Institutt for sosialantropologi

"Keeping it Real" In Beijing. Exploring Identity, Authenticity and Music as a 'Technology of the Self' among Urban Middel-class Youth


Master's thesis submitted at Department of Social Anthropology, autumn 2014.

By: Eirik Blåsternes
Supervisor: Professor Leif Manger

With this anthropological master thesis I am exploring urban middle-class youth in Beijing, born during the 1980s, and how they navigate and express themselves as individuals and as part of collectives. I spent one and a half year of participant-observation in Beijing (from autumn 2012 until spring 2014) focusing on hip-hop music, leisure activities and cultural production. This is founding the empirical material of this thesis, as I am analyzing the relationship between creative youth cultures and the larger social and political developments in which it is connected.

Since the opening-up-reforms of the 1980s, China has been going through rapid social, political and economic developments. These processes of modernization are fertilizing the urban population with a flux of cultural consumption possibilities and play an important role in subject formation. As processes of individualization unfolds in China, the state is placing higher autonomy on the individual’s freedom to choose, inspiring people to take responsibility for their own actions on the one hand, while attempting to control the individual’s choice and responsibility towards idealized goals on the other. This creates frictions in which individual choices does not always cohere with the expectations of the public discourse. These frictions have a significant effect on how contemporary youth behave and understand themselves in relation to others.

I am presenting detailed empirical description of the hip-hop environment in Beijing, and analyze how social boundaries affect processes of identification, and how desires and dissatisfactions become articulated through their cultural practice. We will get to know how youth embrace the freedom to choose their own path, and how contradictions and challenges in subject formation become realized, expressed and contested. Scholars are portraying the Chinese 80s generation as young and hopeful fun-seekers on the one side, and socially pressured, success driven pragmatics on the other. This is shaping a clear distinction between a fun-seeking private sphere and a more pressured and pragmatic public sphere. However, the boundaries of these spheres become fluid and overlapping as Chinese hip-hop artists and fans publicly resist overarching ideals in society and are continuously pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior and not.

I am analyzing how hip-hop, as an American invention, becomes adopted, incorporated and expressed as an authentic cultural practice in China. Standards and measurements of validation within the hip-hop environment serve as a tool binding the participants of the environment together as a distinct group-formation. I find that expressions of ‘authenticity’ within the hip-hop environment are closely related to processes of identification and self-expression. Music constitutes subjectification and serves as a tool for individuals to communicate and interpret each other, in a flux of communicative variations upon social interaction. People are able to form and express self-identity and subjectivity in music, and creatively shape social relationships based on ‘similarity’ and ‘difference’, ‘familiarity’ and ‘strangeness’ as social interaction unfolds. In this way, music may help us to understand how urban youth navigate as individuals and part of collectives in contemporary China.