CHAPTER ELEVEN LINGLEI, THE OTHER SPECIES: HYBRIDIZED CONSTRUCTIONS OF ALTERNATIVE YOUTH SUBCULTURES IN CHINA DAVID DRISSEL

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 used interchangeably with the older concept of liumang (“hooligan culture”). As Geremie Barme (1992) observes, “Liumang is a word with some of the most negative connotations in the Chinese language” (28). Xuelin Zhou (2007a) explains that the concept of linglei originally carried the “negative connotations of a ‘disreputable hooligan’” (59). In popular usage, linglei—like liumang before it—was frequently used as a handy catchall phrase for “fringe elements” (bianyuan renwu) in society, including juvenile delinquents, high school dropouts, the chronically unemployed, frustrated artists and poets, sexual libertines, and political dissidents. The vast majority of the Chinese populace apparently viewed anyone labeled linglei with deep suspicion and distain. However, the term linglei has been used with increasing frequency in Chinese popular culture over the past several years, which has dramatically modified its

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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 the concept as a “new culture of cool” (Yu 2006). Reflecting such developments, the authoritative Xinhua New World Dictionary for the first time in 2004 referred to linglei simply as an “alternative lifestyle,” thus removing the most overt disapproving references. Other Chinese dictionaries have since followed suit, describing linglei with relatively neutral terms such as “offbeat,” “alternative,” “avantgarde,” “weird,” and “unconventional.”1 In Chinese popular culture, recently revised meanings of linglei include “nonconformist,” “original,” and “unique” (Zhang 2006, 6). Nonetheless, many domestic defenders of traditional Chinese norms and values have continued to criticize the concept of linglei, alleging that Western observers are seriously mischaracterizing the collective identities of Chinese youth. For instance, a China Daily editorial (April 3, 2004) entitled, “Labels are for Jars, not People,” claims that the existence of linglei and other “unconventional lifestyles” 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,” the editorial asserts. Though the Chinese government has not officially condemned linglei youth, state censors have routinely banned related novels and films (Yang 2011). The globalization of market forces has engendered new value contradictions and a heightened potential for “hierarchic self-interest” among young people in transitional societies (Hagan et al. 1998) such as China. Similar to post-communist states in Eastern and Central Europe, China has undergone a fundamental systemic transition from a highly centralized economy to one that is based primarily on market precepts and individual responsibility—though without any commensurate political
1

See Hanyu Pinyin Dictionary at http://hktv.cc/cd/hanyupinyin/?q=linglei

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reforms. Indeed, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist beliefs and symbols are still invoked on occasion by communist authorities striving to maintain their political legitimacy. Such inherent ideological contradictions apparently have had an anomic impact upon Chinese youth, thus weakening traditional values such as communalism, altruism, and selfsacrifice, 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 a homogeneous, passive reflection of Western-style globalization. Rather, linglei and other new or revised collective identities have effectively combined the nonconformist demeanor and style of various Western youth subcultures (e.g., hippies, punks, alternative rockers, metal heads, goths, hip-hoppers, ravers, and club kids) with Chinese cultural characteristics. Accordingly, this chapter portrays the reframing of linglei as the result of syncretistic cross-cultural interactions on the global stage. Though mimicking the latest pop culture trends from the West has certainly been a factor in the growing popularity of linglei, Chinese youths have been active participants in the hybridization of various multinational/multicultural frames. In effect, glocalization—synthesizing the global with the local—has had a major impact on the individual and collective identities of youth in contemporary China. This chapter traces the development of Westerninfluenced youth subcultures (qingnian ya wenhua) in China, focusing on the hybridized reframing of linglei. Drawing on ethnographic interviews and observations that I conducted 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

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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”? In researching the topic, I engaged in an extensive content analysis of numerous contemporary artifacts of Chinese popular culture, including music CDs, novels, films, and websites. As a result, the chapter features relevant examples of Chinese rock music lyrics, popular literary texts, and comments by notable linglei performers and authors. Traveling around China for five-weeks in June/July 2005 as a member of a Fulbright-Hayes delegation, I conducted relatively brief open-ended semistructured interviews with fifty teens and young adults. I interviewed twenty-seven males and twenty-three females, ranging in age from 14 to 28 years old. My questions focused on whether respondents viewed linglei as a relatively positive or negative descriptor and their reasons for holding such views. Respondents were asked if they had ever used this term to describe themselves or various friends and acquaintances. For those who self-identified as linglei, I inquired as to why they had adopted this particular collective identity. In order to insure confidentiality, I have used pseudonyms for all respondents.

