An intentionally provocative argument for my dear Chinese students at RUNIN to assess critically:

There is a Western saying that “you are what you eat.” Much more than this, I wish to propose, who and what you are in terms of ethnicity or nationality is determined at least as much by what you eat, drink, do, like, and want as by the country of which you are a citizen (officially or externally defined) or of which nation you consider yourself a member (internally or self-defined). In the case of the post-1990 or 90-generation of China, and despite obvious patriotism, virtually all of those lifestyle and desirous factors are trending in a less-and-less Chinese direction. From this, one or both of two unpalatable conclusions can be drawn: your generation is less Chinese than your grandparents' generation OR with each successive generation, Chinese citizens are becoming less Chinese.

Far be it for a foreigner such as myself to define what it is to be Chinese, at least as much owing to the wrongness of foreign imposition as the pernicious oversimplification of essentialism—both practices parts of what Edward M. Said calls “Orientalism,” only in this case referring to the “Far” rather than “Middle East.” China is now too strong for the former, but I would argue that we have all been guilty of the latter from time to time (Yes, you too! Surely you don't think that every other Chinese person would agree with you on what is the essence of being Chinese.). Rather than imposing an essentialized zhonghua 中华 on you, my dear students, I ask only that you consider below whether we cannot judge certain customs and consumer goods to be more or less Chinese than others. I think we can all agree that, by definition, those practices and material things which originated from outside of China are necessarily less Chinese than those which either originated in China or have always been a part of the Chinese lifestyle. Indeed, who among us would deny that a Chinese lifestyle is an important part of what makes you a Chinese person? Do we not find a trend among your generation away from that which is undeniably Chinese, at least when compared to your elders?

I will resist the ultimate, essentialist generalization between China and the West that you are supposedly “collectivist” while the West is more “individualist.” You yourself may or may not hold this belief, though, for the record, let me state clearly that I think it yields more harmful stereotypes than useful insights. Be aware, regardless, that many still think in these too basic terms, and quite consequentially in the field of comparative politics, that economic development inevitably leads to the prioritization of individualist, “self-expression values.” Instead, let us focus on the following, more obvious comparisons which are hardly less fundamental. In everything you do, like, and want, you can see yourselves becoming less Chinese than your grandparents:

We can see a dilution of your Chineseness in the facts that your generation is far more likely than your grandparents' to speak a foreign language (likely English, and from an earlier and earlier age toward the goal of native fluency, reducing your undesirable Chinese accents), live for extended periods outside of China (absorbing countless non-Chinese influences), receive a Western education (from primary to post-graduate levels), and various other trends almost universally affecting the youth of today's China. I will venture to guess that most of your grandparents do not have Western/English names, and many may have had no use for Romanized Chinese characters, whether pinyin, the now antiquated Wade-Giles, or other system which is less Chinese than pure hanzi 汉字. Whether the simplified characters 简体字you were primarily taught--though far more practical and easy to learn--are any less Chinese than the traditional characters 繁体字most of your grandparents grew up learning almost exclusively, I again defer to the judgment of actual Chinese people, but I'm sure that many in the Chinese diaspora who use the latter rather than the former would conclude that they are.

More superficially, perhaps, we can see a de-sinicization of Chinese youth in what you eat, drink, wear, watch, and listen to. Who would argue that KFC and other Western junk food are just as Chinese as traditional dishes? Or that coffee and cola are as Chinese as tea? Tang zhuang and qipao aside, would a fashion-conscious youth ever be caught dead on the street in a Maosuit (zhongshan zhuang 中山装) rather than bluejeans or a sharp business suit, if the near-universally Western formal occasion called for it?

I can anticipate your defense of contemporary Chinese pop music as still 100% Chinese because the lyrics are largely (though not entirely) in Mandarin, and let's face it, Chinese opera sounds pretty odd coming through a young person's cel phone. But it's much too soon to forget, as most have with “New World” crops like tomatoes, potatoes, and corn, that these weren't originally Chinese. Whether or not sung in Chinese, rock music and jazz just aren't as Chinese as either xiyou ji西游记 or dongfang hong东方红. By the same logic, Christianity, whose growth in China continues unabated, may be one of the religions of China, but I think it's a stretch to call it just as Chinese as Daoism or Buddhism. Perhaps anything can become Chinese, but I think becoming so earlier in history than something else makes it at least temporally more Chinese than something that's only recently been accepted as Middle-Kingdom 2.0 compatible.

As an American with consumerism coursing through my veins, I won't suggest that it's less Chinese to spend money, as many of you prefer, rather than to save it. That's probably a universal generational shift from times of scarcity to an age of abundant surplus, definitely something you share with generations of Americans after the Great Depression. But is the conspicuous consumption associated with famous, mostly Western brands not a little less Chinese than the more frugal preference for domestic ones​?

I believe that modernization, globalization, and Westernization are all distinct, if not always fully separable processes, all occurring in China simultaneously, but in terms of adulterating your Chinese identity, only the last one could have an effect. And no more insidious a source than Western media could wield the soft power necessary to change entire generations over time. For even if most post-1990 citizens still can't afford to indulge in a non-Chinese lifestyle of pizzas, foreign luxury clothing and jewelry, and imported cars, it matters immensely that the soft power of Western consumerism portrayed in the media has captured your imaginations almost entirely. Even if you don't have the money to buy all of that now, your voluntary wage-enslavement, if not your entire purpose in educating yourselves and getting “good jobs” in global corporations, is driven by a desire to have it all someday. You want a lifestyle that is less Chinese, and what we like and want makes us who we are, especially in a consumerist era.

The causes of these trends are irrelevant to my argument, though perhaps they could be traced back to the “Self-Strengthening” Movement of the mid-to-late 19th century (洋务运动/自强运动). But we should assiduously avoid any implication that Chineseness is in any way incompatible with national strength or that in order to modernize, it is necessary for you to cast off what you consider to be essentially Chinese. The argument I'm making is only concerned with comparing your generation to those within living memory, and mainly because human history has never seen changes of the depth, breadth, and number to which your generation and you personally have witnessed and experienced. The whole world is watching how China is changing, and you yourselves are absolutely and above all other representatives “under the microscope.”

None of this is to say that you are not Chinese, that you are becoming less Chinese compared to some objective standard of Chineseness (inevitably essentialized), or that someday a future generation of Chinese citizens will be unrecognizable to past generations. Very few of you eat non-Chinese food exclusively or communicate entirely in a language other than Chinese, nor will you ever. If cross-generational comparisons may be made at all, and this is not certain, would you not agree that you are less Chinese than your grandparents' generation? If you agree with this conclusion, would somehow loving China more than your grandparents make up for all the ways in which you are less Chinese than they are or were, or would an elevated sense of active patriotism just shift the most important identifying characteristics of Chineseness from cultural/lifestyle ones to political, potentially bellicose nationalist ones? Thanks for humoring me with a response.

Note any sentences which engage in what Fogelin (Ch. 3) calls Assuring, Guarding, or Discounting. Diagram this argument.