A China Youthology x LEAP Special Report

For over two years, China Youthology conducted an ongoing study of China’s young people. They are a generation affected by the Internet, a rapidly developing economy, a transforming social structure, the onset of globalization, and the arrival of consumer culture. There are a lot of changes going on.

That’s true for China’s youth. What about China’s “art youth”? What, ultimately, are the conditions facing youth in art today? Within a limited time frame—too limited for in depth anthropological interviews and observations— China Youthology and LEAP jointly organized a workshop. First, we investigated the living conditions and values of art youth according to individual cases. Then, together with other observers, we attempted to understand art youth from the macro perspective. China Youthology put the materials collected in the workshop together with their own research findings of the past two years, which included previous interviews with and observations of a few other art youth. All findings point to the emergence of a new category with special attributes: the “New Art Youth.”


Throughout the process of China Youthology’s trends study, the core issue at hand for understanding youth was Identity Construction.

Accompanying rapid economic development ushered in by globalization and the growth of the Internet, China’s youth possess a new individuality gene. Born after reform, they are the first to be liberated, in part, from the control of ideology, and they have taken up identity construction as a personal project. The change and growth of this entire postreform- and-opening group can be regarded as the evolution of individuality.

More and more young people have begun to place increasing importance on searching for identity, choosing identity, and constructing identity. But at the same time, they face all of the limits that China’s political, economic, and social structures place on the individual. Changes in the macro-environment are profoundly influencing the choices involved in and process of Identity Construction for PRC youth. Identity Construction is a process that includes both personal and social identity. Presently, we can see the following occurring during this process:

The Core Conflict

• This is a generation of young people who possess a strong sense of identity and a desire for independence, but who still face profound restrictions. The core conflict here is “ever-increasing individuality vs. ideological control, and the expectations of mainstream society.”

• This is a generation of young people for whom changes in social identity are difficult, as they chase the middle class dream without a sense of security. The core conflict here, “community-oriented ways of thinking and communicating vs. the older generation’s traditional social power structures, ways of thinking and styles of communicating;” or, “dreams of consumerism vs. ever-declining social mobility and ever-increasing social inequality.”

Core Values and Demands

• Freedom, Justice, Equality, Truth, Tolerance, Pluralism.

2. What do we mean by “Art Youth ?”

The term “art youth” (Chinese: yishu qingnian) in the context of this report, is distinct from the broader category of “arts and culture youth” (wenyi qingnian). The designation “arts and culture youth” refers to those who define culture and art from the perspective of individual consumer content. The term “art youth,” in contrast, refers to the group of young people who participate in the creation of art. These youth…

Possess increasingly strong individuality.

Are increasingly diverse. They come from traditional fine arts institutions, but are more engaged in the occupational creation of contemporary art; increasingly, many of them do not come out of fine arts institutions at all, and instead have everyday professions in the commercial arena related to creative pursuits. Others have jobs that are in fact completely unrelated. No matter their backgrounds, they are all creating art in their spare time.

3. The Individualized Growth Trajectories of New Art Youth

We are attempting to understand life for New Art Youth within the context of changing trends for Chinese youth culture at large. Compared to the last generation of art youth, the biggest change for New Art Youth has been the individualized nature of the experience of growing up. This kind of change is genetic in nature, and has led to changes in the values and lifestyles of New Art Youth.

In the past, the majority of art youth grew up in the shelter of traditional fine arts academies. In these institutions, they were able to mature in relaxed environments that encouraged and nurtured individual development. Art youth not only obtained freedom and space for individual development, but also had access to libraries, exhibits, and all kinds of internal resources. In China’s old context, “art youth” were allowed to diverge from social norms in a way others were not.

Now, New Art Youth often complete their educations on their own, with the help of the Internet and consumer culture. The Internet’s rapid development since 2000 brought with it the consumer and pop culture of globalization. It ushered in all kinds of objects of cultural consumption, including manhua comics, movies, and music. At the same time, young people began to use the net to share resources, and Internetmediated art communities such as Lüxiao began to take shape. In such community organizations, art youth could exchange information and learn together, and traditional borders began to relax. Music, visual arts, and other forms of media entered into the scope of art youths’ studies, and the boundaries constituting related artistic concepts also began to blur. At the same time, the Internet also offered a way to publish; it was a platform for the dissemination and sharing of work.

Contemporary art and creative industries. With the rise of creative industries, not only did new training systems outside of fine arts institutions come into existence (such as design, animation, video games, etc.), but also new market demands for art were cultivated – creating new business and employment opportunities. Similarly, the development of the Chinese contemporary art market brought about the prosperity of places like 798, motivating art youth to expand their horizons. 3

4. The Characteristics of New Art Youth

This is a generation with even stronger individuality. China’s New Art Youth are in line with all of China’s young people – the trend for youth in China today is the never-ending increase of individuality, along with the critical search for individual identity. At first glance, much of the art produced by New Art Youth seems to indulge in a recollection of childhood, often yielding very similar products as a result of a similar focus. However, in the long run, within the process of creating itself, the sensitive personality of each artist has the potential to reveal diverse possibilities.

