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From the Chinese TV reality show “Where Are We Going, Dad?” to TFBOYS (The Fighting Boys, a Chinese boy band which gained immense popularity following their debut in 2013), our cultural space was momentarily flooded by post-millenniums (those born after 2000) and even post-2010 pop idols.
This June, a message on Weibo by TFBOYS set a Guinness World Record for 40 million reposts. In July, fans of TFBOYS and the Chinese-Korean boy band, EXO, got into fights on social media, which set off the “schoolyard brawl of the century” and blew up the entire Internet. In September, a certain multimedia App organized the “World Championship of Makeup for Elementary School Students” and more than 4,000 elementary school students from all over China took part in this huge event.
In thousands of video clips, elementary school contestants take up their online-bought “RMB$ 5 pressed powder” and “RMB$ 3.5 brow pencils,” applying makeup and simultaneously explaining their personal road to beauty. The technicalities involved, for example what kind of waterproof eyeliner to use, applying toothpaste as BB cream and even using a kitchen knife to trim your eyebrows, startled many Internet users.
Recently, nine-year-old poet Tie Tou (Iron Head) became a hit for his poem “Love.” Lines like, “There is no love between me and my mother, I only like her milk” and “There is love between me and my qiang (gun)/I am familiar with it/ I’ve touched every spot of its body,” became controversial issues.
Every time one of these naive, fresh-faced children draw an eyebrow, gets into a “catfight” or strokes their “gun,” bystanders will sigh, “Why do all kids these days mature so soon? Where did those pure and innocent childhood years go?”
Young pop stars: from being corny to becoming chicken soup for the soul
Every time we talk about our youth, we tend to regard it as something transcending history and culture, seemingly the same everywhere: holy, naïve and innocent. However, we are forgetting that these so called “childhood years” and “youth” are, in essence, post-industrialization concepts.
During the end of the 19th and begin of the 20th century, concepts like “children are priceless” and “long live the youth” became the universal notion for progress of civilization, completely replacing the idea of children as the labor force of family or society.
Along with the dissemination of Education for All (EFA), eugenics and birth control methods, the emotional values of urban youths greatly surpassed their values as a part of the labor force. When discussing youth, it also entails our own fear of the present moment, our regrets of the past and our hopes for the future.
But the so-called “youth culture” today is created by a group of adults in the entertainment industry, a series of merchandise for the young consumer. In reality, the shape or formation of this youth culture reflects how current society is molding and shaping teenagers.
If we say the generation of 20 and 30-year-old idols live in the writings and shadows of distress, revolt, pain and streams of people, then this new generation of teenage pop stars is inundated with success, a paragon of dream peddlers. Boy band, TFBOYS, founded by three fresh-faced boys born around the year 2000, gained popularity rapidly in 2014 and is known to every single elementary and middle school student.
In contrast to child stars of the past, who were made famous within the entertainment industry, TFBOYS adopts a “growing-up model” to attract countless “fan girls,” as well as “fan moms” (fans born in the 80s and 90s).
This “growing-up model” is a way for fans to grow up alongside their idols.
Well, for example, through WeChat Public Platform (the communication service, WeChat, supports users to register public accounts for pushing feeds and to interact with subscribers). Fans will receive daily voice messages from their idols, telling them where they have been, what they have eaten and the people they have met. Through this model, TFBOYS are presented as a group of naïve, pure, unpolished and mature boys. The theme of their debut promotion film, “Ten Years,” was, as you would expect, “dreams and persistence.” The storyline portrayed a mother unable to fulfill her dreams when she was young and a young child that had just started to think about how to realize his own dreams.
So, TFBOYS made a ten-year pact with their fans: we will hold on to our dreams for 10 years, after ten years, we will see whether or not our dreams have com true and what happened to your dreams.
In their music video, the scene of Wang Yuan (a member of TFBOYS) stretching strenuously has been reused multiple times as a way of telling young people to never give up. On this ten-year trip, entertainment companies will continuously make you look at photographs of TFBOYS doing homework, they will let you listen to the entire development of every single song and will bookmark their annual change in looks and height. Whether you are a sister or mother, the vast amount of pictures will make you feel like you’re raising a cute and intelligent little brother.
In this new generation, pop stars have become props for selling dreams. But dreams have been simplified to those must-have products in TV commercials. TFBOYS therefore only needs to show nonstop how they invest hard work and sweat, and fans can fill themselves with ambition from their dreamy, hopeful smiles.
“TFBOYS Pop Star Notebook,” “TF Youngsters GO” and similar Internet shows enable fans to feel as if they are taking part in the creation of the “dream” and witnessing the boys growing up. But a fan base formed in this manner is often also more loyal and more fanatical. The four-leaf clovers (the nickname for fans of TFBOYS) will follow their idols all the way, taking the shortcut to their dreams -on the road of “persistence.” Facing a generation that reads Mary Sue novels, listens to TFBOYS, watches the Pleasant Goat and Mango TV (the nickname for Hunan TV), it is not difficult to see why recently these little kids, who haven’t yet shed all their baby teeth, have easily become young grown-up Internet sensations.
