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Linglei, The Other Species: Hybridized Constructions of Alternative Youth Subcultures in China

Linglei, The Other Species: Hybridized Constructions of Alternative Youth Subcultures in China

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Published by David Drissel
This chapter traces the development of Western-influenced youth subcultures in China, focusing on the hybridized reframing of linglei (“alternative lifestyle”). In the traditional vernacular of Chinese society, linglei refers to “the other species” or “the other kind” whose behavior deviates substantially from the norm. However, the term linglei has been used with increasing frequency in Chinese popular culture over the past several years, which has dramatically modified its meaning in everyday discourse. Indeed, a growing number of “hip” Chinese young people proudly identify as linglei, thus seeking to reframe the concept as a “new culture of cool.” Drawing on ethnographic interviews and observations conducted by the author in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities, the chapter analyzes the innovative discourse of young people involved in the negotiation and reconstruction of the Chinese “other.” The subjective symbolic meanings that Chinese youth attach to linglei and related subcultural terms such yaogun yinue (“rock music”), xin xin renlei (“new new human beings”), and pengke (“punk”), are explored. The chapter examines research questions such as the following: What is the symbolic meaning of linglei and related subcultural terms to teens and young adults in contemporary China? How have Chinese music, literature, films, and other facets of popular culture influenced the evolution and reframing of linglei? Why do some Chinese young people have a favorable impression of linglei, while others react with suspicion or distain towards this “alternative lifestyle”?
This chapter traces the development of Western-influenced youth subcultures in China, focusing on the hybridized reframing of linglei (“alternative lifestyle”). In the traditional vernacular of Chinese society, linglei refers to “the other species” or “the other kind” whose behavior deviates substantially from the norm. However, the term linglei has been used with increasing frequency in Chinese popular culture over the past several years, which has dramatically modified its meaning in everyday discourse. Indeed, a growing number of “hip” Chinese young people proudly identify as linglei, thus seeking to reframe the concept as a “new culture of cool.” Drawing on ethnographic interviews and observations conducted by the author in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities, the chapter analyzes the innovative discourse of young people involved in the negotiation and reconstruction of the Chinese “other.” The subjective symbolic meanings that Chinese youth attach to linglei and related subcultural terms such yaogun yinue (“rock music”), xin xin renlei (“new new human beings”), and pengke (“punk”), are explored. The chapter examines research questions such as the following: What is the symbolic meaning of linglei and related subcultural terms to teens and young adults in contemporary China? How have Chinese music, literature, films, and other facets of popular culture influenced the evolution and reframing of linglei? Why do some Chinese young people have a favorable impression of linglei, while others react with suspicion or distain towards this “alternative lifestyle”?

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Published by: David Drissel on Mar 19, 2013
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03/19/2013

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C
HAPTER 
E
LEVEN
 L
INGLEI
,
THE
O
THER 
S
PECIES
:
 
H
YBRIDIZED
C
ONSTRUCTIONS OF
A
LTERNATIVE
Y
OUTH
S
UBCULTURES IN
C
HINA
 D
AVID
D
RISSEL
 
Introduction
In the traditional vernacular of Chinese society,
linglei
refers to “the other species” or “the other kind” whose behavior deviates substantially from the norm (Wang 2008,Fei 2010). As recently as the 1990s,
linglei
was mostly a pejorative and exclusionary term, often usedinterchangeably with the older concept of 
liumang 
 (“hooligan culture”). As Geremie Barme (1992) observes,
 Liuman
is a word with some of the most negativeconnotations in the Chinese language” (28). Xuelin Zhou(2007a) explains that the concept of 
linglei
originallycarried the “negative connotations of a ‘disreputablehooligan’” (59). In popular usage,
linglei
 —like
liumang 
  before it—was frequently used as a handy catchall phrasefor “fringe elements” (
bianyuan renwu
) in society,including juvenile delinquents, high school dropouts, thechronically unemployed, frustrated artists and poets, sexuallibertines, and political dissidents.
 
