Pop Culture for a New Generation

On The Street — By on June 8, 2011 9:18 am

Chinese youth see historical communist merchandise as a cool trend instead of a politicized statement. Photo by Andrea Zarate

By Andrea Zarate
For ChinaInFocus

In a shop on the trendy Yan Dai Xie Street in central Beijing, two young women sifted through a basket filled with red and gold buttons emblazoned with popular slogans from the Cultural Revolution. “My button says ‘Your Butt is the Power!’” said Xiao Jing, explaining the campy play on an old Communist slogan, “Unity is Power.”

She added: “It’s nostalgic and it’s fun. I think I’ll give it to my boyfriend.”

The shoppers were buying gifts at Local Awareness, a store created three years ago by two Beijing Film Academy graduates. More shops are following in their footsteps and are beginning to cater to what Americans would recognize as a fifties-style nostalgia but in China it’s for the Cultural Revolution.

While the trend is popularizing most reproductions of historical objects such as tin mugs, propaganda posters, and Mao Zedong’s famous Little Red Book, the turbulence many older Chinese felt during that time goes unacknowledged. Instead, youths enjoy referring back to a time when, to them, people enjoyed simpler and less stressful lives.

“Our youth doesn’t know about that history well,” said Chen Ying, an instructor of sociology at China Normal University. “Still, they’ve been influenced by it indirectly.” And people born during the 1980s tend to idealize the past. Chen added, “the memorabilia serves personal purposes such as for fashion. It is cool but not political.”

That sentiment was echoed in conversations with younger Chinese shopping in the vicinity of Yan Dai Xie Street.

“It’s for fun and nothing more,” said Xie Chuang, a young man in his late 20s. He sat in front of the store sporting a revolutionary cap. “My hat is special and unique…Those born in the 1980s feel a sense of nostalgia.”

Tin mugs and T-shirts that say, “We want rice,” gently mock the hard times many Chinese endured during the early years of the communist experiment after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Still, shoppers and others said there is no disrespect involved.

Guo Jing, a university student serving as an interpreter for ChinaInFocus, recalled, “My auntie had to leave school [during the Cultural Revolution] to go to the countryside. She worked very hard for three years during the Cultural Revolution.”

To Guo, the trend represents an acknowledgment of the positive aspects of the idealized past. “Before, T-shirts with flowers [and] celebrities were popular,” Guo said. “Now, Mao is more unique, more cool, and it shows you love your country.”

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