grew up snapping up big brands and dreaming of studying overseas. That's why they call the '90s kids brain damaged.

But are they really bad? Are they crazy? I certainly don't think so. China's post-'90s generation is really only the second generation that has grown up without having to think about how they put food on their plates. Is it any wonder they look at the world differently than their older peers? Let the '80s kids dream of trips to Paris and Prada boots. The post-'90s can create a fantasy world in their own bedroom -- with even better boots.

P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults.

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