What 270,000 Books Tell You About China’s Changing Values

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crt_jobfair_F_201111230558035:43 am HKT Mar 2, 2015

Students pictured in Shanghai. AP

Chinese values are shifting.

A University of California at Los Angeles study assessed Chinese values by analyzing the words used in more than 270,000 Chinese-language books and found that China’s social core is undergoing a major transformation. The psychology researchers focused on word usage in books published between 1970 and 2008. Among the findings: the word “obedience” was used three times as much as the word “autonomy” in books from 1970, while the ratio flipped in 2008 books, with “autonomy” dominating.

Book authors used words like “choose,” “compete,” “private,” “autonomy” and “innovation” with increasing frequency as the nearly four decades progressed. The usage reflects greater individualism and sharp rises in “urban population, household consumption and education levels,” the study says.

To those who live in China, the shift may be apparent even without scanning 270,000 books. A quarter century ago, most Chinese dressed in drab blue and olive green Mao suits. Ration coupons were needed to buy rice, meat, cooking oil. Life for most urban Chinese was defined by where they worked – the “work unit” – the collective grouping which provided housing and social services, but also regulated when they could have children. Now, people have the freedom to choose where they live and work. Shopping malls ever-present in cities like Beijing have transformed not only physical landscapes but also mental ones, with many people becoming far more entrepreneurial, or far more materialistic.

The study’s authors, Zeng Rong and Patricia Greenfield, say that the shift in values shows the extent to which China’s economic reforms have penetrated society. “This increasing attention is driven by the dramatic economic development in China: When you have nothing to eat, you will concentrate on planting; when you are full, you begin to think about which values are leading your life,” said Ms. Zeng, a graduate student at China’s Beijing Normal University and a visiting researcher at UCLA.

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