Zoey Zhang
Zoey Zhang
"Young people living in Chinese metropolises are too busy to have much of a love or social life. Some won’t have a chance to meet their Mr. or Mrs. Right."

Zoey Zhang


You write a lot about China’s generation gap. One theme you’ve covered is marriage. Do you think it’s becoming more difficult these days for young Chinese to find a suitable partner and get married than in the past? How so?

In the old days, the Communist Party used to play the role of a marriage matchmaker for almost everyone. Definitely that would be easier, wouldn’t it? Many parents are still sticking to the old model from their generation in which a couple should be introduced by a matchmaker and now they have to take over the job themselves.

On the other hand, it is also true that young people living in Chinese metropolises are too busy to have much of a love or social life. Some of them won’t have a chance to meet their Mr. or Mrs. Right – especially members of the “ant tribes” (low-income inner city workers sharing cramped flats who are overloaded with the burdens of work and life).

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How strong is the pressure to get a good job and buy an apartment for young Chinese? And are these expectations reasonable with the average salaries of young workers?

During my recent trip to Jiayuguan, a really remote city in the Gobi Desert of China’s northwestern Gansu province, I found something really different from what I’ve seen in big cities. There, the young people prefer to save rather than spend money because they can get one square meter of apartment with one month’s salary. They can soon own an apartment with their own savings.

Some of the well-educated and thoughtful people I met in Jiayuguan are actually returnees from Shanghai or Beijing. They told me they found they’re much happier living in their hometowns with fresher air, healthier food and more disposable income. They’ve chosen this lifestyle rather than continue drifting in big cities where maybe 10 times an average monthly salary is still not enough to afford a square meter. This is why big city residents would rather spend their money on luxury handbags, trying to find happiness in them. Most of them take it for granted that preparing an apartment for marriage is their parents’ business.

Do you think Chinese youth are becoming more self-absorbed? With the increased lifestyle and career options, would you say your generation is happier or less happy than your parents’?

Each generation has its own pleasures and pains. The elder generation enjoyed a better natural environment, closer relations with their siblings and neighbors, and less pressure from competition. But they had far fewer opportunities to think about themselves. They were too used to group thinking when they were young and later they placed all their hopes on their only children, trying to make amends for what they missed.

Of course, the only-child generation of young Chinese gained a lot more in material terms, but the pressures increased as well. For those who have come of age as members of the “Sandwich Generation” (Chinese in their 30s who are now caring for both their parents and children), they have no siblings to share the burden of taking care of their parents. In this way, they are quite unlike the older generation.

A few months ago there were reports about the “Elderly Rights Law”, meant to ensure youth visit their parents. Are young Chinese as careless towards their elders as some media reports suggest? Or, does China’s younger generation still maintain some level of traditional respect for elders.

I’m afraid it is true they don’t pay enough attention to their elders, but not because of a lack of respect but as a result of the one-child policy and insufficient time. I heard news saying some young couples have chosen to divorce after arguing about whose parents to visit during Chinese New Year.

When many were not thrilled by the Elderly Rights Law, they took to the internet to air their feelings. Do you think social media – in particular Weibo – could give Chinese youth a voice to have greater say in the country’s future?

Yes, I do. One example can be seen in the increasingly frequent NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) movements organized by young Chinese. Some of these have been successful in getting official responses in China.

Alongside the important role played by social media, you’ve also written about the increase in travel among young Chinese. Do you think as more of China’s youth travel abroad (as seen in the growing popularity of taking a gap year, for example), the nation will become more cosmopolitan and outwardly focused over time?

This is definitely the trend. You can see now the younger generation born in the 21st century is not much different from their peers in other countries. But on the other hand, I’m worried that China is also losing its own culture too rapidly – unlike other Asian countries – and that young Chinese people are not taking enough interest in getting to know our own culture first.

Another topic you’ve written about is China’s urban-rural divide. There seems to be a trend of both youth and the nation’s elderly seeking an escape from the pressures of city life (youth visiting temples, elders forming their own communities in smaller countryside towns). Do you think those living big city lives in China have lost their balance?

Yes, I think so. We hear about more and more people in their 20s and early-30s who die from overwork in big cities. High living costs and property prices as well as the deteriorating environment actually make it neither practical nor worthwhile for city drifters to realize the much touted Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou “Dream.”

I’m particularly interested in this topic because I feel it is a pity that there are actually thousands of beautiful and peaceful rural areas and small cities across the nation with special cultural characteristics that are being ruined. Local governments hope to either convert them into a mini-Shanghai, mini-Beijing or even mini-Paris; or to make them cash cows by attracting tourists with fake ancient buildings.

I hope people begin to see more value in the traces of original culture in such places and try to find a balance between preservation and development.

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