The pursuit of freedom and its risks: the dreams and dilemmas of young Chinese backpackers

Xie, Jia (2017) The pursuit of freedom and its risks: the dreams and dilemmas of young Chinese backpackers. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Full text available as:
Download (5MB) | Preview
Printed Thesis Information:


This study examines how backpacking, an activity originating from Western societies, is perceived and practised by the post-1980s generation in China. By locating backpackers’ travel experiences within the context of the circumstances of their life and relating it to wider society, this study not only illustrates the changes and diversity of backpacker culture by providing empirical evidence from China, but also shows how the younger generation living through substantial social transformation reflect on themselves and wider society.
This research employs qualitative methods, exploring Chinese backpackers’ characters and life choices, as well as the emergence of backpacking within China. There are two key questions for this study: firstly, how is backpacking perceived and practised by young Chinese people? Secondly, are there any differences among young backpackers regarding travel motivations and life attitudes? Yunnan Province is the primary fieldwork site, and two field trips were conducted there in 2014 and 2015. Thirty semi-structured in-depth interviews with backpackers were conducted in order to examine young backpackers’ travel experiences, as well as their personal life attitudes. Participant observation was also employed as a way to investigate backpackers’ interaction and travel behaviours. Six focus groups, made up of non-backpackers, offer comparative perspectives regarding backpacking from young people who share similar social circumstances and cultural context with travellers.
This study reveals that the popularity of backpacking can be understood as primarily due to how the activity represents ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ within the context of China. Backpacking is not merely a consumption-led mobility, but also widely employed as a process of reflexive awareness by young Chinese people. Four types of backpackers, namely the amateur, the dreamer, the escaper and the alternative seeker, are identified by this study, indicating the diversity of backpacking in China. The amateur and the dreamer acknowledge the vital role of home and consistent and stable employment in their lives; as a result, backpacking is adopted as a way to escape from the daily routine and find self-fulfilment through a meaningful activity. However, the escaper and the alternative seeker tend to question mainstream values and the traditional expectations and conventions; accordingly, their journeys seek to examine the self and help find a personal way to measure success and happiness in lives. Particularly, alternative seekers find life on the road more interesting than a stable life in a city. Accordingly, they extend backpacking to a way of living and develop their own individual routines.
Backpacking becomes a debate amongst young people regarding the norms and values of a worthwhile life, and reflects the profound cultural and social change taking place within contemporary China. Traditional expectations and conventions, namely stages within one’s life, such as getting a job, settling down in a city, getting married and having children, are questioned and challenged. Most participants in this study are understood to possess respect for backpackers who pursue freedom and their dreams, as ‘freedom’ is perceived to represent strong individual capabilities and critical thinking. However, they also realise that anxiety consistently accompanies this freedom, particularly within an individualised society such as China’s. In general, the conflict between individual interests/desires and the family/social obligations is highlighted by participants. As a result, the term ‘staged individualism’ is coined by this study, demonstrating how the Chinese path of individualism may force the young generation to separate their lives into different stages, defining different purposes for each stage, as a way to balance individual interests/desires and family/social obligations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Backpacker, post-1980s generation, youth culture, alternative lifestyle, individualism.
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences
Funder's Name: The China Scholarship Council
Supervisor's Name: Gregory, Professor Philo and Matt, Dr. Dawson
Date of Award: 2017
Depositing User: Dr Jia Xie
Unique ID: glathesis:2017-8501
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 17 Oct 2017 15:54
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2023 15:57
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.8501

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item


Downloads per month over past year