The vast majority of theChinese populace apparently viewed anyone labeled
linglei
with deep suspicion and distain.However, the term
linglei
has been used withincreasing frequency in Chinese popular culture over the past several years, which has dramatically modified its
 
Chapter Eleven2
meaning in everyday discourse. Indeed, a growing number of “hip” Chinese young people proudly identify as
linglei
(Branigan 2004, Tang 2009), thus seeking to reframe theconcept as a “new culture of cool” (Yu 2006). Reflectingsuch developments, the authoritative
 Xinhua New World  Dictionary
for the first time in 2004 referred to
linglei
simply as an “alternative lifestyle,” thus removing the mostovert disapproving references. Other Chinese dictionarieshave since followed suit, describing
linglei
with relativelyneutral terms such as “offbeat,” “alternative,” “avant-garde,” “weird,” and “unconventional.”
1
In Chinese popular culture, recently revised meanings of 
linglei
include “nonconformist,” “original,” and “unique” (Zhang2006, 6). Nonetheless, many domestic defenders of traditionalChinese norms and values have continued to criticize theconcept of 
linglei
, alleging that Western observers areseriously mischaracterizing the collective identities of Chinese youth. For instance, a
China Daily
editorial (April3, 2004) entitled, “Labels are for Jars, not People,” claimsthat the existence of 
linglei
and other “unconventionallifestyles” in China have been hyped and distorted by“biased foreign media” reports. “No group of young people in China can be characterized with a label,” theeditorial asserts. Though the Chinese government has notofficially condemned
linglei
youth, state censors haveroutinely banned related novels and films (Yang 2011).The globalization of market forces has engenderednew value contradictions and a heightened potential for “hierarchic self-interest” among young people intransitional societies (Hagan et al. 1998) such as China.Similar to post-communist states in Eastern and CentralEurope, China has undergone a fundamental systemictransition from a highly centralized economy to one that is based primarily on market precepts and individualresponsibility—though without any commensurate political
1
See
 Hanyu Pinyin Dictionary
at http://hktv.cc/cd/hanyupinyin/?q=linglei
 
Linglei, the Other Species3
reforms. Indeed, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist beliefs andsymbols are still invoked on occasion by communistauthorities striving to maintain their political legitimacy.Such inherent ideological contradictions apparently havehad an anomic impact upon Chinese youth, thus weakeningtraditional values such as communalism, altruism, and self-sacrifice, while fueling the adoption and diffusion of subterranean values such as egocentrism, narcissism,hedonism, and risk-taking (Drissel 2006).Even so, the phenomenon of 
linglei
is not simply ahomogeneous, passive reflection of Western-styleglobalization. Rather,
linglei
and other new or revisedcollective identities have effectively combined thenonconformist demeanor and style of various Westernyouth subcultures (e.g., hippies, punks, alternative rockers,metal heads, goths, hip-hoppers, ravers, and club kids) withChinese cultural characteristics. Accordingly, this chapter  portrays the reframing of 
linglei
as the result of syncretisticcross-cultural interactions on the global stage. Thoughmimicking the latest pop culture trends from the West hascertainly been a factor in the growing popularity of 
linglei,
 Chinese youths have been active participants in thehybridization of various multinational/multicultural frames.In effect,
 glocalization
 —synthesizing the global with thelocal—has had a major impact on the individual andcollective identities of youth in contemporary China.This chapter traces the development of Western-influenced youth subcultures (
qingnian ya wenhua
) inChina, focusing on the hybridized reframing of 
linglei
.Drawing on ethnographic interviews and observations that Iconducted in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities, thechapter analyzes the innovative discourse of young peopleinvolved in the negotiation and reconstruction of theChinese “other.” The subjective symbolic meanings thatChinese youth attach to
linglei
and
 
related subculturalterms such
 yaogun yinue
(“rock music”),
 xin xin renlei
(“new new human beings”), and
 pengke
(“punk”), areexplored. The chapter examines research questions such as

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