I do a bit of teaching here in Shanghai, and during a recent class a student asked whether she could tell a story to the group to hear people’s thoughts and reactions to it.
The student had seen a couple of Americans at the post office, trying to mail what looked like a large sculpture of Chairman Mao. On closer inspection she noticed that it was in fact a stool. The student's question to the class was whether her reaction to seeing the stool was strange - she had thought it somehow inappropriate and disrespectful that the great leader's image was being used in this way. She mentioned that the workers in the post office had found it equally disrespectful, while the American’s did not seem to notice.
The reaction in class was mixed (some were offended, others found it amusing, most didn’t care), but almost immediately came back to the conclusion that the real problem was that the younger generations - “the 80s children” as one older chap characterised it - had no sense of history. But wait, said the student who had first asked the question, “I am an 80s child!”
This highlighted an interesting contradiction that is often skipped over when talking about the next generation in China: that younger Chinese are thought to have no sense of either history or knowledge. In reality, they are often amongst the most aggressive defenders of a deep sense of Chinese nationhood. The generation gap in terms of who remembers what and how strongly they feel about it seems sometimes to be reversed here.
Of course this is not a perfect social experiment: no one was able to satisfactorily answer whether they would have reacted in the same way if it was a Chinese person who was mailing the stool. But before moving on to something else, I pried a bit more into the student's feelings about this - specifically about whether she would have been as offended if it had been a sculpture of Hu Jintao’s head. She seemed unsure, and the rest of the class was simply amused.
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