Under a millennia-old Confucian system, Chinese were taught to worship their ancestors, their parents, and the emperor in a stone-hard hierarchy that was cut off from the rest of the world.
Then came the Internet. And young "Netizens," like harp student Sun Lingsheng, are among the 10 million Chinese today who are chipping away, at mouse-click speed, the great walls of xenophobia and fear of change.
As in most cultures, youths are the vanguard of this societal shift. But here, China's one-child population policy, an injection of free-enterprise ethos, plus a growing disillusionment with communism, all contribute to the creation of a generation of individualistic, pampered "little emperors." They have the means to go online to explore new values and the desire to join a "pop planet" cultural movement.
The following cybersurfers interviewed in Beijing offer a snapshot of this blossoming trend.
Each day at dawn, Sun Lingsheng attends classes at the prestigious China Academy of Opera and Dance, where he studies the guzheng, or ancient Chinese harp, centuries-old rules of music, and the official state creed: a mix of Confucianism and Communism.
Yet each day at dusk, Mr. Sun enters a world that is as freewheeling and eclectic as his mornings are structured and steeped in tradition. As he settles into a chair in one of the cybercafes that crisscross Beijing, Sun pulls out a Palm Pilot to record his favorite Web sites, and begins skipping from site to site on the cafe computer.
"I love the Internet because you have complete freedom to talk with people all over the world, hear music from any point on the planet, and you never know where you're going to end up next," he says.
"Technoboy," one of Sun's online names, scans the virtual horizon for the latest samples of electronic music, and lands at a British site to catch a "streaming" interview with techno-pop DJ FatBoy Slim.
Opening more windows, Sun bounces back to Beijing, where he checks the newest releases from modernsky.com, China's top alternative music site, and enters a Shanghai chat room called "Words of the Heart."
For Sun's contemporaries, the Internet is starting to erode a generations-old practice of parents choosing their children's spouses based on social and political status.
As he clicks between virtual matchmakers based in China and New York, Sun says "online, what you think and feel is more important than who you are or where you're from."
He adds that the Internet is becoming the great equalizer, within and without China. "In the outside world, there are so many walls between people - class walls, cultural walls, and national walls," Sun says. "But the Web is like a ladder that helps us climb the walls, and maybe someday melt them."
Zhang Xu, a young director in Beijing who makes documentaries on the Chinese arts, says digital technology is exposing China's youths to a tidal wave of films, television, and compact discs from the West, and the Internet is giving them the ability to link up with other youths.
"Kids in Shanghai and New York who stay in their rooms all day with satellite tv and the Internet are likely to turn out more similar to each other than to their own parents," says Ms. Zhang.
Zhang says Web-broadcast tv and radio could one day homogenize the thinking, interests, and tastes of young people across the planet. "There is a real possibility that, in the future, the world will have only one culture."
But Zhang says while the globalization of culture presents undreamed-of opportunities for some civilizations, it also presents dangers. "There is a real threat that Chinese culture could be buried under the sands of planet pop, and Chinese artists must begin thinking about how to survive global competition," she says.
"Cyberkiller," a young hacker in Beijing who asks not to be identified, says the Internet is not only a peaceful promoter of pop culture, but also a potent weapon. He likens the Web to a new-age slingshot that can be used to slay traditional Goliaths.
Cyberkiller says he's "not like the punk hackers who will attack any Web site just to prove their prowess." Rather, he says, "every one of my attacks is aimed at achieving a form of justice in cyberspace that doesn't exist in the real world."
The hacker, who spends three-fourths of his waking life online, says the targets he and his friends have hit in the past year include "China's official human rights Web site and other government sites that try to fool the people."
He says "hacking is growing so sophisticated [in China] that now you can find cyberassassins for hire." Their arsenals, he adds, "include everything from software to simply deface a Web site to "smart bombs" that can destroy the target's hard drive."
He adds, though, that while he and his friends sometimes team up with political dissidents to become cyber-rebels, they also morph into cyberpatriots when they think China is under attack from the outside.
After NATO bombed China's Embassy in Belgrade last year, "we went into overdrive to launch a counterattack. Over the next few days, we hit the White House and the Department of Defense's computer systems, and trashed the American Embassy's Web site."
A Western official here confirms the Embassy hit. "These guys were really good," he says. "We locked up the site when the [Chinese] protests started after the [May 1999] bombing, but when we opened the site for a few minutes, these guys got in and attacked."
Cyberkiller, who listens to American techno music and watches Hollywood films, says he welcomes a Western pop invasion of China.
But he says that "globalization must be matched by equalization.... In the Internet world, there are no superpowers, and countries that try to act like one will be subject to cyberattacks from "hackers for justice" all over the world."
Lin Hai, jailed as China's first cyber-dissident in 1998, says the Internet is exposing a generation of "little emperors" to not only Western pop hits, but also political ideals that the Communist "thought police" spent decades blocking.
Lin was locked away in Shanghai's most notorious prison for a year and a half for providing Chinese e-mail addresses to an on-line, pro-democracy magazine based in the US. He says the Web invasion is eating away at Beijing's once-total control over the media here.
"When someone set off a bomb at Tiananmen Square [in Beijing] recently, the news traveled all over the world through the Internet within one hour," he says. "That forced the government to publish the event in its own media, and that kind of pressure to release information is going to grow."
Lin and other young Chinese say they see the Internet as a digital juggernaut that will flatten China's social and political pyramid. "On the Internet, the people and the government are nearly equal," Lin says. "On the Internet, there is more freedom to speak than in the real world."
"On the Internet, people have more power," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society