Follow Your Heart: China's New Youth Movement
Study areas: Youth culture, hip hop, individualism, expressive arts, modern China
Follow Your Heart: China’s New Youth Movement offers a fascinating look at an emerging trend among China’s millennial generation. This trend, which borrows heavily from hip hop and other American youth culture movements, is not yet dominant among young Chinese, but Follow Your Heart offers hints that its day will come – and in the not-too-distant future.
The opening scenes of the film, those overlain with the credits, give a brief depiction of China’s history, including portraits of the Empress Dowager, street scenes from the turn of the twentieth century, images from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and of President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit. What these opening images imply is that China has come a long way in the last century or so, a message that serves to emphasize the dramatic departure from the past that the “new youth movement” represents.
In fact, this film will be most effective for those viewers who have had at least a brief introduction to some recent Chinese history. A student who understands the intensely collectivized world of China’s 1960s, for example, will be much more impressed or even astonished than one who simply sees the new youth movement as another example of hip hop’s global reach. Most of the film deals with the creative work of such performers as M C Webber (real name: Wang Bo), Shanghai’s “bad boy” (b-boy) Stanley Wang, graffiti artist Sic Cheung, DJ V-Nutz and fashion boutique owner, Mo Mo. As this list implies, the film covers a number of different spheres of youth culture trends, though the main focus is on hip hop music.
The dominant theme of Follow Your Heart is, as the title implies, the sense of fulfillment to be found in doing that which one feels compelled to do as an individualistic free agent. The young people who perform and speak to the camera here are all about self-expression. The Guangzhou graffiti artist, Sic Cheung, for example talks at length about how constrained her parents’ collectivist-era lives seem to her, living as they did on 23.50 renminbi (about $3.00 in U.S. money) per month.
A number of the young people talk about the attitudes of their parents, and some of the parents are themselves interviewed. Their support for the offbeat, non-traditional lives of their children is usually forthcoming, though more often than not with an air of resignation. But parental doubts are not as surprising here as parental connectedness. These young Chinese are cool in every sense of the word, but they are also Confucian and their hip hop beats and break dancing do not leave them alienated from their families. As one of the adults interviewed for the film says, their real role models are their parents.
Follow Your Heart culminates with a gathering in the city of Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, one of China’s least sophisticated interior provinces. The celebration of hip hop culture that these cosmopolitan young people introduce from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou is said to be the first opportunity that the youth of Guiyang have had to experience such a dance party first hand. But the success of the party is best described as mixed. The local youth are slow to get into the spirit of abandon that the artists believe to be the essence of their performances, and in post-party interviews they comment on the difficulty in communicating their ideals to audiences that are not yet prepared for them. The individualistic and decidedly foreign-derived style of these artists by no means represents the mainstream of China’s current youth culture and the Guiyang youth, though seemingly willing, are slow to catch on. It seems likely, however, that hip hop style and techniques will gain momentum in the years to come.
The film’s strengths are the high quality of the cinematography and the glimpse that it offers of a fledgling youth movement in urban China. For most viewers, nothing like this will have been seen before, and for many, the break with the Maoist past will appear so stark that it may be difficult to believe. But it is real and this is a side of China that deserves to be known, given some of the stereotypical views of this country that so many outsiders have.
Follow Your Heart could have deepened and strengthened its message had it dedicated more attention to interpretations of the specific arts being presented. Sic Cheung’s graffiti art, though alive with striking images, needs interpretive commentary to sustain its full impact. And the numerous scenes from hip hop performances would likewise have been enhanced by some attention to lyrics and their meanings. Art forms so instilled with the spirit of individual expressiveness could be better understood and appreciated if the specifics of their “messages” were more accessible.
Still, the film is a worthy introduction to a new kind of youth culture that is currently emerging in China. Both adolescents and adults will find it interesting (if, at times, a little repetitive) and its fundamental message – individual expressiveness has found a home in China’s youth culture – is one worth knowing about.
Robert L. Moore is professor of anthropology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and Director of International Affairs for the college's Hamilton Holt School. He has undertaken research on the youth cultures of China and the U.S. and published his work in a number of journals including Ethnology, American Speech and Education About Asia. He is currently working with Li Wei (also of Rollins College) on a book about China's post-1990 generation.
Follow Your Heart is distributed by Third World Newsreel.
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Last Updated: October 16, 2012