Subcultural Development in China
Youth subcultures are groups of teenagers and young adults sharing certain common cultural features, yet appearing to have values, norms, beliefs, symbols, and attitudes that differ substantially from the larger culture (Bennett 2001). Described as “meaning systems, modes of expression or lifestyles developed by groups in subordinate

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structural positions,” youth subcultures exist in a state of systemic contradiction with the parent culture (Brake 1985, 8). Though subcultural “membership” is mostly informal and ephemeral, adherents tend to express their collective identities by displaying a relatively distinct fashion style, engaging in non-standard leisure activities, participating in underground music scenes, and utilizing esoteric slang. The presumably deviant norms and values of subcultures are transmitted primarily through music, movies, magazines, websites, and other types of popular culture (Hagan 1991). For decades following the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the communist party leadership mandated social and cultural conformity among young people, thereby precluding any visible manifestations of youth subcultures. Dogmatic rigidity and subservience to the official “proletarian” values of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism were the norm, with Western fashion styles and “bourgeois” popular culture stigmatized and officially prohibited. During the Cultural Revolution era (1966-1976), widespread acts of violence and property destruction were committed by radical youths known as Red Guards (hong weibing). However, Chairman Mao Zedong had encouraged such activities in an effort to purge economic reformers from the government. Responding to Mao’s pronouncement that “it is right to rebel,” the Red Guards harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed thousands of people that they labeled “class enemies.” Such “rebellious” youths sought to protect communist orthodoxy and its hegemonic collectivist ethos from Western influences. China’s “reform and opening up” (gaige kaifang) program, launched by Deng Xiaoping and other communist reformers soon after Mao’s death in 1976, inaugurated significant changes in the economy and society. With the advent of liberalized trade and market-oriented policies in agriculture and industry, a new consumer-based economy materialized. Beginning in the early 1980s, non-essential goods such as television sets, stereos, and VCRs, flooded the marketplace in an attempt to satisfy rising consumer

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demand. However, Deng’s “consumer revolution” spurred rising levels of social and economic inequality in the country (Latham 2007). Moreover, his reforms inadvertently shattered many of the barriers to cultural influences coming from abroad, thus facilitating the illicit importation and dissemination of Western films, rock music, and other pop culture commodities. As a result, Western-influenced youth subcultures visibly emerged in China for the first time—a phenomenon denounced yet tentatively tolerated by the regime. By the mid-1980s, a significant number of Chinese young people were performing and consuming their own unique brand of locally produced yaogun yinue (“rock music”). Combining Chinese themes and traditional instrumentation with highly amplified vocals and electric guitar riffs, yaogun was designed to be an eclectic musical hybrid. In effect, rock was recontextualized by Chinese performers, with cultural objects and ideas “borrowed” from the West for the purpose of applying them in a different social context. There was a conscious effort by Chinese musicians to create “rock and roll with Chinese characteristics” (Jones 1992). Chinese rock emanated from a nascent “campus culture” (xiaoyuan wenhua) in Beijing that was opposed to the dominant “system culture” (zhidu wenhua) (Bakken 2000, 332). In particular, yaogun-aficionados largely rejected the state-approved tongsu yinyue (“popularized music”), along with the syrupy love songs and ballads of gangtai (“Canto pop”). They adopted the relatively unusual attire of “rock clothes” (yaogun fuzhuang), which included black leather jackets, silver medallions, and long hair for men. Many yaogun subculturalists exhibited “carefree, hippie-style behavior” (Baronovitch 2003, 40) and became known as “slackers” (hunzi)—opting to spurn not only communist orthodoxy, but also China’s new materialism (Mexico 2009). As a relatively subversive musical genre, yaogun has had a profound impact on Chinese political discourse.

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Most notably, several yaogun musicians directly influenced the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations of the late 1980s. In particular, Ciu Jian, the “godfather” of Chinese rock, performed for demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. His trademark song, “Nothing to My Name,” became an informal anthem for democracy movement protestors, which encouraged notions of individual liberty and freedom of conscience. Paradoxically, Maoist values of communalism, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom were reframed in the song as a sharp critique of the communist system. Many demonstrators cited the song as a source of personal inspiration, which served as a rallying cry for their political mobilization (Tong, 1990).

