The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers

This video is a good demonstration of what Chinese teenagers (or in this case, a  Taiwanese teenager) mean when they say the 2D world is more ‘meihao’ than the 3D one.

I have spent a great deal of time with Chinese teenagers. When I lived in Beijing, I paid no rent: instead I lived in the homes of various Chinese families who allowed me to live with them free of charge on the condition that I help their children with English. In addition to writing, I earned a small sum through private tutoring and teaching high school seminars. My specialty were the high fliers aiming for the Ivy League. What I taught varied with the ability of the learners. With the weakest teenagers I would read The Giver, with the middling sort, reams of poetry, short stories, and Lord of the Flies, and with the highest I taught American history, war literature (Fagles’ translation of the Iliad, All Quiet on the Western Front, etc.), or ethical philosophy (Epicurus, Epictetus, Peter Singer on utilitarianism, Michael Sandel on Kant, and so forth). It was an interesting experience. The “highest fliers” were usually the children of Beijing’s rich and prominent. By living in their homes, teaching in their schools, and meeting with them often to customize the education of their children, I was exposed to the inner life of Beijing’s high society. It fundamentally reframed how I understand China.

It also offered some smaller pleasures. The parents left me disillusioned. With very few exceptions, their priorities disappointed. My interactions with their children were far more interesting. I found great joy in trying to tease out the inner lives of Beijing’s the rising generation.

Two recent pieces of mine report what I found. The first is published in the Los Angles Review of Books under the title “China’s Anime and Cosplay Obsession. I don’t think the title quite does justice to the role Japanese styled media plays in the life of Chinese teenagers. The best analogy I have is Harry Potter. What Harry Potter was to the young American millennial, anime, manga, and related media is to the young Chinese today. My opening gives you a taste for this:

Most people have no idea I do this,” said Wu Na, beaming, as costumed conference-goers stopped to take her picture. The 14-year-old was wearing a thin cotton cloak over a knee-length tunic. As I talked to her, a boy walked into the convention hall sporting spiked hair, a neon-purple trench coat, and a bare chest. Like the hundreds of other cosplaying teenagers in the convention hall, he was not going to allow Beijing’s frigid January temperatures to cramp his style. “I have trouble connecting with most other people at school,” Wu reflected. “But in the two-dimensional world there is a sense of community I can’t find anywhere else. My second-dimension friends mean so much more to me than my third-dimension friends do.”

Wu is just one of the hundreds of millions wrapped up in what young Chinese call the “second dimension” (二次元). The closest English parallel is the ACG, or animation-comic-gaming sector, the market’s favorite acronym for a certain class of Japanese pop culture exports: anime, manga, and the merchandise inspired by them. The two-dimensional world Chinese teenagers such as Wu Na live in includes all of these elements, but their self-styled “second dimension” extends further – and is not limited to Japanese ACG, also factoring in anime-styled cartoons drawn in Korea, China and the United States.

Chinese fans also include a wide variety of non-animated activities and productions as part of the second dimension: video games that embrace the anime aesthetic; music videos of computer generated, 2D-styled pop singers (known as Vocaloids); manga festivals; cosplay costumes and events; and web forums. As young Chinese use it, “2D” is not a genre or a type of product. It is not just something one watches or buys – it is a world one visits, lives in, and joins. It is both a culture and, in the minds of its inhabitants, a place. Fans such as Wu Na contrast their “2D life” – which takes place mostly on the internet, or at 2D/anime festivals (漫展) or conventions – with their “3D life” in the ordinary world.

The size of this two-dimensional world astounds. Consumers of this culture, broadly conceived, number 270 million in China, according to a March 2017 article on Sohu (with 90 million “core users” according to newer data). A 2018 report by the Ministry of Information and Technology estimated that there were 220 million Chinese who regularly streamed “2D” content online or played web-based “2D” games (out of close to 750 million Chinese internet users). These numbers include a wide range of content, and do not distinguish between cartoons aimed at children and the Japanese-style content consumed by teenagers and young adults, but the trend is clear enough. As an industry report by Qianzhan Intelligence remarked in 2017: “The 2nd dimension used to be referred to as a ‘marginal subculture.’ Now it is simply called ‘youth culture.’”

