From the grungy floor of a one-room apartment in a bohemian artists’ colony, I listened as a rail-thin twenty-something guitarist played Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain riffs. Turning his amp down, he asked in practiced English, “How about American kids? Which Chinese bands do they listen to?”
This exchange took place not in Seattle or Los Angeles, but in the Beijing suburbs. Thirty years ago you’d have a hard time finding a Mozart record there let alone something from the Monterrey Pop Festival. The fledgling musician’s question stuck with me because it seemed to symbolize a search for relevance and identity particular to a generation of young Chinese. These kids, products of China's one-child policy, have the opportunity, and burden, of self-discovery as they grow into a country that in a way does not yet exist. China is perhaps the world’s greatest “Work in Progress.”
Since the violent end to China’s student-led democracy movement in 1989, young people’s energies have been channeled away from politics and into material and cultural pursuits. With permission and even encouragement from Beijing, this only-child generation is absorbing modern influences and searching for self-identity at the same time the country goes through a historic transformation.