The one-child-per-family Transformers generation

China's version of the boomers can't get enough of alien invader giant robots.

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 17, 2007 3:30PM (EDT)

"Transformers" is a big hit in China, grossing 100 million yuan ($13 million) in its first week, putting other recent American blockbusters to shame, and obliterating a much-ballyhooed documentary on the Nanjing massacre. (This has inspired some wailing and moaning in the Chinese media, but come on: Japanese toys or Japanese pillage? It's a no-brainer!)

"Transformers" has been a huge success everywhere, so its popularity in China wouldn't automatically seem all that remarkable. But the consistently fascinating Danwei translates excerpts from a Chinese article declaring that the "Transformers" box office bonanza can be linked to the coming of age of the one-child-per-family generation, making the movie more "influential" in China than in the United States.

This group was born between the late 1970s and early 1980s. The "Transformer" TV cartoon series was irreplaceable entertainment for them in their childhood. As the first generation under the one child policy, they had no brothers or sisters, and most of their spare time was spent sitting in front of a TV set which may have even been black and white. At that time, "Tangram" was a typical "mainstream" kids program on CCTV. It taught kids how to do simple paper folding and sing children's songs -- all the TV station cared about were the educational aspects of the programming. Then the Transformers arrived, greeted by surprise and wild enthusiasm. Now, with those kids all grown up, they will take their own children, wives (they were mostly boys), and childhood memories and flock to the cinemas to see the new movie.

I'm not sure what to make of this assertion -- my own observation indicates that siblings can spend just as much time watching television as only children. My son also greeted "Transformers" with wild enthusiasm, and I suspect that demographically he has little in common with China's one-child-per-family generation other than that, like them, he is predominantly male.

Incidentally, the latest statistics on the Chinese Internet indicate that the country has about 137 million Net users, who are 70 percent under age 30 and 60 percent male, and apparently overwhelmingly addicted to Xu Jinglei's blog. Which means that the majority of China's Internet users are also members of the one-child-per-family Transformers generation.

What does this mean? I'm sure someone will be along shortly to spell it all out. China's one-person-per-family generation is a Sinocentric analogue to the United States' boomer generation. The boomers have wielded their mighty population bulge like a sledgehammer over cultural discourse since at least the 1960s. Once upon a time the talk was all free love and revolution; now it's hearing loss and retirement-funding choices. China's one-child generation does not carry the same outsize demographic weight, but as a lodestone for charting China's direction, the generation that first made its debut as an onslaught of "little emperors" is now packing movie halls and dominating Internet discourse. They will provide an irresistible hook for Chinese magazine editors looking for an angle on just about anything for decades to come.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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