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Public Culture 12.1 (2000) 93-113

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Mediating Time:
The "Rice Bowl of Youth" in Fin de Siècle Urban China *

Zhang Zhen

Two popular mantras perhaps best capture the fin de siècle frenzy and anxiety of the market economy and consumerist China: xiahai (plunging into the ocean), meaning going into the risky business world, and yu shijie jiegui, which literally means "linking up with the [rail] tracks of the world." The expressions are ubiquitous in both official and popular Chinese discourse. From the popular press to film and television, the media are suffused with tragicomic tales of people who have fared poorly or well in the new enterprises proliferating in China. Linking up with the tracks of the world is a particularly vivid metaphor that spells out China's desire to catch the last train of global modernity, finally overcoming a perceived time-lag between itself and the West. It suggests a sense of running out of time, of urgency, and of great risk taking--a concept that became almost obsolete during China's insulated socialist era, a time when urban dwellers worked low-paying jobs assigned by a program popularly known as the "iron rice bowl" (tie fanwan).

The figure of the iron rice bowl conjures visions of an austere and, at least theoretically, egalitarian lifestyle. More crucially, it evokes a distinct temporality. The image of peasants and workers, old and young men and women, holding their big rice bowls and eating to their hearts' content at communal canteens during the 1950s' Great Leap Forward became an icon of both the bounty and [End Page 93] poverty of the socialist experiment. 1 An image of modern folklore, the iron rice bowl exercised enormous representational power, as the most mundane of everyday objects became the pivotal figure of political and social turmoil.

With the advent of the market economy, the symbolism of the rice bowl changed radically. People left the stagnant state sectors (voluntarily or involuntarily) to seek monetary and personal fulfillment in the business world--plunging into the ocean. As a side effect of social restructuring, a new importance in the marketplace and popular culture was assigned to gender, age, and class. While the iron rice bowl is now perceived as rusty and broken, a new figure, the "rice bowl of youth" (qingchunfan), has gained wide currency since the early 1990s. The rice bowl of youth refers to the urban trend in which a range of new, highly paid positions have opened almost exclusively to young women, as bilingual secretaries, public relations girls, and fashion models. Youth and beauty are the foremost, if not the only, prerequisites to obtaining lucrative positions, in which the new "professionals" often function as advertising fixtures with sex appeal. The robust image of vivacious, young female eaters of the rice bowl of youth symbolizes a fresh labor force, a model of social mobility, and the rise of a consumer culture endorsed by current official ideology--the "democracy of consumption" promoted to prevent social unrest since the suppression of student movements in 1989. 2

The profusion of public discourse that has surrounded this socioeconomic phenomenon reflects a larger cultural anxiety about temporality. In parts of China, the structures of time are being recast by the rapid transition from socialism to a market economy and by the change of focus from production to consumption. In the practical shift from feeding the body to earning a living, different temporalities--old and new, socialist and capitalist, global and local--have collided. In a society mobilized to plunge into the ocean or to link with the tracks of the world, fear of drowning and the perils of speed have made anxiety a central feature of public discourse, and it has manifested especially in popular reactions to the rice bowl of youth. 3 More than just a labor [End Page 94] issue, the rice bowl phenomenon signals the formation of an urban mass culture and a new sexual politics. It is also the object of an underlying structural anxiety about time, in which feminine youth...


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pp. 93-113
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Archived 2004
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