Chinese Youth in Transition
In the aftermath of the June 1989 military crackdown and massacre at Tiananmen Square, yaogun performers and their youthful fans faced increased repression and harassment by communist authorities. But by the early1990s, officials had decided to lift decades-old media restrictions prohibiting rock music—though official censorship of sexual or political content continued unabated. The authorities evidently had begun to view Western-style pop culture as less of a threat and more of a harmless entertainment medium. As Zha Jianying (1996) has observed, “If political liberties were still sharply curtailed, why not placate the masses with nightlife and other harmless diversions?”(80). Even though the vast majority of Chinese rock musicians disavowed any explicit political agenda in the years following Tiananmen, “cultural opposition” to yayi (“oppression”) became an increasingly common theme in yaogun song lyrics (Jones 1992). In post-Tiananmen China, the widespread diffusion of rock music—in both its Western and yaogun incarnations—

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was fueled in large measure by the importation and sale of surplus CDs on the black market. Such dakou (“cut”) or defective CDs—normally discarded or recycled in the West—were being shipped illegally into China and sold by the millions, beginning in the mid-1990s.2 As one consequence of such trends, new slang expressions entered the Chinese lexicon. Most notably, ku (“cool”) became increasingly popular, though the Chinese meaning was not copied verbatim from Western pop culture. Rather, ku was written as a centuries-old Chinese character whose original meaning was “cruel.” In effect, Western and Chinese frames of “cool” were synthesized by Chinese young people, effectively connoting “a new kind of individualism” clearly at odds with the values and attitudes of their parents’ generation (Moore 2005). An equally important hybridized idiom, xin xin renlei (“new new human beings”), entered the Chinese mainland lexicon via Hong Kong and Taiwan in the late-1990s. The concept was originally based on a transliteration of shinjinrui—the Japanese expression for a “new human type” of young people engaged in conspicuous consumption. In the Chinese context, xin xin renlei became primarily a “Generation X” cohort-group referring to young adults born between 1977 and 1989 (Wang 2005). As the first post-Mao generation, “new new human beings” have experienced the full impact of China’s economic reforms. They completely missed the Cultural Revolution and were too young to participate in the democracy movement of the late-1980s. Most have grown up without siblings, due in large measure to China’s one-child policy, which was first instituted in the late-1970s. Reportedly, such youths have been “spoiled" by their parents, thus being dubbed “Little Emperors” (Lim 2010). The concept of xin xin renlei is often applied more specifically in a subcultural sense to young people perceived to be relatively westernized in outlook and
2

For more on the dakou phenomenon, see de Kloet (2005).

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appearance. In terms of fashion, musical tastes, and overall demeanor, the xin xin renlei cohort is described as relatively distinct from older generations. Moreover, the xin xin renlei label is often associated with a new class of upwardly mobile young adults called xiaozi or “petty bourgeoisie.” Jing Wang (2008) contends that this neoneo-tribe effectively combines a yuppie (young urban professional) standard of living with elements of a bohemian lifestyle. Accordingly, the xin xin renlei subculture has tacitly embraced the new consumerist-ethos of “safe cool,” i.e., a “party going esprit” that is largely apolitical but engaged in “rebellious posturing” (225). As Tung, a 21-year old hotel masseuse told me, xin xin renlei are “fashionable, independent, and open-minded, but not as extreme as some young people who want to be very different from the mainstream,” i.e., linglei youth.

Linglei’s Musical Vanguard
One major pop culture trend that has contributed to the birth of a visible linglei youth subculture is the fragmentation of yaogun into distinct musical subgenres. This first became apparent with the underground liumang yaogun (“hooligan rock”) of the late-1980s, which was relatively brash and sardonic, compared to the more “serious” rock of Ciu Jian (Barme, 1992). Independent Chinese films such as Rock Kids (1989) and Beijing Bastards (1993) helped bring liumang yaogun and related “alternative lifestyles” to the surface (Latham 2007). Indeed, the so-called “bastards” depicted in the aforementioned film include “underground rockers, freelance painters, unemployed youth, private entrepreneurs, and urban hooligans” (Zhou 2007b, 127). Linglei yaogun (“alternative rock”) emerged in the mid-1990s—effectively fusing liumang sentiments with the relatively new Western genre of alternative rock. Chinese

