The distinctive humor and worldview of people born after 1990 have been shaped by their easy relationship with social media and China’s economic rise, as Peng Yining reports.
When Liu Xiyang was given an assignment to make a public information program about the law and its relevance to the general public, his first thought was, “How can I make it fun?”
The 21-year-old law junior, who works as a reporter at Tsinghua University’s in-house TV station, was told the program should be logical, educational, and helpful to people involved in legal disputes, but rather than playing by the book, Liu had other ideas.
Instead of making a worthy-but-dull educational piece, Liu and his schoolmates produced a 10-minute program that parodied China Central Television’s Xinwen Lianbo, or News Simulcast, which airs at 7 pm every day and is one of China’s most serious news broadcasts.
Liu used the opening animation sequence of Xinwen Lianbo, but changed the name of the program to Zuowen Lianbo (Mean News Simulcast) and used special effects so he could play the male and female anchors at the same time. Also, rather than using straight reporting techniques in an item about consumer protests against restaurants setting minimum charges, the program showed a customer rapping about his, and other people’s, bad experiences in eateries.
The video quickly garnered more than 13,000 hits on the Internet, mostly from Tsinghua students who found it hilarious.
However, Liu quickly realized that he and his adoring audience have a sense of humor specific to their age group.
“I played my video at a presentation, and the audience, people in their 30s and 40s, were like, ‘What’s the point?’ but people my age burst out laughing,” said Liu. “It’s just my generation’s sense of humor. We like to make things fun.”
The Post-’90s, as they are known, differ greatly from people born in the ‘80s and earlier. While their elders have a generally serious attitude to life－jobs, marriage, social responsibility－the Post-’90s tend to be more playful and embrace the spirit of fun. The potential for fun has become a key consideration when teens and 20-somethings make decisions about the things they want to do.
What really distinguishes this generation, though, is its easy relationship with social media. The Internet is not so much a medium of choice as something they were born into. Unlike previous generations, many of whom grew up witnessing the development of the Web, the Post-’90s were born when the Internet was fully functional. They have never known anything else and have an innate sense of how it functions. Forums, games, memes, video mashups and apps such as Songify, which turns spoken words into songs, are simply a fact of life. The generation’s distinctive humor is generated by and transmitted through the Internet, which they access via mobile devices, not traditional PCs.
According to a 2012 report by China Internet Watch, the Post-’90s accounted for 11.7 percent of the Chinese population; that’s about 140 million people. Moreover, they represented 13 percent of the country’s total Internet users
While they mostly chatted online, about 67 percent of them watched movies, more than 66 percent browsed news sites, and 61 percent used the network to download data. Many used forums to discuss current topics, identify and read literary works, and updated their blogs. Above all, humor played a large role in their internet browsing
“The Post-’90s love to watch funny things, so I thought I would gain a larger audience if I made the video funny. After all, a program highlighting legal issues should be popular if it’s going to be successful,” Liu said.
In November, Liu’s video won first prize in a national competition for short online films. He said making the video required a lot of hard work and design, which he didn’t find interesting, “but we have a spirit of having fun and making things funny,” he said.
Graduate student Yang Qihan, who was born in 1988, said he’s not a typical post-’90s person, but he knows all about his generation’s attitude to having fun. Most of his 20,000 followers on WeChat, China’s most popular social network, are Post-’90s. His posts, which are famous for “mocking things through negativity”, include “Stop complaining that your ID photo makes you look ugly. You are ugly.”
Yang said a long, serious article he wrote about The Analects of Confucius garnered 500 hits, while a short, satirical essay about how poor people admire the lifestyles of the wealthy was read more than 2 million times within three days of being published.
He added that while amusing things have always been popular, the Post-’90s have more freedom to follow their instincts than previous generations.
“They (the Post-’90s) don’t give much consideration to ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’, ‘can’ or ‘can’t’. Whatever they want, they just go for it,” he said.
Yang said he likes Guo Degang, a Chinese comedian and crosstalk (wordplay) performer, and takes notes while watching his TV show to learn how to be funny.
“As China’s economy has grown, the Post-’90s have had a better standard of living, so they can afford to have fun and do the things they like,” Yang said. “But at the same time, they face very fierce competition in terms of exams and jobs, so they, more than any other generation, need to have something funny and relaxing they can use to escape the harsh realities of life.”