As far as the problem of the search for personal identity, they still need more time. They use their individual experiences to reflect on social issues. Their aim is not to criticize, and it is also not to arrive at a high moral status that fits into some grand narrative. It is more to personally reflect. They “call for eternal love, courage, and freedom.” They express themselves through art. They don’t seek out the so-called “new,” but rather place importance on the feelings in their own hearts. It is the self-expression of self-awareness. What they believe, reflect upon, and express do not necessarily constitute a directly corresponding relationship. Their fields of and methods for expression are diversified.

Fair, pluralistic values and strategic behavior: Similar to the post-80’s group, New Art Youth oppose disrespect, inequality, and injustice. They oppose monolithic value systems, and they call for diversity. Their dreams are for a more diverse society, where more people can be what they want to be, and where less people are constrained. Their anxiety is over lack of social recognition; it is concern over losing themselves as they face the rapid development of society and the explosion of the information age. New Art Youths’ core values are linked to the conflicts experienced by young people in general—making them that much more clear-cut and deep. Because of the present state of society, the overall behavior of New Art Youth is full of “strategy” and “complexity.” Pragmatically speaking, New Art Youths’ ability to sustain themselves comes across more like idealism. But in facing the outside world, they use an appropriate degree of pragmatism. They take a more proactive approach to exploring the borders between individual dreams and social limitations. Art youth now have more opportunities to practice this on their own—not only does it open up the possibility of learning more information and learning more about themselves; it is also a means for cross-border cooperation with commercial forces. They are attempting to cooperate and hold a dialogue, striking a balance between working with and against the forces of the system.

The individual artist’s identity: In the present day, young artists still face the problem of social identity. They are only willing to admit that they are artists within artist circles, or when they’re facing the contemporary value chain. Being an artist is not a professional choice. It is an individual, active identity choice. In many cases, they call themselves “Art Practitioners,” or “Art Workers.” At the same time, they do not rule out having multiple identities; they are involved in music, design, business, and many other fields.

The vague boundaries of art: There is now a broader, more inclusive definition of art. Art is for the purpose of finding, recognizing, and understanding oneself as an individual. Art is to satisfy the need for expression and for the pursuit of identity. New Art Youth choose to learn about art from their own personal starting points, and their power comes from fields including consumer culture, the art world, and youth culture. They critique consumerism, while simultaneously consuming consumerism. Unlike previous generations of artists, they do not tend to see consumerism as an evil force. The standard for judging art is more about “is it interesting or not?” This entails a more personalized form of judgment, based more on individual experiences.

“The consumers and creators” of “internationalization as localization”: New Art Youth are both the consumers and producers of art. They have grown up alongside rock, the Internet, and consumer culture. The boundary dividing them from the mainstream (consumer culture, global youth culture, and commercial forces) is fuzzy. New Art Youth do not experience a rigid distinction between their ideational roots and international concepts. They grew up in a global culture, and naturally possess a global outlook. However, finding a balance in art doesn’t mean striking a geographical balance among the world’s forms of expression. Their localized expression comes out of the pursuit of personal cultural identity; its function is not to signify for the purposes of attracting attention. Unlike their predecessors, they are not anxious over their Chinese identity; they are no longer obsessively pondering China’s place on the world stage. Rather, they are asking themselves about the meaning of Chinese identity itself. Furthermore, New Art Youths’ social circles are wider and have more overlap, and their lifestyles are richer and converge more with consumerism. Beyond their work, when compared to the previous generation’s drinking and mahjongg playing, their cultural consumption amounts to much more than that of their predecessors. They understand and appreciate commercial culture. They are brand consumers, and they are trend chasers.

A lack of contradiction between art and commerce: New Art Youth can recognize the way in which capital is currently being steered in contemporary art. They make use of their own creativity to add commercial products to the creative industry’s chain of production—they sporadically, strategically, and selectively do what they need to do to “make a living.” They do not exclude the possibility of doing business; if they want to, they can become famous easily enough—but at the same time they know themselves and their own principles, and can distinguish between commercial and artistic projects.

The impact of spirit and practice: New Art Youth are distinct from Arts and Culture Youth because of their ambition and their stronger capacity for reflection; they stick out among others their age. Their creativity itself may still have limits, but as they engage in their own personal spiritual practices and explorations, they can serve as role models for their age group.