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bands with Western alt-rock sounding names (e.g., the Breathing, Overload, the Dreaming) made their debut at this time. Like its Western namesake, Chinese alt-rock has focused on lyrics of youthful alienation, emotional introspection, and generational discontent with mainstream society. Espousing a nonconformist vision of post-modern angst, the Seattle grunge scene heavily influenced the reframing of linglei in the 1990s. By the middle of the decade, a fairly widespread “cult of personality” devoted to Kurt Cobain—the lead-singer of Nirvana—had arisen amongst Chinese young people. Cobain’s tragic life and suicide were hailed as “heroic” by his devoted Chinese fans (Tannenbaum 1998). Several yaogun bands with strong Nirvana influences were included on the seminal 1996compilation album, Linglei pinpan (“Alternative Compilation”) (Huot 2000). Such albums effectively disseminated the “alternative lifestyle” frame of linglei and related subterranean values into numerous college dormitories, student unions, bars, and various urban spaces populated by young people across the country. By the late-1990s, many linglei youths had begun gravitating to pengke yaogun (“punk rock”) and were assuming a decidedly “punk look” in terms of their appearance. As with alternative rock, a hybridized version of Chinese punk had emerged on the scene, particularly in Beijing. Embracing the anarchist-inflected ethos of DIY (Do It Yourself), new Chinese independent record-labels dedicated to pengke emerged—along with nightclubs featuring riotous bands and tattooed youth sporting spiked hair and leather jackets. The initial social epicenter for pengke was the “Scream Club”—a dingy live-music bar located near Beijing University. When I visited the Scream Club during my first trip to China in July 2000, I witnessed youths dressed in punk attire moshing in the pit and pumping their fists to the hyperkinetic beat of the Beijingbased band, Anarchy Jerks.

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Within a month of my visit, the underground popularity of pengke was bolstered by the release of the first-ever compilation album of Beijing punk entitled “Bored Contingent” (Wuliao Jundui). The CD includes songs by seminal pengke bands such as Anarchy Jerks, Brian Failure, the Reflector, and 69. Paradoxically, many such bands have promulgated iconoclastic imagery and anarchist symbolism in their songs, yet are seemingly apathetic about direct political action. The very name of the compilation, “Bored Contingent,” reflects this dualism. As Anarchy Jerks’ lead singer states, “We have no freedom of speech, so our way to rebel is to not care, and just do what we like to do” (as quoted in Loewenberg 2000). In “Revolution”—one of 69’s most controversial songs—the band compares events that occurred during the Cultural Revolution to the present era. The song’s lyrics (“All we do is have fun, life is too short”) symbolically equate the ideological excesses of the 1960s with the rampant materialism and egocentrism of today’s youth. However, 69’s lead singer explains that the band does not support “any kind of revolution like Chairman Mao—we needn’t kill anyone.” As he notes, “I should call it a ‘head revolution.’ If we change ourselves, we change this country’s future” (as quoted in Tannenbaum, 1998, 72) In effect, there is an unofficial subcultural revolution occurring in China, which emphasizes a strong critique of oppressive “feudal” practices and traditions, while avoiding any direct disparagement of the communist party. However, “feudalism” is actually a metaphorical codeword for any type of repression in China today—including either communist orthodoxy or market-based plutocracy. For instance, the song “China Dream,” by the Wuhan band SMZB (or shengming zhibing, the Cake of Life), includes the following stanza: “The Oriental empire is just like a big tomb. It buries conscience, morality and truth.” Another important influence in the reframing of linglei has been hip-hop music (xiha yinue). By the late-1990s, Western hip-hop had become increasingly prevalent in

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China’s cities, due in large measure to the pervasive availability of dakou CDs (de Kloet 2005). The Chinese term for rap, shuochang, was borrowed from a traditional Chinese word that literally means “narrative.” Since the early-2000s, Chinese shuochang bands have emerged in Shanghai, Beijing, and other major cities. Red Star, for instance, is a Shanghai-based hip-hop trio whose lead singer/rapper, MoJo, claims that he “does it for the music, not the money,” explaining that it is very difficult to secure radio airplay for hop-hop when “saccharine pop music” remains dominant (Trindle 2007). Nonetheless, MoJo contends that a growing number of Chinese youths are hungry for a viable subcultural alternative. “Many young people want to look and dress cool, and hip-hop culture is ideal for that,” he states. “And they strive to be linglei, different” (as quoted in Relsted 2008).

