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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16

Model Martyrs and Millionaires
Young people these days are seeking inspiration not just from Bill Gates, but from some surprising heroes of an older generation
By YU SHAOWEN

Anyone who lived through the cultural revolution is familiar with the line: "The power of role models is unlimited." The slogan remains relevant, as young people continue to seek inspiration from others. The heroes of today's youth, however, are vastly different from those of their predecessors.

Twenty years ago, our teachers told us to admire members of the People's Liberation Army or communist-era do-gooders like Lei Feng, Dong Cunrui and Huang Jiguang. Foreign exemplars of patriotism (mostly from the Soviet Union) were imported as well, like Pavel Korqagin, the protagonist of Nikolai Ostrovsky's novel The Making of a Hero. But since the current era is one of relative peace and economic expansion, military heroes have become less relevant to our lives. As role models, they have faded into a blur.

In the wake of Deng Xiao-ping's reforms, China has produced two generations of young people. The majority of youth in the 1980s chose as role models scientists and men of letters. Young people in the 1990s tended instead to idolize entrepreneurs and financial magnates. The choices, of course, were heavily influenced by the broader social context and cultural atmosphere of the time. Little wonder, then, that Goldbach Conjecture, a novel about the life story of mathematician Chen Jingrun, was the most widely read book of the 1980s, while The Road Ahead, by Bill Gates, topped bestseller lists the following decade.

But youth everywhere also like to contradict conventional wisdom. True, the great wealth of people like Gates and, more recently, David Filo and Jerry Yang, the co-founders of Yahoo, continues to inspire many. But, surprise, the old revolutionaries that had been buried in the deepest recesses of our memories have also been resurrected as fashionable role models for the new generation. The very same Pavel Korqagin, a familiar name to every Chinese person over the age of 30, has made a comeback. During the past few years, a succession of theatrical productions—from the stage play Pavel Korqagin to the film The Making of a Hero to the daytime soap opera of the same title—has created a sensation in the popular media and among young people.

There is a world of difference between the faddish passions of youngsters today and the beliefs of people like me, who once held our heroes to be sacred. In these peaceful times, the word "hero" seems to have a new meaning. Last April, following the debut of the soap opera The Making of a Hero, the Beijing Youth Daily hosted an open discussion on the topic "Bill Gates and Pavel Korqagin: Who is the hero?" During the month-long debate, the newspaper published numerous articles revealing highly polarized views, particularly among youth. Materially, China's young obviously desire the commercial success represented by someone like Gates. Spiritually, however, they appear to be far from content with wealth alone. The revival of revolutionary romanticists like Korqagin caters to a need to fill this moral blank. Thus the contradiction starts to make sense. Chinese youth are fortunate to live in a relatively simple and peaceful environment. Under different circumstances, however, this tension between desires could put their willpower to a great test.

Yu Shaowen, reporter for the Beijing Youth Daily, is the author of a collection of essays called Personal Comments on Culture

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

tech ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: TECHNOLOGY
Generation Yellow: An Internet entrepreneur says the Web is uniting far-flung youth into an innovative community

Finding Jobs Online: Looking for work in all the right places

Love Is in the Web: Our reporter logs on to find Mr. Right

Role Models: Kids don't look up only to Bill Gates

Coming Home: Western-educated young scientists are lured back to the motherland


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