By Hui Faye Xiao
Reviewed by Liang Luo
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December, 2021)
Hui Faye Xiao’s Youth Economy, Crisis, and Reinvention in Twenty-First-Century China: Morning Sun in the Tiny Times is an exciting and rewarding read. It is part of the Contemporary China series from Routledge, a series successfully bridging the social sciences and humanities. Xiao’s introduction and conclusion bind her central case studies together and offer a vision of hope amid competing trends of crisis and reinvention in what she calls the “youth economy” of twenty-first-century China.
In her introductory chapter 1, Xiao reads contemporary Chinese youth culture in the three keys of “youth economy,” “youth crisis,” and “youth reinvention.” Throughout her investigation, Xiao pays close attention to the agency, initiative, and creativity of the younger generation. She further highlights the power of the ongoing digital revolution in augmenting the self-expression and critical social engagement of Chinese youths. According to Xiao, the three keys of economy, crisis, and reinvention work together to best represent the dynamic interactions among different forces in the contemporary Chinese youth culture scene. First, “youth economy” emphasizes that Chinese youth culture, like any youth culture, is highly commercialized; situated in a roaring market economy under globalization, it also represents a departure from China’s socialist past, although historical continuities and resonances are important for Xiao’s nuanced articulations of the contemporary phenomena as well. Second, “youth crisis” refers to how the profit-driven neoliberal economy accelerates the division, differentiation, and fragmentation of Chinese youths along class, gender, ethnicity, educational, and regional lines. Third, “youth reinvention” articulates how the creative economy generates new opportunities for younger generations and may give birth to possible new youth subjects pushing forward social and cultural changes. Here the aesthetics and politics of youthful smallness, often associated with marginalized identities, emerge as central threads (23). Xiao insists on the creative potentials of the “small” identities, genres, and media studied in her book, arguing for their powers for coalition-building and reinvention among marginalized social groups.
After analyzing her central case studies in the body of the book, Xiao attempts to reinvent the discourse of hope in an age of crisis in her conclusion. She argues that qingnian 青年 (youth) as a discourse and identity, not simply a demographic group, can be remobilized and reinvented as “a fluid subject that serves as a nexus node to connect other marginalized, disadvantaged, oppressed, discriminated, and belittled social groups to form a grassroots solidarity and a flexible multitude” (213). Xiao further emphasizes the shaping influence of youth culture in the national development and social transformations of contemporary China, presenting “a multi-dimensional subject of qingnian generated at the intersection of multiple forms of inequalities,” which catalyzes “an emerging youth politics of the small” to “re-conceive a possible new discourse of hope” (215).
Chapter 2, “Youth Economy in the ‘China Dream’: Rise of the Me-generation Creative Class,” argues that the innovations generated and pivotal roles played by Guo Jingming 郭敬明 (1983- ) and Han Han 韩寒 (1982- ), two of the most important “Me-generation” creative writers and filmmakers, could be viewed “as a youth-oriented re-invention of the May Fourth literary revolution” and “the latest trend in a fast-growing creative economy” (31). Xiao continues to offer a convincing and refreshing analogy between the “May Fourth generation” and the “Me-generation”: the characteristics of the latter—including “a highly negative narrative core and an exploration of experimental literary styles,” hypermediacy, and “biting yet playful social commentaries” (39)—are also indicative of the spirit of the former. Xiao sees the two most important Me-generation writers as multi-dimensional figures, both beneficiaries and critics of China’s cultural industry and creative economy. Their bestselling works reveal the conflicting themes, crises, and creativity of China’s youth economy.
Chapter 3, “Against the Proletarian Modernity: Retrotopic Journey and the Precariat Subject in Alternative Youth Culture,” complements chapter 2 by foregrounding young workers, or the young “precariat” (a neologism combining “precarious” and “proletariat” coined by Guy Standing), as agents to counter the ubiquitous social control in contemporary China. Xiao takes Lu Nei’s 路内 novel Young Babylon (少年巴比伦, 2007) and Fang Fang’s 方方 novella The Individual Sadness of Tu Ziqiang (涂自强的个人悲伤, 2012) as central case studies. Young Babylon portrays the coming-of-age story of a young factory worker in the 1990s in an anti-bildungsroman style. Similarly, The Individual Sadness of Tu Ziqiang zooms in on a young rural man’s aspirations, misadventures, and disillusionments in the city. Xiao argues that by means of retrospective youth narratives, individualized and fantasized violence experienced by young workers is reenacted as a way to resist structural violence and imagine an exit from the oppressive capitalist system.