Linglei’s Literary Vanguard
In the literary realm, so-called linglei wenxue (“alternative literature”) has its roots in the liumang (“hooligan”) prose of noted Beijing writer, Wang Shuo. Published mainly in the later half of the 1980s, Wang’s gritty short stories and novels were very popular with young readers—particularly in Beijing. Working as an independent writer without official status, Wang was labeled “socially idle” by the state. His stories often focused on young thugs, slackers, sexual libertines, and other riff-raff (pizi) interacting in the subterranean underbelly of the New China (Barme 1992). Going further with his 1989 novel, No Man’s Land, Wang politically assails “the various evils of both traditional culture and contemporary society” (Barme 1992, 52). In his writings, Wang often emphasizes the inherently contradictory and antagonistic relationship in China between “mainstream

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culture” and the emerging underground subculture (ya wenhua) or counterculture (fan wenhua) (Lu 2001). More recently, linglei writers such as Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby) and Chun Shu (Beijing Doll) have championed an ostensibly de-politicized—yet highly irreverent—form of subcultural prose. Known popularly as “babe writers,” such young women have made a major social impact on Chinese popular culture and provoked intense controversy with their incredibly frank novels. Wei’s semi-autobiographical tome, published in 1999, celebrates feminine sexual desire and critiques the dominant conformist values of Chinese society. Because of alleged “pornographic” content, the novel was banned in China by communist party censors, but nonetheless became an instant best seller due to the underground economy and the Internet (Kong 2005). “Coco,” the main character/narrator of Shanghai Baby, lives a reputedly “alternative lifestyle”—cohabiting with her drug-addicted, impotent boyfriend while having secret sexual liaisons with a sadistic-German businessman whom she describes as being “built like a Nazi” and having “a frightfully large member.” Claiming to be a “liberated woman,” Coco explains her infidelity thusly: “Finding a man who you love and another man who can give you orgasms is the best solution” (Wei 1999, 87). In the novel, Coco hangs out with yaogun musicians and listens to Western alternative rock bands such as Sonic Youth. Shockingly, she has sex with her German lover in a toilet stall at an underground Shanghai nightclub. Defiantly declaring her linglei identity, Coco acknowledges the wide range of reactions that her “tribe” elicits from mainstream society. As she asserts, “Some call us linglei; others damn us as trash; some yearn to join us, and imitate us in every way they can, from clothes and hairstyle to speech and sex; others swear at us and tell us to take our dog-fart lifestyles and disappear (Wei 1999, 235). While fellow babe writer, Mian Mian, has criticized Wei for “shamelessly” commercializing linglei and turning “the

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painful experiences” of “real alternative youth” into mere kitsch (Kong 2005, 204), Shanghai Baby has fueled the transformation of linglei into a pop culture phenomenon. Cyberspace has vastly strengthened the popularity of linglei literature and related commodities. Indeed, Internet usage has increased dramatically in recent years, particularly among Chinese teenagers and young adults.3 Various blogs, chat rooms, and social networking websites have exposed millions of Chinese young people to a virtual cornucopia of subcultural ideologies and iconoclastic discourses. Despite concerted government attempts to block “objectionable” websites, Chinese “netizens”4 are actively sharing and expanding their tastes in music and fashion in an online transnational setting. The Internet generates almost unlimited opportunities for self-publishing, often circumventing both the party censors and the elite standards of publishing houses. As Xin Yang (2006) observes, “Some unconventional (linglei) writers could not secure legitimate space in the traditional journals and publishing houses, so the virtual space became the only way for them to make their writings available to others.” Consequently, so-called “cyber writing” (wangluo xiaoshuo) has become highly popular among young linglei authors in particular. For example, Chinese authorities officially banned Mian Mian’s most famous novel, Candy, soon after publication in 2000, though “millions of curious readers” managed to access the novel online (Yang 2006). Several linglei novels and related websites have focused attention on China’s highly competitive, yet overly conformist, education system. For instance Han Han—a Shanghai high school dropout—authored the best-selling semi-autobiographical novel, The Third Way (1999), at age seventeen. In the book, he intensely criticizes the
3

According to recent estimates, there are approximately 485 million Internet users in China today. 4 This is a common term in China for Internet users, with the vast majority being teenagers and young adults (Latham 2007, 200).

