Modern Chinese society

My book project about contemporary Chinese society: “China Unveiled?”

The psyche of contemporary Chinese society, the real Chinese of today, how they think, live, love, work, dream, suffer, and the things they’d prefer you wouldn’t know.

I could have called it “The Naked Chinese” as a tribute to Desmond Morris

Since 1980 I spent most of my time in China but only since 2005 I have realized how much things had changed and how little I had noticed what was going on. The tremendous shifts within the Chinese society even eclipse all the modernity around us, the buildings, the technology, the traffic, the industry. I suddenly found out these were not the same Chinese as they appeared to me in the eighties and nineties. It was a shock to discover how little I knew about the country I was living in. So, I started a fascinating exploration that every day looks like the first day.

Many foreigners, even living in China since several years, have a limited insight of the Chinese society, the way people think, love, live and how they look at their future. Many life styles and personal feelings are kept discreet and hidden; many Chinese and foreigners alike do not always realize how much the Chinese society is diversifying.

Actually many Chinese do not fully grasp the many changes in attitudes; they often live within their “box”, unaware what is going on around them and denying there are Chinese who think differently. They swear by thousands of years of Chinese culture, Confucianism and rock-solid traditions. Others are bewildered by the sudden changes and feel uncomfortable with the new generations, called the “balinghou and jiulinghou” – the post 80 and post 90 generations. Or also called the “millennials”.

Wikipedia: Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y) are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends; most researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

Among Chinese there is a passionate debate on the generation gaps and the changing morals. China Daily has published several rather frank views on the issue.
Chinese don’t share much of those issues with foreigners as they feel this is “for Chinese only” but they are ready to discuss once they feel comfortable about it. Some remain reticent like many of the qilinghou, the post 70 generation.
The book project tried to address those issues, more as a sociological study and less as a personal story. It was not my aim to be complete as China has grown into a very complex society and the country is so vast with many local attitudes. The project was mostly focused on Beijing, a city full of contrasts with all the migrants – millions of them – coming from all over the country to work and settle down.

The project is not without controversy as many can be puzzled and doubt that in China “those things exist and Chinese think and act in that way.” One of the many myths is that Chinese are monogamous and faithful while Westerners are decadently liberal. If some Chinese may protest about my writings, many foreigners also tend to have biased views, influenced by a few books. A Brit mentioned to me a book that told the story about the many baby skeletons sticking out of the earth in some rural areas, because so many baby girls are killed after birth. That are the types of stories foreigners avidly read and believe.

The book was not be like all the “Ying and Yang crap stories” you hear from so-called China specialists. I am amused to see how much Westerners love those apparently erudite theories about China.

I do look at the influence of Confucianism, Taoism and other philosophies on the society of today, a fascinating but controversial issue – just question younger Chinese about the fundamental rules of Confucianism and one gets either no answer or a totally wrong one.

Other important subjects are the migrants, the hukou problem, education, job market, the rapidly aging society, the influence of the Internet and of course, sex and marriage.

Interestingly enough, my Chinese friends seem more interested in the book than foreigners – as they are more aware of the controversies but leave it rather to a non-Chinese to unveil the truth.

I have amassed a lot of information. In China official or semi-official data are mostly contradictory and unreliable, it requires patient work to sift through it all and reach an acceptable evaluation. I also collected many stories and anecdotes. My biggest challenge was to select and limit the content. Another dilemma: should the book become an academic work filled with figures and other data, boring many readers, or should it rather be a collection of stories without trying to justify their validity, i.e. do the stories give a fair view on what Chinese society is today? I did not succeed till now to find an acceptable answer to those questions.

In many ways China is going through transformations that remind us of our own Western society. When I was giving a talk to the Beijing Club of Ambassador’s Spouses in February 2009 the ladies admitted that it reminded them of similar issues they face with their own kids. In other words, China may be very different from our countries but at the end of the day we are all human and we share much more than what the two sides like to admit.

My goal – too optimistic – was to finish the draft by the end of 2009. It turned out that the topic was way too vast, after writing a lot I decided to stop. On the other hand, the insights I gained are very useful for my seminars.

The next step? Right now I am wondering what comes next. I believe I will continue writing and use the preliminary ideas of this book on society for other book(s), splitting up the too vast approach into separate books. And I continue to accumulate information, fascinated by what is going on.


October 2015

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