There is a timeless observation according to which younger generations never fail to rebel against their parents’ values. In reality, most rising generations of youth do not overthrow the ways of their ancestors, but rather carry them forward, even teaching them to their own descendants. This is evidenced by the simple fact that, generation after generation, certain cultural beliefs and traits continue to be identified with particular regions. Today in the Middle East, for example, as in the past, the Koran continues to be revered. And in China, many of the basic precepts of Confucianism still hold sway, as they have for millennia.
On the other hand, it is true that every once in a while, a youth cohort breaks with certain established values in dramatic ways that may make the parental generation feel as though the world is crumbling into depravity and chaos. The United States saw such a generational break in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, and China has more recently experienced a similar shake-up. The balinghou generation, defined roughly as those born in 1980 or after, came of age in the 1990s, and as it did so, Chinese society began to overturn tradition in striking ways, some of which left the parents of this generation anxious and bewildered.
The balinghous grew up in a China very different from that which dominated their parents’ youth. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Mao Zedong’s pervasive and heavy-handed presence shaped a world whose overriding characteristics were collectivism and obligatory self-sacrifice on behalf of society. In fact, Mao, as leader of the victorious communist revolution of 1949 (or “liberation” as it is known in China), engendered changes at least as dramatic as those that China is facing today. But Maoist-era changes were driven from the top down. The various mass movements of that time were all orchestrated by Communist Party leaders, not by restless and rebellious youth.