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educational status quo, advocating an “alternative path to success” (Kong 2005, 51). As a result of his immense book royalties, Han has become independently wealthy, yet continues to criticize “the normal, boring road” traveled by most Chinese. “It’s my choice to do what I want and go where I want,” he states in reference to his “radical” lifestyle. “Nobody can tell me what to do” (as quoted in Beech 2004). Chun Shu—who was seventeen when she wrote the highly popular Beijing Doll (2002)—focuses her ire on the college entrance exam (gaokao). Under this repressive rote-memorization scheme, as described in agonizing detail in Chun’s semi-autobiographical novel, only one in four students gains admittance to college. Based on intense competition for a very limited number of slots for students, the so-called “narrowing gate” seriously limits educational opportunities. For Chun, such rampant educational conformity and exclusionary practices were too much to bear, explaining in Beijing Doll that her “disgusting” school had only one rule: “obedience, yes; explanations, no.” Like Han, Chun dropped out of school at a relatively young age and has no regrets. What’s most important, she claims, is “self-expression” and “how to choose a path that fits one's own individual identity” (as quoted in Beech 2004). However, job prospects are seriously compromised for Chinese young people lacking adequate educational credentials. The potential strain of dishonor and family stigmatization can be enormous and devastating for those who are shut out of the system of higher education. Even when employed, undereducated young people become particularly vulnerable to the “vagaries of the labor market” and are typically the first to be laid off (Hanser 2002, 198). Such economic and social conditions have fueled the growing ranks of linglei youth, including many who have opted to rebel (at least tacitly) by spurning the gaokao system. As Wang (2008) observes, linglei youths have made “‘high school dropouts’ a new social segment to be reckoned with.” Many such dropouts “seek solace” by

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embracing punk rock and other alternative music scenes, he contends (230). Other youthful but more “conventional” literary authors in China have spoken out publicly against linglei and its literary depiction. For instance, the writer Li Jie has criticized the “dissolute” lifestyle of linglei that is depicted in books such as Beijing Doll and Shanghai Baby. She contends that such novels produce a false, misleading impression about Chinese women, not only among Chinese youths but also foreign readers. “My books don’t have much sex in them and the men are just the backdrop,” Li comments. “The women in my books are more spiritual, their inner world is more important to them than having a boyfriend or going shopping” (as quoted in Croll 2006, 237).

Youthful Perceptions of Linglei
The vast majority of young people interviewed for this study (42 out of 50) articulated a relatively positive assessment of linglei, noting that the term has undergone a dramatic redefinition in recent years and become “cool” or “hip.” Several respondents emphasized that linglei is not simply external (e.g., bizarre clothes, piercings, tattoos, dyed hair) but also internal. Linglei people are often described as “independent thinkers” and above all “individualists,” living within an otherwise highly collectivist, conformist society. Several respondents stressed that linglei youth tend to reject the traditional values of their parents, particularly when it comes to such issues as premarital sex, cohabitation, marriage, divorce, gender roles, homosexuality, higher education, and job security. In contrast to non-linglei respondents, the majority of youths self-identifying as linglei (fourteen respondents) claimed to have alternative tastes in music, broadly defined. Punk and alternative rock were favored by eleven out of

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fourteen linglei youths interviewed. Several respondents also indicated a fondness for hip-hop/rap, heavy metal, and/or techno. Chen—a nineteen-year-old Beijing college student clad in a “High Times” t-shirt who self-identifies as linglei—said that he wants to be “special,” “unique,” and “stand out from the crowd.” He notes that many linglei youth select a particular hobby, musical genre, “extreme” sport (e.g., skateboarding, rollerblading), or academic niche (e.g., learning an obscure foreign language) to enhance their uniqueness and distinctiveness. Like many linglei youth, Chen admits to being a fan of alternative rock, heavy metal, and rap, with his favorite group, Linkin Park, being a hybrid of those three genres. “Things have changed a lot in the last two or three years,” he said. “More young people are into hip hop and rap.” He adds that his 16-year-old brother is “even more linglei and can recite many American rap lyrics by heart.” However, in spite of his proclivity for American popular culture, Chen is intensely critical of American foreign policy, particularly in Iraq. As he stated emphatically: “Saddam Hussein was a hero because he stood up to the U.S.” Skateboarders that I spotted in the Pudong business district of Shanghai—clad in baggy jeans and Western sports-team attire—were openly violating municipal ordinances regulating their sport as they zipped back and forth across sidewalks and embankments in a public park setting. Cái—a 16-year old self-identified linglei skater— explained to me that skateboarding in such prohibited locales is risky yet remains “a big thrill.” As he observes, “The thrill is in doing something that’s a little bit dangerous.” Wearing a Los Angeles Lakers cap, he professes his admiration for the team’s star player, Kobe Bryant. “He really knows how to play ball, but doesn’t just do things the easy way; he takes chances.” I talked to a group of four Xian teenagers who claim that most Chinese youth are linglei. This statement prompted me to wonder how they determine whether a person is linglei. “Just look at us,” eighteen-year-old Mei

