酷 kù (Cool)

A new generation of Chinese born in the 1980s has grown up in a world of foreign investment, global markets, corporate acquisitions, electronic information, a world populated by private entrepreneurs, fashion designers, aerobic instructors, consultants, advertising gurus, conspicuous wealth and disposable income among a small yet growing urban middle class.

The cool generation is typically made up of single children. Some, but not all, come from middle class families. They do not necessarily share or want the same things as their peers, but they want they same range of choices. It is an all-consuming China, in which dreams are fulfilled in the purchases made in new shopping malls and arcades.

酷 encapsulates an attitude, a lifestyle, a quest for meaning and personal identity. The question remains what exactly is 酷 for young urban Chinese.

It begins as a quest for meaning and personal identity that celebrates a mix of new styles and attitudes and ends up pretty much anything that can be marketed and packaged for the young consumer.

The character for 酷 is interesting because apart from sounding like ‘cool’ in English, its meaning has nothing to do with being ‘modern’, ‘hip’ or ‘trendy’. 酷 literally means ‘cruel’, 'oppressive’, ‘fierce’.

Its meaning in Chinese, however, does convey something of ‘cool’ or ‘fashionable’ in English, especially in a way that makes one look slightly severe, tough in appearance or manner as in ‘Are those your new glasses? Very cool, very James Dean’.

Any attempt to nail down a definition of 酷 is perhaps too restrictive for a generation of urban Chinese whose whole point is to find out what happens when every form of restriction is removed.

In the end, it all comes down to attitude. 酷 is what people—specifically what young people want it to mean. As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s "Through the Looking Glass": ‘When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

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