Positive, not bitter
“Being happy is the most important thing” has become a crucial principle for the post-’90s generation, according to a 2013 report by China Youthology, a research organization that has been supplying companies with reports to help make their brands relevant and meaningful to young people since 2008.
The report, based on a field study of 26 people in six cities, concluded that when the Post-’90s choose to do something, they want the process to be fun and as easy and interesting as possible. They want it to be positive, not bitter and painful.
Moreover, they place a heavy emphasis on happiness and enjoying life. They have a positive attitude, but are perhaps prone to ignore important issues and dwell on trivial things. They can’t bear setbacks, lack persistence and quit easily.
He Shu, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University, said most of the students in her class are about 21, and she has frequently been impressed by their work on assignments.
“Once I asked them to make a short film on a subject of their choosing. One group parodied CCTV’s famous food program A Bite of China as A Bite of Peking University, and presented the food at the school’s canteen in a smart and interesting way. I believe they had fun making that film, and also learned a lot about making movies during the process,” she said.
For He, the generation’s distinctive character traits are a positive, not a negative: “I don’t think being playful will have a bad effect on their lives. On the contrary, I think they are more creative and energetic, and having a sense of humor and making things fun is actually a talent, a gift. I’m quite optimistic about the future of the post-’90s generation.”
WHAT’S SO FUNNY?
Liu Xiyang, 21
I love watching Bref, a series of short films from France that feature fast cuts and are never longer than 2 minutes. They are hilarious.
I made a few short films in the style of Bref and showed them to my mother. She said: “They’re very good. I am so proud of you. But I don’t think I understood them.”
I also find Dan Mu funny. That’s when you’re watching a video and comments made by netizens fly across the screen like bullets. Dan Mu is becoming popular among the Post-’90s, and I’ve heard some movie theaters now allow people to text comments during movies and their words appear on the big screen. People get to mock the actors, the storyline, everything. Sometimes there are so many comments that they cover the whole screen. It’s a new form of entertainment.
Recently, I laughed a lot while watching a TV ad, because it was so ridiculous. It revolved around a man in a wheelchair who would regain the use of his legs if he rubbed them with the “magic paste” being promoted. The ad was meant to be taken seriously, but it was so preposterous that I couldn’t help laughing out loud.
When we were in high school, we were strictly managed by the teachers. All snacks were taken away when we entered the classroom, and there was even a regulation stipulating that there had to be a gap of at least 1 meter between boys and girls when they were walking together. That was how the school kept its students from falling in love, which could jeopardize their academic lives. The teachers would inspect the campus at night and point flashlights at potential lovers. Looking back, it sounds funny, but we were under huge pressure from the college entrance exam at the time. However, once we passed the exam, we got to do whatever we wanted.
Yang Huameng, 20
I like when people put different things together, such as rewriting parts of an ancient Chinese poem in English, and somehow making the Chinese verses rhyme with the English ones. The contrasts created are really humorous.
The online posts I like most are fragmented and jumpy. Ben Bing, a PhD candidate in the United States and one of my favorite authors, is a very casual person. Reading her stories is like having her talk to you in a playful way. There’s a lot of information in her posts, but you never know what’s coming next. She’s unpredictable and smart. She once wrote: “I had a very poor official career. My election as class monitor when I was in the fourth grade was the highpoint of my two decades of political life.”
I watch TV series from the United States, and find it extremely funny when serious characters, including Sheldon Copper in The Big Bang Theory, suddenly tell dry, witty jokes.
Sheldon is a nerdy scientist. He always knocks on his neighbor Penny’s door three times when he wants to see her. But one time he knocked five times, and said the two extra knocks were insurance for the future, in case he wanted to see Penny urgently and might not have time to knock three times.
Liu Yanjun, 18
Some people like TV shows from the US because of the bold lines and exaggerated outfits, but I just enjoy the sense of humor in programs such as Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls.
They show embarrassing moments that could actually happen among families and friends, but do it in funny and interesting ways. And after telling the jokes, they always make a serious point, such as families are important, or friends should take care of each other. By doing this, they make the jokes meaningful.
By contrast, two recent Chinese comedies, Breakup Guru and Breakup Buddies, just told meaningless jokes. They copied old jokes from the Internet－the director might have thought they were funny, but I found most of them a little vulgar.
Also, the actors were dressed in ridiculous outfits which weren’t funny at all, and just made them look foolish. They were desperate to grab the audience’s attention by destroying their own images.