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said in response. “We are all linglei.” But aside from sporting earrings and relatively hip Western attire, she seems no different than most Chinese young people. The other three teens are less emphatic on the subject of linglei but concur that their values are substantially different from those of their elders. When asked if she believes in Marxism, Mei quickly proclaims “no way,” although conceding that her parents still believe in such principles. “Marxism is old fashioned,” she says disdainfully, “but some people have taken advantage of others in China’s new economy.” In an effort to find additional linglei respondents, I visited the “Mao Livehouse”—a smoke-filled Beijing punk club with an iconic name. One teenaged tattooed-punk named Dun—sporting a crisp Ramones t-shirt—said that he enjoys being “different” in a country full of conformists. “I like being myself,” he proclaims. “Punk rock gives me the freedom to express myself.” Nonetheless, he laments that his parents do not approve of his lifestyle, noting they are ashamed of his spiked hair and unorthodox clothing. “But I have to live my own life,” he states. Shen—a longtime punk who is twenty-four years of age—emphasizes that he deeply despises the glitzy nightclubs that cater to “yuppies.” He also complains about China’s educational system and its “unfair” college entrance exam. Revealing that he dropped out of school several years ago, he admits to being only sporadically employed since that time. Like other punks, Shen says that he feels intense social pressure to conform to the overly materialistic ethos of the New China. Interestingly, eight of my youthful respondents indicated that they were “partially” linglei. For instance, Tai—a twenty-one-year-old English teacher from Yichang—admits to being “a little bit linglei, but not completely.” He prefers to identify as xin xin renlei— which he describes as a more general category than linglei that includes people who are “somewhat fashionable and very open minded.” Explaining that linglei folks tend to be

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“more extreme” in their appearance than xin xin renlei, Tai observes that there are many exceptions to this unofficial rule. “Some young people are linglei on the inside but not outside, while others are linglei at night but not during the day,” he explains. “They are afraid that they may be fired from their jobs if they are obviously linglei.” In turn, twelve respondents that claim to be “traditional” or “normal” (i.e., non-subcultural) occasionally expressed concern about the tendency of linglei youth to reject social norms and rebel against authority. As one seventeen-year-old female student from Haining explains, “In China, we emphasize the importance of children always listening to their parents, but linglei youth have their own ideas.” Another student, age twenty, from Tianjin, describes himself as “studious” and “polite,” in contradistinction to linglei youth that are “always against their teachers or parents.” Going further, a seventeen-year old lad from Xian claims that linglei youth are very selfish. Sporting short spiked hair and an “Adventures of Tintin” tshirt, he seems to be an unlikely critic of linglei. Despite his comments, he affirms his ardent interest “in all things American.” Paradoxically, eight of the twelve “traditional” respondents indicated that they have been indirectly influenced by the linglei phenomenon. For example, an eighteen-year-old Xian college student recalls how she argued with her mother over possibly having her ears pierced. She explains that earrings and other piercings are viewed as linglei—especially by her parents’ generation. She admits with some regret that she succumbed to her mother’s wishes. Similarly, a nineteen-year-old selfdescribed “traditional girl”—who associates linglei with brightly dyed hair and revealing clothes—notes that she is “common” in comparison. Originally from a small village in western China, she attends college in Hangzhou. Even so, she admits to be being much more “modern” and “Western” than her parents, proudly revealing an interest in the Backstreet Boys and other Western pop artists. She

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observes that her seventeen-year-old younger brother is a huge fan of “hard rock bands” such as Nirvana and U2 and “is probably linglei.”

