The birth of the cool in China

By Published on .

Last week I endured a lecture on the similarities between Miles Davis and Bruce Lee. I was sitting on a ratty sofa in a 23-year-old's living room, the walls spray-painted with his online name and his computer open to his blog. A perfectly normal scene-except I was in Guangzhou, China, and my young lecturer, Ah Zhang, was rapping in a southwestern Chinese dialect.

China's young urbanites are living in a time of tremendous change. It is impossible to keep up. The country is completely re-creating itself. Everything is new-even the old is new, as faux-historic developments have become popular.

But the physical changes are nothing compared to the changes in young peoples' hearts. Young people in China's cities are living completely different lives than their predecessors. They are the beneficiaries of the advances that have transformed China in the past three decades. Their parents worried about starvation; they eat KFC. These youth are not slowly growing accustomed to international brands and media. They grew up with them. Remember the term Little Emperors? Well, they aren't so little anymore.

It can be deceiving, but though they wear some of the same brands as their peers overseas, they are coming from a fundamentally different place. Controlled media, the nation's vastness, its unique historic experience, the decade of surging economic growth and, of course, a formidable language barrier separates these kids. They are unique.

Which brings me back to Guangzhou. I was sitting with Ah Zhang to peek into the future. He is ahead of the mainstream-his graffitied walls, tattooed arms, and love of jazz are evidence-yet is very much of his generation. Ah Zhang is neither antisocial nor anti-establishment. He wants to express himself artistically and personally-and wants others to listen. He is actively learning and wants to share that with his circle. He is also experimenting with new forms of expression.

He is not alone. The web is full of young Chinese stretching their creative limits. Chinese secondary education is passive and discourages self-expression, and traditional media is notoriously bland. But online the creative energy is staggering.
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