Search for Meaning Hits Chord in China

TWO movies, made a generation apart, highlight the distance China's youth has traveled - from collective revolutionary fervor to a struggle for individual self-expression. ``The Young Generation,'' directed by Zhao Ming, excited and inspired the youth of its day, and later, with its message that a choice had to be made between individual happiness and working for the happiness of the exploited proletarian masses.

``Black Snow,'' directed by Xie Fei and released in 1989, depicts the struggle of a young man let go from prison to live as best he can - selling illegally obtained ladies lingerie, seeking happiness, only to be rejected. Finally, he commits suicide.

The China of ``The Young Generation'' was a country whose image of itself was of a people taking their destiny into their own hands after a hundred years of colonial and imperialist aggression. The theme song establishes the tone: to stirring martial music, an offscreen chorus exclaims, ``We are the pioneers of Socialist construction. We shan't be flowers in a greenhouse, but pine trees midst wind and storm.''

Lin Yusen, a budding geologist, drops out of a survey team in the remote borderlands feigning illness and returns to Shanghai in search of a comfortable urban job. His classmate, Xiao Jiye, is forced to return to the same city to treat a real illness. Jiye manages to convince Yusen that instead of pursuing his own selfish goals, he should devote himself to building China. At the grand finale, Yusen, his fiancee, and his sister all board the train for the vast, mineral-rich Central Asian province of Sink iang.

TODAY, knowing better the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the empty promises of Maoism, one wonders how a whole generation could have been so easily duped. But then, as one woman told me, ``When the train pulled out of the station, I felt I was dedicating my whole life to building China. I was only sixteen, and my mother and grandmother were crying, but I was absolutely dry-eyed.''

In the movie, in a climactic scene between Yusen and Jiye, Yusen asks, ``What's wrong with trying to make your own life better and happier?'' to which Jiye replies with another question, ``Are you working just for your own individual happiness, or are you doing it to bring about a better life for the proletarian masses, for millions and millions of people?''

The present rulers of China would love to have their young take such sentiments to heart. Premier Li Peng is the son of a revolutionary martyr and probably wonders why his appeals for heroic self-sacrifice fall on deaf ears. In the China of today, the innocence of the pre-Cultural Revolution days seems to have been lost. Qianzi, hero of ``Black Snow,'' finds himself adrift in a society of meaningless slogans, where money is the only value.

In ``The Young Generation,'' the signs of Yusen's corruption are delicately expressed: a book of Western love songs and far-from-daring sketches of women's dresses. In ``Black Snow,'' scalpers are openly hawking tickets to ``American strip-tease movies'' and women demand stereos and VCRs before they will agree to set a wedding date. In the night clubs, singers in low-cut dresses are crooning, ``My expectation has come true; I will follow wherever you go.''

One of the major purposes of the Tiananmen student protests was to denounce the corruption and money-madness brought about in part by the same economic reforms that opened China to the cultural influence of the West. Xie Fei, director of ``Black Snow,'' seems to have had a similar purpose. He told me he felt that as the economic reform progressed, ``the commercial economy controlled everything. People were solely out for money and had no use for spiritual things. But for a person to live only for money, without any spiritual growth, is no use.''

Black Snow's hero is an uneducated youth with generous impulses, but who is ultimately crushed by his environment. His increasingly desperate search for meaning and relationship must have touched a responsive chord in China today: Black Snow won the 1990 Golden Rooster award, the one Chinese film prize voted on by audiences, not by critics or the government.

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