New Art Youth: A Roundtable on Identity

Date: 2010-6-20

Location: “Qing Gong Guan” the China Youthology Office, Beijing

Hosts: LEAP, China Youthology

Interviewers: Aimee Lin, Lisa Li

Honored “New Art Youth” guests: Qiu Xiaofei, Yan Cong, Dong Xing, Guan Xiao, Wei Honglei, Madi Ju, Zafka

Honored “Observers”: Bono Lee, Bao Dong, Li Lao

Qiu Xiaofei: When you go to the hospital, if you fill in your medical history with the word “artist,” the doctor will give you a weird look.

Guan Xiao: For people like us, the most important thing is self-education. If you have a voracious appetite for knowledge, no matter where you are it’s the same.

Zafka: More often than not, people say I am a culture youth or an art youth, and I admit, yeah, I am, but if you call me an “artist,” I’ll get really uncomfortable.

Dong Xing: In Chinese, just using the word “expert,” which is one of the characters in the word for “artist,” turns a person into someone exceptionally important. I’m not an established artist, but I think that every person who produces works of art can be called an artist.

Guan Xiao: Art is a big concept. I think that art is anything that expresses something.

Yan Cong: We are both consumers as well as producers. We are both creating things, as well as consuming the creations of other people. When you look at other people’s art, that is a form of consumption.

Guan Xiao: For me the easiest thing to lose is my own interest. You might have interest in many things, but youwill often get caught in one or another singular interest— this makes for contradictions. I think that methods of resisting this kind of loss are a way of life and a way to sustain one’s own attitude.

Wei Honglei: I am an art worker, I am an art slave, that’s all I do—I am a slave to my work, and when it’s complete it has nothing to do with me anymore.

Dong Xing: I think being an artist is an identity, not profession. As a profession it’s what you would consider self-employment or freelance work.

Yan Cong: Only you can define creation. If you think what you yourself have created is art, then what other people say doesn’t count, as long as you say so. Which is different from what the older generation probably thought.

Dong Xing: What bothers me is that if this society doesn’t agree with something you do, then it won’t give it a chance, it won’t be open to it, it won’t respect it. Values in this society are too single-minded—whether it’s consumerism or individualism, it’s all mainstream values.

Wei Honglei: I’ve never thought about what I would fight against if I could, and I can’t fight against anything anyway. For now I think that as long as I don’t lose my direction in this world, that’s good enough. I don’t want to get lost within the information explosion. Thinking about it too much can easily make a person collapse; the impact of the outside world on the human heart is huge. I can’t resist it, all I can do is be bothered by it.

Dong Xing: The things you can do for society and the things society needs from you don’t match up. I don’t think society needs me, and the things I make aren’t needed either; I guess you could possibly say that it’s just that this society’s needs are especially small; perhaps today they just don’t need anything. On the other hand, art can offer entertainment and can satisfy aesthetic demands, so I guess those are needs. But suddenly, if you put a few of your own ideas out there about what else you think they might need from art, they suddenly don’t need it at all.

Qiu Xiaofei: The demands of society are multifaceted. For example the demands of your parents are that you sell your art: they depend on you for income. This is a business consideration, and something I had not encountered before. Future aspirations are big things; they are the things that push people forward. But right now the biggest problem is people don’t know where they come from. So how can they know what the future holds as they are pushed?

Yan Cong: First you have to do the things you want to do. But if you want to make everyone accept what you do, then you have to exhibit your work or go online. If you can’t play that game, then all you can do is go back to washing the dishes.

Bao Dong: It’s hard to say what’s good art and what’s bad art, so I prefer to turn “art” into an adjective, or turn it into a standard. Like when everyone starts to use the word “youth,” it shows that everyone wants to change, it shows that Chinese society is more and more systemic and strict, so everyone feels lost. On the one hand a word is capital, on the other hand it’s power.

Bono Lee: We often talk about the work of the 1980s generation now. Does it truly reflect society? They were expressing themselves too, but their group itself turned into a subject matter of its own, thanks to the media—the media summed their art up as a “movement,” and only then did it seem to make sense to people.

Bao Dong: Artists can depend on themselves just by painting for a living, and can even live well doing so. This is rare—the world has not seen a period like this before for artists.

Li Lao: If art youth are considered influential, it is only their own small crowd over which they have influence; they are one portion of China’s youth, and because mainstream youth culture is still influenced by commercial and popular culture, their impact on youth culture is small.

Bono Lee: Changing a society is a process that requires support from the inside. Whether they hold exhibitions or do other things, art youth ought to walk ahead of the crowd; young people are working people, no matter if it is now or in the future, they are all standing in the front lines creating. No matter if they are open-minded or judgmental, they are the future that people can expect.

Bao Dong: There is basically no more anxiety over China’s position in the world. There is more of a global perspective. This is a change; it’s hard to say if it’s a good or a bad one.