On the Road with the Cultured Youth

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By Marc Cansier & Zhengyuan Li

The new class of globetrotting Chinese hipsters

Given China’s reputation as the home of spoiled ‘Little Emperors’, you might not be used to seeing crowds of Chinese youth pogo-dancing to rock music while camping in Japan or learning how to make wine on a farm in France. However, Wenyi Qingnian or ‘Cultured Youth’, a new class of Chinese hipsters, is taking to travel in a big way and transforming the face of China while they’re at it, both at home and abroad. In 2014, China is estimated to have 100 million outbound travellers, a growing segment of which is the adventurous Cultured Youth group.

The new generation of Cultured Youth has unprecedented access to media, culture and products from abroad, yet is more discerning than ever.

Rooted in China’s first Subculture

That Chinese Youth should be cultured is not new. Originating in the 80’s, the first Cultured Youth were hungry for Western culture and a broadened global perspective. Known then as Yishu Qingnian, they were scooping up underground knowledge through smuggled VHS and cassette tapes and in the process created the first homegrown subculture in modern China. Combining references from abroad and a keen desire to control their identity, they formed a small, but influential, clique that shaped China’s cultural landscape for years to come. They included artists such as writer Wang Xiaobo, poet Bei Dao, “Father of Rock” Cui Jan, and DJ Youdai. In the mid-90’s they were subsumed by a tidal wave of Chinese yuppies, the ‘Xiao Zi’.

Importance of Cultural Travel

Today’s Cultured Youth are defining themselves against the backdrop of China’s rampant consumerism and they are not just looking to spend their vacation bouncing from Gallerie Lafayette to Harrods. Instead, they are seeking meaningful and exciting ways to escape the mundane. For example, the Fuji Rock Music Festival near Tokyo has become a popular destination for many young Chinese, who are attracted by the reputation, excitement and line-up of the festival. One micro blogger describes his dedication to the Manic Street Preachers and admits it was their presence in Fuji alone that made him attend the more exotic and expensive festival in Japan. He subsequently shared this experience on douban, a site that currently has more than 50 million users. To the Cultured Youth, the effort and money spent on travel is worth it in return for authentic experiences and social currency amongst peers.

Chinese campers at Fuji Rock Festival 2014 in Japan are drawn by the independent spirit of the event. Photo courtesy of FaKer via douban.com

Cultured Youth are seeking exposure to authentic artistic expressions, under-the-radar experiences and new perspectives on the world.

Independent travel is integral to the notion of being a Cultured Youth and they’re going about it like no other modern generation of Chinese traveller. Studying abroad is increasingly popular, with countries like France amongst the top 10 destinations and one in four Chinese students abroad choosing a US education. Eschewing guided tours for individual experiences and independently researched cultural journeys, the youth are seeking exposure to authentic artistic expressions, under-the-radar experiences and new perspectives on the world. Helen, a graphic designer from Bejing, visited Paris and put the Louvre at the top of her list. But she showed up on a rainy day when the Museum was closed. Instead of being dejected, she wandered nearby streets and went on an unscripted path that turned out to be the highlight of her trip. Posting pictures on her WeChat account as she was walking, she encouraged her peers back home to go off the beaten path. Road trips, unusual destinations, painstakingly composed photo-shoots (they are experts at the carefully casual selfie) and connecting with local residents are all ways that Cultured Youth are forging their own approach to global travel.

Instant photos taken by Helen, from Beijing, showing her perspective of the city
Photo courtesy of Helen Huang

So watch out for the new Chinese traveller.

Smart, curious, intensely interested in culture – they have tossed aside the guidebook and are exploring uncharted territories. For the travel industry and youth-focused brands the future is being written by the Wenyi Qingnian, and they are hungry for a more real and personal experience than they’ve seen in their parents’ travel snapshots. 

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