Yunxiang Yan: Why China's young are selfish and proud

From a speech given at the LSE by the University of California anthropology professor

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During the 1950s, the Chinese state launched land reform and the collectivisation campaign, effectively ending family ownership of land. The 1950 Marriage Law enabled women and men to choose partners and stopped parents extracting money from the marriage of their children.

During the 1950s, the Chinese state launched land reform and the collectivisation campaign, effectively ending family ownership of land. The 1950 Marriage Law enabled women and men to choose partners and stopped parents extracting money from the marriage of their children.

The state mobilised rural youth to fight against patriarchal power and male dominance. The purpose of these ideological campaigns from the 1950s to the 1970s was to promote collectivism and to shift the loyalty of individual villagers from the family to the collectives and, ultimately, to the socialist state.

However, at the same time the Communist state also viewed Western individualism as the ideological enemy of socialist collectivism. Capitalising on the negative image of self-interest in traditional Chinese culture, it rather successfully redefined individualism as a corrupt value of the dying capitalist culture that is characterised by selfishness, lack of concern for others, aversion to group discipline and runaway hedonism.

But the evil image of individualism was suddenly turned on its head during the post-Mao reform era of the 1980s, because it was rediscovered to be one of the engines of modernisation in the West, stimulating individual incentives and economic growth. Yet there has been no serious effort to explore what individualism actually is and how it works in Western culture.

Evidence from rural north China reveals an intriguing trend: while village youth enjoy autonomy and independence in almost every aspect of life, including free choice in marriage, the standard size of "bridewealth", the marriage dowry, has increased more than 10 times since the 1980s. More importantly, it is now the bride, not her parents, who receives the bridewealth, and it is the bride and the groom who work together to bargain for the highest possible amount of bridewealth from the groom's parents, often pushing the parents deep into debt.

An interpretation of individualism as "selfishness" provides us with the key to a better understanding of why young Chinese villagers feel entitled to extract money from their parents yet can still be proud of themselves as being individualistic and modern. Their behaviour reflects the way that individualism has always been understood by political leaders and cultural élites in China.

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