Similarly, the migrant worker poet Xiao examines shares Fang Fang’s protagonist Tu Ziqiang’s retreat from urban modernity. Xiao teases out “the romantic imagination of an egalitarian communal utopia” in “an anachronic pastoral haven” (82), here conjured up to cure the trauma and heal the wounds of the ant-like workers’ ephemeral and trivial existence. For Xiao, these creative writings weave together a literary network of rarely heard grassroots voices to expose the gaps of mainstream “reality.” She further connects the emergence of such a literary network to the collective storytelling and suku 诉苦 (speaking bitterness) movement during the socialist era. Xiao sees the regenerative energy in what was referred to as diceng 底层, or precarious subalterns, as they re-invent themselves into alternative qingnian innovators. She contrasts their creativity with the mass-produced and consumed cultural commodities of the Internet-based creative economy, treating them as “tales of alternative lived experiences outside of the History of Capital” (88).
Chapter 4, “Back to Youth on the Wings of Music: Prosthetic Memories and Sonic Nostalgia for an Unlived Past,” opens with an examination of the deployment of Cantopop and rock in two summer blockbusters made in Mainland China, Goodbye Mr. Loser (夏洛特烦恼, 2015) and City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, 2017). These two mainland productions are then juxtaposed with the reinvention of revolutionary songs and opera by Hong Kong directors Peter Chan’s 陈可辛 American Dreams in China (中国合伙人, 2013) and Tsui Hark’s 徐克 The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D (智取威虎山3D, 2014).
Xiao’s reading of the tension between a future-oriented English education and past-evoking revolutionary propaganda in American Dreams in China as “an ideological schizophrenia” is revealing of how all four films closely analyzed in this chapter defy “the neat periodization of the bygone Maoist revolution and the future-oriented post-Mao reformation” (110). In The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D, “the model opera acts as an instrumental vehicle to take the aging Hong Kong filmmaker back to an unlived time and space to achieve youthful rejuvenation for himself and for a waning Hong Kong film industry” (111-112). Xiao teases out the fascinating cross-imaginations between mainland and Hong Kong filmmakers: for both, reliving an unlived past (Cantopop and rock for mainland directors; revolutionary songs and opera for Hong Kong directors) produced intensified sonic nostalgia. Xiao is particularly convincing in examining the meaning of China’s revolutionary legacy for Tsui Hark in relation to his diasporic background. She argues that such a revolutionary image offers an alternative cultural imagination and political vocabulary to anchor the young Tsui Hark’s ethnic identity and anticolonial sentiments in face of racial discrimination in the West.
Chapter 5: “‘We Are Creating a Spokesperson for Ourselves’: Queering and Un-queering Young idols on Networked Small Screens,” zooms in on the winner of the 2006 Super Girl (超级女声) singing contest Li Yuchun 李宇春 and the unlikely young idols produced by the 2019 Produce 101 online idol-producing program. Xiao argues that Li’s “revolutionary” image of androgynous beauty had to be placed under the limits set by a highly commercialized cultural industry, renovated Confucian ethics, and state censorship. Similarly, Produce 101 contestant Yang Chaoyue’s 杨超越 class-based subaltern sociality had to be feminized and softened by her mainstream-conforming image, as “pale, slim, and young” (白瘦幼) (147). Xiao finds the case of another Produce 101 contestant, Wang Ju 王菊 particularly intriguing. Wang’s unorthodox image appears more unsettling than Yang’s and was unexpectedly appropriated by active fans to contribute to an online wave of the LGBTQ movement. Here, however, Xiao remains cautious as to what extend such a “collective carnival” (156) can speak to social reality.
