Anthropologist Xiang Biao on China’s Involuted Generation
Sixth Tone is publishing interviews with the judges of its China Writing Contest, in which they share their personal takes on the contest’s theme of “generations” and the value of nonfiction writing. To learn more about the contest, click here.
Xiang Biao is one of contemporary China’s most influential anthropologists. Currently the director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, he made his name conducting fieldwork among Beijing’s migrant population while still an undergraduate at Peking University. In the years since, his analyses of all aspects of Chinese life and society — with a special interest in the “involution” faced by young people or shifting patterns of life in the digital era — have been widely read by both academics and popular audiences alike.
Born in 1972, Xiang grew up in a period of transition. The Cultural Revolution ended when he was just four years old; by the time he entered university, the intellectual ferment of the 1980s — sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Enlightenment” — was giving way to the market-centric 1990s. Xiang sees himself as having grown up squarely in a generation that avoided both the historical drama of the Mao years and the cutthroat competition of today’s increasingly involuted society. His upbringing was defined by constant material changes and bountiful opportunities, but also social upheaval and dislocation.
In an interview conducted over Zoom from his office in Germany, where he heads the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Xiang shared his observations on the divides that define China’s various generations, including his own, as well as the potential of nonfiction writing to bridge those divides.
“I have to reflect on my own unconscious bias all the time,” Xiang told Sixth Tone. “I am middle-class, educated, with a stable job, but many people in my generation are younger rural-urban migrants. And they have difficulty narrating their life experiences.”
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: How would you describe your own generation?
Xiang Biao: We are a generation that probably has a more or less simplistic view of life, partly because, compared to our parents, we had a secure childhood. We largely did not suffer from starvation or severe malnutrition. And we were able to complete formal education without much disruption.
Another important characteristic is that we witnessed the rise of entrepreneurship, and rather unexpectedly, of upward mobility, which is now getting harder again for the younger generation.
Sixth Tone: Specifically, what kind of changes do you think took place between your generation and the next?
Xiang Biao: I envy them in the sense that they have had much wider exposure to the world through the internet. I sent my first ever email message in 1996. And I was one of the very lucky ones because I was at Peking University. The younger generations are digital natives.
But like I said, they also face the challenge of scarcer opportunities for upward mobility. People say, “Oh, this young generation now, they all rely on their parents and family so much.” That’s true simply because they have no choice. Today, competition is so severe that you have to use all you have to get ahead, whether it’s your parents, personal contacts, etc.
The third difference is that, because (the younger generations) are wrapped up in social media sentiments, sometimes I think they appear excessively sensitive. This is probably the biased view of a middle-aged man, but life means getting your hands dirty. It means trial and error. It means if you are hurt, get up and try to move on. Sitting around in contemplation is good for you only if you do it right, analytically, almost like doing research.
I hope that they become more resilient, more practical, and more daring. Do not just be preoccupied with building an urban middle-class lifestyle and creating a little happy bubble for yourself in an ocean of dramatic change. It’s impossible anyway.
Sixth Tone: What interests you most about the experiences of young Chinese?
Xiang Biao: Probably the biggest question is about their agency. They are very resourceful, ambitious, and they are not just going to follow in other people’s footsteps. They may do so for utilitarian purposes, but deep in their hearts, as I’ve said, they have a very strong sense of self, sometimes excessively strong. And yet, you do not see many grounded actions or carefully thought-through plans for bringing about change from them.
It can’t be all about making money by making more things, which frankly is not very interesting anymore.
Sixth Tone: How will the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’s impact be felt across generations?
Xiang Biao: Predictions are very hard, though necessary. The short answer is, we don’t know yet. I think the pandemic could inspire discussions about public health, about the ways we live together, as a society. The current system tracks every movement you make, but is that a good thing or a bad thing? If we can’t have productive dialogues about questions like this, I’m afraid the outcome will be quite negative.
Ultimately, every generation is affected by the question of mortality, and we can probably benefit from cross-generational dialogues on this subject, though they are very much lacking in China. People seem to think poor intergenerational communication is natural.
Sixth Tone: Why do you think that is?
Xiang Biao: My foreign friends were very surprised to learn that Chinese parents do not want to tell their children what they have gone through. Many people in my generation are migrants. They never had a stable job. You got up early in the morning, you went to a square, waiting for someone to come ask you to repair the air conditioner for the day.
Not to mention the millions of people working in factories. There is very little cross-generational sharing. Apart from a sense of inferiority, even shame, it may also be hard for them just to find the right language for details.
Details matter. “Mom and Dad worked in Beijing for three years as migrant workers” just won’t do. What did they eat in the dormitory? What did they do when they missed the last bus because their work didn’t wrap up until 10 p.m.? If you omit these important details, children cannot really empathize with how you see the world, your insecurities, your warnings about trusting someone else, or why you are pressuring them to start a family. That gap in the narrative is keeping the younger generation from looking at life in more realistic ways.
And this is where I think nonfiction writing could come in: This is just my personal opinion, but consider writing your story together with your parents or children. Make it a collaborative project across generations.
Sixth Tone: In that spirit, what kind of stories do you hope to see in the contest?
Xiang Biao: As a researcher, I’d like them to be informative. Feelings and personal sentiments are very important, sure, but you need to be mindful of their relations with reality, experiences, and practices. Then carefully situate the personal into the larger picture.
Again, this is just my personal opinion, but I don’t like stories to be overly dramatic. There is a tendency, I suppose, in both Chinese and English writing, that is, to put those very individual feelings front and center. It caters to a kind of common urban middle-class sentimentality. You see the suffering, and you empathize.
This is common in the West too. Stories out of Afghanistan over the last 20 years are all about women, girls, etc. They draw on empathy. Very few asked about agrarian relations, how the water is distributed, how the harvest is organized. I mean, women and girls are human beings. They need water. They need food. They raise chickens. How are these things organized? Not interested.
But that’s real life. Ninety-nine percent of life is quite boring, but the boring things constitute the basic structures that give rise to true inequality. And that’s the battlefield.
For nonfiction writers and researchers, it is really about looking at the more routine aspects of life and their long-term effects, rather than making headlines in the newspaper. The tendency to condense life into social media headlines and buzzwords could have very negative impacts on critical thinking, on how we see extraordinary things through ordinary phenomena, to hear music where nothing seems to be playing. Be subtle. Be serious. Be deep. Be committed. That is the art.
Sixth Tone: So what’s your advice on how to approach this art form?
Xiang Biao: I’m not a good writer in general. So I guess this is a very daring suggestion, and only for people who find anthropological writing appealing: You could decenter individual stories a bit, and instead highlight a certain issue.
This brings me back to a great “left-wing” tradition in Chinese literature from the 1930s, which later reemerged in a big way in the 1980s: the tradition of reportage literature, or baogao wenxue. In place of entire individual stories, what you’d have are lots of scenes about a group. Each scene tells you something, and eventually produces a comprehensive narrative. This may seem very heavy, but why not give it a go?
So, at the risk of going too far, I’d say, why not experiment with speaking to the real-life concerns of the reading public directly? Why do we have to hook them first with the individual and the shocking?
Interviewers: Cai Yiwen and Xie Anran; transcription: Li Yijuan; editors: Zhi Yu and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: James Boast/Ikon Images/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)