…An impressive display of the zeal and market power of this group is the China International Cartoon and Animation Festival, held each year in Hangzhou. In 2018 the festival pulled in 1.3 million attendees. (In contrast, last year’s New York Comic Con broke an American record with only 200,000 visitors.) Chinese tech giants Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu and Netease have been quick to jump in on the bonanza, investing millions on IP and distribution platforms to profit from a market expected to grow to $33 billion by 2020.[1]

The big question is why does 2D culture have such an explosive appeal in this country? I suggest three possible reasons:

  • The 2D world is a colorful, wonder-filled, idyllic, and beautiful (“meihao“) escape for young Chinese who have lived their entire lives cramped into a polluted and drab urban morass.
  • As the 2D world and its allusions are opaque to outsiders, the 2D world is one of the few places Chinese teenagers are sheltered from the watchful eyes of their elders.
  • The 2D world offers a sort of media experience that is hard to find on Chinese television. Chinese television, (indeed, Chinese life as a whole) is dominated by moralizing Chicken Soup for the Soul sensibilities which tells young what to think. At the other extreme, popular slapstick comedy, variety and singing programs, livestreaming, and so forth, demand no thought at all. (For those of you who have read Fahrenheit 451, it is hours and hours of Bradbury’s “parlor walls.”) The 2D world offers content that demands thought without demanding what viewers should think.

The second point probably deserves more space than I was able to give in the LA Review of Books. Consider, for a moment, the typical schedule of a Beijing teenager:

She will (depending on the length of her morning commute) wake up somewhere between 5:30 and 7:00 AM. She must be in her seat by 7:45, 15 minutes before classes start. With bathroom breaks and gym class excepted, she will not leave that room until the 12:00 lunch hour and will return to the same spot after lunch is ended for another four hours of instruction. Depending on whether she has after-school tests that day, she will be released from her classroom sometime between 4:10 and 4:40. She then has one hour to get a start on her homework, eat, and travel to the evening cram school her parents have enrolled her in. Math, English, Classical Chinese—there are cram schools for every topic on the gaokao. On most days of the week she will be there studying from 6:00 to 9:00 PM (if the family has the money, she will spend another six hours at these after-school schools on Saturday and Sunday mornings). Our teenager will probably arrive home somewhere around 10:00 PM, giving her just enough time to spend two or three hours on that day’s homework before she goes to bed. Rinse and repeat, day in and day out, for six years. The strain does not abate until she has defeated—or has been defeated by—the gaokao.

This is well known, but I think the wrong aspects of this experience are emphasized. Most outsiders look at this and think: see how much pressure these Chinese kids are under. I look and think: how little privacy and independence these Chinese kids are given!

To put this another way: Teenage demands for personal space are hardly unique to China. What makes China distinctive is the difficulty its teenagers have securing this goal. Chinese family life is hemmed in narrow bounds. The urban apartments that even well-off Chinese call their homes are tiny and crowded. Few have more than two bedrooms. Teenagers are often forced to share their bedroom with a grandparent. So small was the apartment of one 16-year-old I interviewed that she slept, without apparent complaint, in the same bed as her parents for her entire first year of high school. Where can a teenager like her go, what door could she slam, when she was angry with her family? Within the walls of her home there was no escape from the parental gaze.

A Chinese teen has few better options outside her home. No middle-class Chinese teenager has a job. None have cars. The few that have boyfriends or girlfriends go about it as discreetly as possible. Apart from the odd music lesson here or there, what Americans call “extra-curricular activities” are unknown. One a recent graduate of a prestigious international high school in Beijing once explained to me the confusion she felt when she was told she would need to excel at an after-school activity to be competitive in American university admissions:

“In tenth grade our home room teacher told us that American universities cared a lot about the things we do outside of school, so from now on we would need to find time to ‘cultivate a hobby.’ I remember right after he left the girl sitting at my right turned to me and whispered, ‘I don’t know how to cultivate a hobby. Do you?’”

The 2D world fills some of that void up. It is mostly lived through the internet–bullet comments on Bilibili, memes created for Tieba forums, and so forth–and thus can visited at home or at school on a cell phone. And of course even when parents or teachers stop to observe what the teens are doing, they don’t understand what they are seeing.

