Dressed in a black leather jacket so oversized that the sleeves cover his hands, Han isn't exactly channeling James Dean or a young Bob Dylan. But the high school dropout, who at age 17 wrote The Third Way, a best-selling novel excoriating China's hidebound education system, is the embodiment of disaffected mainland youth, a long-haired 21-year-old racing to define himself through fast cars and shopworn anti-establishment symbolism. Han taps his lucrative book royalties to indulge a serious addiction to auto rallies, in which he participates around the country with his five cars, among them a $50,000 Mitsubishi. For Han, a ribbon of open asphalt means more than just a Kerouac-like aimlessness. For decades the mobility of Chinese citizens was severely restricted, and the freedom to move is nothing short of revolutionary. "It's my choice to do what I want and go where I want," he says. "Nobody can tell me what to do."
That familiar refrain is steadily building among a generation of Chinese who are now in the process of deciding what they want to be when they grow up. No longer forced to fit into a regimented Maoist monoculture, their range of possibilities has diversified along with the country's exploding economy. For many, their path to success does not necessarily lead through the traditional tedium of high school cramming, college exams and then a junior position at state factory No. 327. Although some are dropouts whose alt-lifestyle experiments are subsidized by newly wealthy parents, they're not all slackers. They are setting up their own companies, writing books, designing funky clothes, making music, making loveand in the process they are beginning to form the crude outlines of what in the future will be considered countercultural, even cool, in China.
The country's population of young iconoclasts is expanding so quickly that, like America's beatniks and hippies and Japan's shinjinrui who came before them, they now have their own moniker: linglei. The word's meaning was once derogatory, connoting a disreputable hooligan. Not anymore. This year, the Xinhua New Word Dictionary, which serves as one of the Communist Party's official arbiters of what is linguistically acceptable, amended the definition of linglei to just mean an alternative lifestyle, without an accompanying sniff of disapproval. Unlike countercultural movements in the West, which often germinate in protest activities, most linglei are not motivated by economic anxiety or political dissatisfaction. Growing up in an amnesiac era where Tiananmen is increasingly just a square, not a massacre, they feel little need to push for governmental change. Instead, their rebellion against conformity is largely an exercise in self-expression, a mannered display of self-conscious cool. "People born in the 1970s are concerned about how to make money, how to enjoy life," says Chun Shu, another young writer who dropped out of high school. "But people born in the 1980s are worried about self-expression, how to choose a path that fits one's own individual identity."
While China's economy is now conducive to entrepreneurial individuality, the nation's education system is still mired in uniformity. At the Songjiang No. 2 Middle School, Han was a literary savant, the winner of a 1999 national writing competition so conversant in ancient texts that he would taunt his teachers by quoting arcane passages at them during class. But in other subjects, he was barely mediocre, dooming his chances of getting into a good university. The college entry-exam system is based on a comprehensive score, leaving little room for individual talents like, say, a young chess champion in the West, who would have a pick of top universities. So Han dropped out of 10th grade, wrote books, and began his auto buying spree. Meanwhile, the mainland press debated whether the education system was blunting creativity precisely when the new economy needed more innovative workers. Even Xinhua, the state media agency, voiced its opinion in an editorial last year, writing that China's traditional education system created "learners as lifeless and characterless as stuffed ducks." Han was later offered the rare chance to take courses at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University. The offer was a vindication, but Han refused. He was too busy racing cars to go back to the old track.
The very idea of voluntarily dropping outas opposed to being ostracized for incorrect thought or actionis a new concept in mainland society. Before, only the poor left school, to help their parents in the fields or factories. But today, the emergence of linglei has meant that not just the children of the underclass are forsaking school. For many kids, China's new alternative has provided another potential path to happiness. Wu Wei was a diligent student at the Jinan Foreign Language School in the eastern province of Shandong. Earlier this year, he was supposed to go study in Germany. But SARS intervened and Wu's chance for an overseas education was thwarted, meaning another stultifying year at his Chinese school. Desperate for a little creative freedom, Wu sought options at an IT job fair this summer. Elbowing aside graduates from the nation's best universities, he explained to recruiters in his high-pitched voice that although he was only 17, he also happened to be the youngest Microsoft-certified computer programmer in China. Within a day, the boy with a mouthful of braces was being considered for five different positions. In July, he dropped out of school and started Jinan Hanyu Technology, a software-design firm. Among his five programmers, two are even younger than he is. "In my parents' generation, a diploma was considered the only proof of excellence," says Wu. "But for us, as long as you can prove your ability in a certain area, there are many ways to success."