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There are Starbucks cafés at nearly every corner of the new business areas of Beijing. In the one located in the Sohu office building I happen to meet Xu Zhiyuan, a friend of Q and renowned columnist. Zhiyuan is Beijing’s visionary-in-residence. Even though with his long hair and trademark fluttering white shirt, jeans and half-boots he looks like a 21st century urban hippie, his columns have a devoted followership among the new paragons of Chinese Wealth and Power. The titles of his two recent collections of articles are programmatic: “Born in the 1970s. Those Troubled Youngsters” and “I Want to be a Part of the World”.

Xu Zhiyuan receiving SMS from a lady

Zhiyuan is a voracious reader. Wherever you meet him a book is in his hand or lying in front of him. His apartment is filled to the brim with historical and political literature written in Chinese or English. Still our conversation is usually somewhat limited because of the language barrier. Today we both show a little more patience. I ask him how he considers his role in contemporary Chinese culture. He says he’s not someone trying to give answers to the big questions. Mostly his ambition is to point to the complexity of issues, counter-balancing the simplified world view provided by the Chinese educational system.

He wants to know whether I am a follower of any philosophical or historical doctrine or theory. I reply that for me History and Society are nonlinear phenomena, resisting any attempt at satisfying theorizing. He tells me that recently he’s started to read more fiction, and asks me about Bernhard Schlink’s novel “The Reader” which seems to have made its way even to China. We talk a little about the impact of epochal guilt on the following generations, the fog it creates impeding the development of a historical perspective.

When I leave him, Zhiyuan again turns towards his book. Later he will write a blog entry about this afternoon, starting by explaining his sentimental bond with the neighbourhood (memories of girls passing by to the sound of high-heels on the concrete pavement, of late-night ramblings and the search for mysterious records,…), then reporting in full detail a moment of pure intellectual bliss encountered during the reading of his book. A true follower of Walter Benjamin in China’s capital.

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