This has caused some consternation in China. That is what my second piece is about: the reaction parents, the Chinese Communist Party, and the government of Japan has had to these changes. One of my favorite interviews makes an appearance in this piece (given the delightful title, “Super Anime Youth Wars“):

But the runaway success of Japanese pop culture among China’s youth has caused confusion, shock, and anger in a country still bitter over historical grievances. Many Chinese see this as a war for the hearts of their children—one they’re losing.

This conflict is being fought out in editorial pages, boardrooms, and government bureaus. The stakes couldn’t be higher: in the short term, tens of billions of dollars; in the long term, the future of Sino-Japanese relations. Japanese diplomats hope that the millions of young Chinese in the 2D world will push for a China friendlier to Japan and its people. The Chinese Communist Party has responded by developing its own anime and manga-based propaganda program. Below all this are the parents and grandparents, aware that their children and grandchildren are submerging themselves in a subculture designed to exclude them—one generated by the same country that inflicted two decades of horror on China. Some accept this as a natural expression of youth; for many others, it’s a terrible disaster.

Zhang Jie, a successful salesman working for a Beijing-based telecommunications start-up, bluntly explained the latter perspective over dinner last summer. “Anime is a type of cultural invasion. When I think about anime—anime and American movies—the only phrase I can use to describe it is this: ‘subtle and imperceptible brainwashing.’ That is the best way to describe what is happening to my daughter’s generation.” Like most Beijing parents, Zhang belongs to the “post-1970 generation” (their teenage children are in the “post-1990” or “post-2000” generations).

Zhang’s childhood memories are dominated by scenes of poverty and frustration. But the material comforts that his daughter and her classmates take for granted are only one part of the vast generation gap: “When we were small, we did not have televisions in our home. All of our ideas about the country came from our teachers, our parents, and traditional education. How could we have had any of my daughter’s wrong ideas? Who would have taught them to us?”

The contrast between the stable and restricting media environment these parents grew up in and the ever-changing, ever-growing universe of content available to their children is at the heart of much of China’s 2D-related angst.

For many older Chinese, China’s extensive censorship doesn’t go far enough. They remember a China without glossy magazine stalls on every block, glowing ads inside subway stations, or a bewildering array of internet forums and livestreaming platforms broadcasting content created by normal people. Few of them long to return to that world, but elements of it are missed sorely. The media landscape of their youth was predictable and comprehensible. Today it is so complex that no parent can hope to even be aware of all its nooks and crannies.[2]

I encourage you to read the rest of that piece for an investigation of how the Party and the Japanese government are both trying to use anime’s explosive popularity for their own ends. I am not the only one who takes an interest in the teenagers of China—entire government departments have devoted themselves to winning over their hearts and minds. Only time will be able to tell how successful their efforts have been.


[1] Tanner Greer, “China’s Anime and Cosplay Obsession,” Los Angles Review of Books, 12 April 2019.

[2] Tanner Greer, “Super-Patriotic Anime Youth WarsForeign Policy, 23 January 2019

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Remembering all those stories about soviets coming to the states and seeing the plenty, thinking about Chinese exchange students coming here just to breathe some air. Wish I could see the history or sociology retrospectives that'll be written in the future on the erosion of filial piety.

Copied and pasted from FB:

"The 2D world is a colorful, wonder-filled, idyllic, and beautiful ('meihao') escape for young Chinese who have lived their entire lives cramped into a polluted and drab urban morass…"

OK pollution sucks, but "urban morass" in my youth I perceived as awesome and desirable. (It still is, though vaguely and with a heavy dose of jaded lived experience.) Low-density suburban living was boring, while city life had a glamor and coolness to it. From Muppets Take Manhattan in the 80s to Hackers (movie) in the 90s, I grew up on mostly attractive images of city life and a widely shared sense of suckiness in Suburbia (1996 film).

When I moved into a new, second story home in 1991 my best friend's little brother exclaimed, "Whoa, they live in a stairs house!". My friend's family were from a poor town in the delta, where living was even more low-density and definitely all one-story. But that sentiment indirectly captured why cities were thought of as cool. Imagine not only living in a "stairs house," but in a big building WITH AN ELEVATOR. So rad. Looking out your bedroom window at a cityscape beats looking at brown grass and a dog chewing on a tire.