Rather dead than lazy: childhood in a generation of neoliberalism
Teenagers and grown-ups do not live in two mutually exclusive worlds. On the contrary, their worlds are completely intertwined.
Nowadays, videos, songs and the Internet have become the world’s largest school, offering innumerable amounts of study materials and ways of life for young people. Makeup, catfights, “material desire above all else,” constantly fighting, all these essential skills in today’s society, are learned and absorbed by children quickly. You might think of this as corrupting and even ruining childhood. Is your hope that when your children reach 18, they will learn all these life lessons overnight? You may want that, but your kids might not.
In fact, these elementary and middle school students simply use exaggerations to imitate “adults.” In their days of innocence and honesty, they have already seen everything, understanding clearly this is a time where looks equal righteousness and money equals truth.
If you don’t let them go online, they will see on TV that life means our every desire must be satisfied by consuming the products we see on television; if you don’t let them watch TV, they will hear in songs that the most important meaning of life and satisfaction comes from the entanglement of love and hate between you and someone else; if you don’t let them listen to music, they will know by reading novels and Manga, that society’s power and prestige are only in the possession of a select few heroes, and by working hard to obtain certain qualities, one can become a hero.
Even if you cut them off from every media source, they will learn in school that you have to avoid the fate of the bricklayer (meaning any kind of manual labor). Besides studying hard, doing your homework, cramming vocabulary, you most importantly have to learn self-management and how to plan for the future constantly, fully capitalizing on and complying with the modern logic of “profit is more important than anything else.”
If the children’s mimicking really frightens us, we should perhaps look back and ask ourselves whether or not it is our own “adult” world that’s too scary?
Nowadays, when every part of our life depends on “marketization,” people’s “identity” and “values” are all subjected to the laws of the market system. Suzhi (literally translated as, essential quality) has become the keyword in this epoch of neoliberalism: it is a device to estimate people’s market value. If you’re able to talk your way into a high-paying job or simply hire people to help you make money, your suzhi is high. If you’re poor, excuse me, who told you that your suzhi is low? As the demand for suzhi rose, “suzhi education” became the commercial catchphrase for enhancing the inner qualities and realizing a glorious future for the children.
Frankly speaking, suzhi education is merely a commercialized education of tests and assessments, but with some additional subjects. For a child’s English to become better you have to be a “memorization star,” and a “study literate.” You need to “rise step by step” and “ignite your interest to learn what you have not yet mastered.” (These are all phrases used in advertisements by Chinese suppliers of electronic learning products.)
If your child wants good grades, he needs to go to gold, platinum and titanium VIP cram schools. Not just to learn piano, art, writing, speech and eloquence, but even losing weight, growing taller, maintaining beautiful white skin, all start from childhood. You would almost wish there was a cram school for learning to walk and breathe! If you don’t go to cram school, you already lost at the starting line. Even Wang Fei’s little daughter, Li Yan, regards this as a universal truth. “There is no such thing as ugly women, only lazy ones.”
This nine-year-old girl is quite knowledgeable. “Nowadays, to become the person you want to be, it means buying the ‘right’ product; the appropriate clothes, a certain type of makeup, the best angle to look at yourself in the mirror, bigger breasts, a small face and white skin are crucial. Even TFBOYS will tell you only leather shoes and a suit will fit your ‘one-carat dream.’”
So everything concerning life habits and cultural characteristics of social classes are neatly packaged within the two characters in the phrase, Suzhi. This word has become our tool to rationalize injustice, the objective of our efforts and the direction of our struggles. But our idols tell us, your dreams will only come true if you possess these qualities.
Certainly, everyone should be able to become the person they want to become. But the problem is that the market principle of maximum profit limits the possibilities of a child’s future.
If you want to become Angelababy, then it is a dream; if you want to become Din Ling (a contemporary Chinese author and social activist) than you’re dreaming.
In a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening, different children will pay a different price in order to fulfill their dreams. TFBOYS will tell you that through persistence you can achieve your goal, but they do not tell you another shortcut to realizing your dream (or any material desire) besides persistence, such as a rich daddy or godfather.
When 16.7% of Chinese children live below the poverty line, when the road to your dreams inevitably winds through a huge amount of “indispensable” products and services, then kids can only crawl forward under the guidance of the science to success and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. Even if we have no way of succeeding after ten years, TFBOYS will comfort us, “At least you’re ten years closer to your dreams.”
TFBOYS and these “mature” childhoods are all ideals created by the epoch of neoliberalism. They’re the epitomes of the adult world and an important constituent of our marketized life. Under the pressure of personal success and market competition, children have no choice but to quickly master the rules of living in the adult world, to cross the starting line as soon as possible, to keep striving and fighting, slowly marching towards the “no pain, no gain” peaks of life.
However, TFBOYS with their pretty boy jackets draped over their shoulders bear the responsibilities to instill illusion and hope in our children; to help cure the wounds made by market competition; to make you buy TFBOYS products in order to fulfill dreams together. In the end, teenagers can only walk further and further down this “rather-dead-than-lazy” road of adulthood.
Translated by Stijn Wijker
Edited by Olivia Yang