Conclusion
Over the past few decades, youth subcultures have crystallized in China by combining the unconventional music, style, and argot of the West with Chinese characteristics. Paradoxically, the Western “other” has become a major factor in the progressive reframing of China’s “other species”—linglei. In effect, various “neoneo-tribes” have engaged in bricolage—“the appropriation and recontextualization of cultural items to communicate new meanings” (Muggleton, 2000, 3). Bolstered by the relatively open trade policies of post-Mao China, unconventional youths have adapted selected elements of Western pop culture to express their own lived realities within an authoritarian—yet transitional—society. As a result, linglei is being reconstituted as a highly eclectic “alternative lifestyle” that reflects the ongoing development of a modern consumer culture in China, despite the continued suspicions, fears, and concerns of many traditionalists. The prevalent style, sensibilities, and behaviors of linglei youth are indicative of “everyday forms of resistance,” to use James Scott’s (1990) terminology. Such resistance is based on a counter-discourse that takes place largely “offstage,” i.e., beyond the normal purview of officialdom. Tellingly, subcultures “carry ‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their subordination” (Hebdige 1979, 17-18). This type of semiotic-resistance is particularly appropriate when participants have a comparatively “weak” structural position—as is the case for a growing number of

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unemployed, underemployed, and undereducated youths in China. One common theme uncovered in this study is the high importance that linglei youth place on the construction and affirmation of a unique individual persona. Particularly in terms of clothing, attitudes, lifestyles, and musical tastes, linglei respondents often emphasize the significance of finding their own special niche. Several youths in this study sought to distinguish themselves from perceived outgroups such as “the crowd,” “traditional Chinese,” “yuppies,” “schools,” “parents,” and “the older generation.” David Muggleton (2000) refers to this process as “‘distinctive individuality,’ the way that subculturalists highlight their individuality through a distinction from a collective reference group” (63). By tacitly proclaiming themselves as subcultural “insiders,” adherents seek to differentiate or self-exclude from a larger or rival segment of society. An apparent incentive for symbolically expressing a linglei identity is the potential to receive status-based acclaim from like-minded others in everyday life. Chen’s “High Times” t-shirt or his younger brother’s rapping abilities, for instance, potentially generates respect or notoriety from subcultural cohorts. Sarah Thornton (1997) refers to this interactive practice of achieving in-group prestige as “subcultural capital,” noting that such capital “confers status on its owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder” (202). Accruing subcultural capital involves spurning the commercial mainstream while maintaining personal tastes that are deemed to be “authentic” by one’s subcultural peers (Weinzierl and Muggleton 2003). Meaningfully, numerous linglei respondents were critical of gangtai and other types of “mainstream” Chinese pop music, while indicating a strong preference for relatively unconventional musical genres. Several respondents, claiming to be “partially” linglei, effectively expressed neo-tribal fluidity in their stylistic

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predilections and collective identities.5 Even among selfdescribed “traditional” youths, there was an occasional admission of linglei influence. Certainly, subcultures are not homologous or bounded entities; thus they are often subject to vague or even conflicting classifications and typologies—especially by non- or rival-subculturalists. Young people may internally or externally adopt important aspects of a particular identity, but refuse to label themselves or acknowledge any overt subcultural affinity due to societal or parental constraints. As Jeffrey Weeks (1990) states, “Each of us lives with a variety of potentially contradictory identities which battle within us for allegiance” (88). In an ironic twist, linglei has become commodified in various advertising campaigns aimed at the urban Chinese youth market. The commodification of linglei reveals the dynamic influence of glocalization, in which global and local marketing strategies are combined synergistically. Wang (2008) offers several examples of advertising brand positioning, including the new “Fifth Season” sports drink that was marketed a few years ago in China by utilizing various “alternative” urban metaphors. As he notes, “The brand plays successfully on the concept of linglei, the Chinese term for the ‘(alternative) other,’ now a powerful marketing concept for lifestyle categories in China” (72). Beech (2004) refers to such developments as “linglei chic.” Nonetheless, my findings indicate that such “rebellious posturing” (to use Wang’s term) among actual (selfidentified) linglei youth is frequently accompanied by strong sentiments of resentment against the cultural status quo. In contrast to the “safe cool” of xin xin renlei, young people identifying with linglei frequently push the boundaries of social propriety to the limit. While linglei youths tend to avoid criticizing the government or communist party directly, their self-professed rebellion to
5

For more on “neo-tribalism” and the fluidity of youth cultural groups, see Bennett (1999).

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traditional customs, dominant ideologies, conventional pop culture, excessive materialism, and secondary education, clearly reveals many implicit political connotations. In sum, China’s unofficial subcultural revolution involves a semiotic struggle against a variety of embedded interests in society, which are perceived by many linglei youths as inhibiting or constraining their unconventional expression of distinctive individuality.

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