Chapter 6, “Political Economy of Small: Cross-cultural and Transmedial Shojo Manga (Girls’ Comics) Aesthetics,” remains focused on gender issues while venturing into even more transnational arenas of cultural production and consumption. Xiao highlights the pivotal roles played by young female artists and activists in reinventing Japanese-style girls’ comics in China. Xiao closely examines two youth films, Go Away, Mr. Tumor (滚蛋吧，肿瘤君, 2015) and Our Shining Days (闪光少女, 2017) that feature young women as protagonists. For Xiao, these films articulate how the aesthetics of Japanese-style girls’ comics can provide an outlet for female fantasy, empowerment, and critical reflection on an alternative sense of temporality (175). Xiao concludes the chapter by returning to the politics of smallness and highlighting how the aesthetics of such a “trivial” genre could emerge as a means of feminist action and civil engagement that takes a guerrilla war strategy to generate small but significant social changes.
Because I am particularly excited about Xiao’s sensitive historical contextualization of contemporary Chinese youth culture in relation to its May Fourth and socialist legacies, I hesitate to accept contemporary writings’ market appeal as being valued “for the first time in the PRC history” (32). For example, Zhao Qingge 赵清阁 wrote for a living in the 1950s, and her works were reprinted in hundreds of thousands of copies due to their market appeal. I also wonder whether a discussion of the plagiarism accusations against both Guo Jingming and Han Han could have generated a good opportunity to analyze the dialectics of copying and innovation and the relationship between market competition and individual creativity.
A related issue is Xiao’s use of shojo manga to refer to the Chinese creators’ works in the style of Japanese girls’ comics. I understand that this highlights the transnational qualities (from Japan to China, and for some, back to Japan) of their works, but at the same time, it still insists on naming them as Japanese. If Hu Rong “brings together different art forms including manhua (Japanese-style manga), lianhuanhua (linked picture, an older form of pictorial publication mainly for Children), and guohua (traditional Chinese painting)” (166), why insist on naming her a shojo manga artist?
Another small reservation has to do with the lack of Chinese characters throughout the book, which makes it difficult for readers who know Chinese to make out which characters the terms in pinyin refer to, even when an English translation or explanation is provided. It is understandable that Routledge, as a commercial press, chose not to include characters to facilitate the reading flow for a broader readership. Still, I often found myself struggling to try to discern the characters, the lack of which to some extend hinders the reading flow of those who know Chinese. In addition, there are a few pinyin misspellings and other typos. Also, the translations of xiao zhong ticai (小众题材) as “small genre” (84) and zhi shuai (直率) as “straight and handsome” (135) could also be reconsidered.
For me, what truly distinguishes Xiao’s research from many other studies of contemporary China is her rigorous theoretical articulation guided by a clear historical vision and thorough cultural contextualization. In her writing, contemporary youth culture grows organically out of youth-centered social movements from the early to mid-twentieth century, the May Fourth cultural movement and the socialist revolution being two prominent examples. Xiao successfully balances her discussion of contemporary politics and economy and the historical legacies of the May Fourth movement and socialist revolution, grounding her expert analysis of contemporary Chinese youth culture with solid theoretical and historical articulations.
Xiao writes cogently and concisely. Her book is filled with in-depth analysis but also remains accessible and retains juicy details to interest readers. The chapters cover both general trends and specific case studies, and they are a good length for assigned readings in both undergraduate and graduate courses. Each of the chapters could be assigned separately for specific topics relevant to contemporary Chinese youth culture in particular and contemporary Chinese society in general. Having notes and bibliographies immediately following each chapter makes it much easier for instructors to adapt the book for teaching. In a case of innovative formatting, the introductory chapter of the book uses a few vignettes to highlight real-life examples with an emphasis on statistics, which makes it very effective for class discussion. Anyone interested in contemporary China should read this book and will be rewarded by the breadth and depth of its coverage.
University of Kentucky
 Zhao Qingge, preface to The Legend of White Snake. Tr. Paul White. Chinese-English bilingual version (Beijing: New World Press, 1998), unpaginated.