A British journalist's book on her China experience is packed with the pillow talk of the young middle class in a country where social values have not kept pace with economic growth. The lifestyles of the colourful characters populating Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China superficially resemble those of the West. But author Jemimah Steinfeld accentuates their Chinese characteristics: a Confucian respect for elders, the social impact of a one-child policy, and women desperate to marry before 27 to avoid being labelled "leftover" women. Excerpts from an interview:
Why did you decide to write about this topic?
Right now the conversations about China often centre around common tropes: China as a political prison, China as a sweatshop. What's lacking are books from younger writers who have access to the more grass-roots shifts.
How did you decide whom to interview?
They all went to university, are working decent jobs and living in the city. They're similar to youth in the West, yet still making different choices.
What are the factors Chinese youth consider while making romantic decisions?
They are still quite rooted in past values which see women in certain roles, which aren't compatible with modern-day China. Even whilst the cities change and their lifestyles change, their values are stubbornly fixed.
What is the government's role in promoting tradition?
I think the government has agendas, and within those agendas it suits them to censor women's voices. China doesn't allow activist organizations to grow, because that could lead to calls for democracy. Women's voices get lost in this battle.
One chapter addresses LGBT individuals in China. What are the challenges for the gay community?
I was astonished that everyone was still not out to their parents. Even some parents know their children are homosexual, but pretend they're not to the rest of society. I wish there was more of a challenge towards what a family should look like.
What are your hopes for China's young generation?
I hope women can shed the "leftover" label. Women have setbacks in their social lives based on their sexual lives that men don't. I hope sexual education improves. But I think it would be boring if Chinese youth resembled those in the West. I don't think we're perfect either.