That video is quite illustrative and I found myself getting their point more than I did from just reading your article.

It works as a sort of cross cultural, cross generational implicit association test for me. Not quite every one of those juxtapositions worked for me the way they clearly were supposed to- several I gravitated toward the real world and several others I didn't see the difference all that much. And some [not all] of the anime human ones I preferred the real world version. But then I'm a middle aged North American male.

I don't quite get the new, if lesser than this, pervasiveness of American comic book culture either. Which is far more present than when I was a modest consumer of it 35 years ago. Much as I stepped out of gaming over a decade ago at a time when it would still have been absurd to claim it effectively transcended the real world. Maybe it does now.

I live a pretty bland and indoor life. But real sunshine and grass and birds and wind still win out when I need something real. A loss if that ceases to be true for so many.

Excellent post. Will read the linked articles.

This represents the experience of what percentage Chinese youth? It sounds like the elite, so 1%? Or more?


Many of those Chinese I personally knew best were from the top 1%. But the interviews and the broader phenomena is much larger. Basically, anyone at what Chinese would consider "middle class" or above.


I agree. And most of those images, fwiw, are from Japan, not China. Japan has a considerably nicer urban environment IMHO. Don't know if that is true just because they are further along the development train or if they were originally more conscious of urban aesthetics than the Chinese were. In any case, the divide between 2D and 3D is even bigger in China than in those images.

But that video does a good job of making the point.


On the desirability of urban life vs subruburban life — in the Chinese context I don't think that is the comparison most will make, as there really is no suburbia. Or at least not what Americans mean with that term. They have 郊区 that mostly seem to be large block of high rise apartment builds and gated compounds. If your choice is between that and a busy downtown or maze like hutong kind of environment (as it was in Beijing) , then yes, I think the city centers would be the more alluring place to live.

But the important thing here: these kids grew up their entire life in the cities. They don't have a "I moved to the big city" story that a lot of us associate with China. It is all they have ever known (and thus doesn't impress them much).

郊区 is actually used to mean the large areas of countryside around cities that belong to the same administrative area, at least in Beijing. People often translate it is a "suburb" when speaking English, but it is essentially a mistranslation.

Do you think this obsession towards rustic and the beautiful has parallel with the Pre-Raphaelites and Arts and Crafts movement during late 19th century? Both appear to represent an attempt to escape the managed industrial society.

I grew up in China. Concerning the significance of the three hypotheses, I rank them as follows: 3 > 2 > 1

1. The 2D world is a colorful, wonder-filled, idyllic, and beautiful (“meihao“) escape for young Chinese who have lived their entire lives cramped into a polluted and drab urban morass.

It’s certainly meihao, but it doesn’t have anything to do with urbanity. Chinese teenagers in industrial cities and in environmentally green cities (like Shenzhen) have the same ardor for escapism. Nature is not inherently valuable. If you grew up in a big city, you might find the countryside and nature jarring, inconvenient, and unnatural. It certainly was like that for me.
I think the main thing is meaning — the fictional world is very meaningful, and does not have meaningless suffering — the same way fictional worlds are better for most people everywhere, urban or not.

2. As the 2D world and its allusions are opaque to outsiders, the 2D world is one of the few places Chinese teenagers are sheltered from the watchful eyes of their elders.

Probably, although I don’t know whether this can be said to be a *cause*, because I’m sure if 2D world doesn’t exist, we can find some other source to derive jargons from.

3. The 2D world offers a sort of media experience that is hard to find on Chinese television. Chinese television, (indeed, Chinese life as a whole) is dominated by moralizing Chicken Soup for the Soul sensibilities which tells young what to think. At the other extreme, popular slapstick comedy, variety and singing programs, livestreaming, and so forth, demand no thought at all. (For those of you who have read Fahrenheit 451, it is hours and hours of Bradbury’s “parlor walls.”) The 2D world offers content that demands thought without demanding what viewers should think.

I think this is the greatest factor. If you want sophisticated meaning, anime is the place to find it, not the Chinese TV.