Are you normal, arty, or an awkward “2B” youth? A viral Internet meme on Sina Weibo in 2012, which is still making the rounds on various Chinese forums today, demonstrates amusing visual interpretations of stereotypical identity labels applied to youths in everyday situations in three distinct styles. The widespread use of slang terms as a means of defining one’s identity in colloquial exchanges and on Chinese social media portals indicates a growing sense of self-consciousness in relation to class and social status among Chinese millenials today.
Wenqing, originally a term used to describe artistically-inclined youth, have come under fire lately. In June this year, acclaimed Chinese author Zhuang Yating wrote a commentary that leveled strong criticism against China’s growing tide of wenqing, diagnosing the trend as a disease that has to be contained. “Sufferers of the wenqing disease,” she notes, “have several distinct characteristics: they disavow money and materialism completely, they do not consider the consequences of their actions, and they are very much self-delusional.”
Who are wenqing, and how one can tell them apart from the “normal” or “awkward” youth? Photos from Internet memes suggest that they tend to appear or behave in a more sophisticated manner, exhibiting a preference for more unconventional forms of self-expression while not appearing ridiculously out-of-place like the laughable 2B youth. The term 2B is derived from the slang phrase Er Bai Wu, or 205, which is a derogatory expression for people who behave in silly or idiotic ways.
In contrast, the term wenqing has been held up to extra scrutiny recently due to a mounting recognition that they could be the Chinese incarnation of the West’s increasingly trendy, yet at the same time somewhat pretentious, hipsters. While America’s hipsters started out as individualistic counter-cultural 70s hippies, the issue of authenticity has now become a glaring one as the term “hipster” becomes appropriated into an icon of mass-market cool.
Like the label diaosi, which literally means “pubic hair”, the meaning of the phrase wenqing is intrinsically malleable and has various connotations when employed under different situations. While diaosi first emerged as a self-deprecating label of disenfranchisement, used in contrast to terms reserved for China’s privileged class – gaofushuai (tall, rich and handsome) or baifumei (fair, rich and beautiful) – a 2013 survey by Chinese market research firm Eguan has indicated that an overwhelming 40% of China’s population identified with the label diaosi.
Over time, it has become an empowering term reserved for use by ordinary Chinese youth born after the ‘80s (balinghou) in tacit recognition of the underdog’s potential and the circumstances of social inequality that have led to the marginalization of the diaosi, who grew up in less privileged socio-economic circumstances than their guanerdai or fuerdai counterparts, the offspring of government officials or wealthy entrepreneurs.
Though they might be considered successful in economic terms, holding down a stable job and armed with a university degree, they continue to maintain a dismal impression of themselves in terms of social status. Paradoxically, more than 80% of those born after 1980 would regard themselves as diaosi, suggesting that this perception of marginality is actually held by a majority.
In the same way, the term wenqing can be subject to multiple interpretations. As Ms Wang Yanfei, a 23-year-old junior banking officer from Suzhou observes, the trendy and sophisticated image often associated with wenqing has also created a multitude of wei wenqing, or pseudo-wenqing, who are only interested in becoming a wenqing for the sake of it.
“Real wenqing wouldn’t be affected by trends or the people around them. They would assert their own opinions and interests, and enjoy a work by an artist because they genuinely have a passion for it,” she told China Outlook. She also comments that wenqing tend to be able to give an impression of being able to disavow materialism precisely because they are well-off enough to not have to fret about such concerns, and as such tend to be from middle or upper-middle class families.
In many cases, wei wenqing may often be perceived as chaoren instead, which refers to trendy youth from upper middle-class backgrounds with niche and upmarket consumer preferences. Such chaoren would tend to also possess the economic means to indulge in artistic or cultural activities associated with wenqing, such as travelling, reading foreign novels, and taking photographs with Leica or Lomography cameras.
People’s Daily writer Ding Gang has observed in a 2010 Global Times article that chaoren who “stand at the front lines of fashion” tend to hanker after the latest cutting-edge gadgets and brands such as Apple products.
In a 2012 Pew Research survey, 92% of China’s respondents said that they are doing better financially than their parents’ generation, the highest percentage among the 21 nations polled. Additionally, a majority is upbeat about the future, with 82% saying that the current generation of children will be better off then their parents. As young Chinese become increasingly aware of their economical advancement, chaoren or wei wenqing among them are also expressing more individualistic consumer tendencies.
In a bid to elevate their levels of sophistication, they are becoming selective about the places where they hang out, choosing to congregate in neighbourhoods like Beijing’s bohemian 798 Art Zone, and the types of material goods that they purchase, which are often from niche, high-end fashion labels but not mainstream luxury brands.
While popular satirical blog Accidental Chinese Hipsters subtly mocks the unconventional sartorial choices of Chinese people, there has been an increasing awareness of the latest trends in cosmopolitan areas like New York’s Brooklyn or San Francisco’s Mission district among China’s youthful consumers. P1, a private social network founded in 2007, specifically targets such trend-setting chaoren. One has to be spotted by street style photographers from the P1 network to be invited to join the exclusive web portal.
Fashionable fixed-gear bikes, once unheard of in China where bicycles were seen as a merely pragmatic means of cheap transportation, are becoming common in arty areas like Beijing’s Dongcheng district. Despite being labeled as dangerous by China’s transport authorities due to a perception that these lightweight bikes, which travel at a single speed and have no brakes, are difficult to control on the roads, boutique stores and online communities dedicated to the fixed-gear trend have been steadily growing since 2009.
FixedChina’s Weibo page, for example, now boasts more than 130,000 followers. The Shanghai Alleycat bike race, which is dedicated to fixed-gear enthusiasts, has been organized annually since 2009 and attracted over 600 participants in 2012, though the event was cancelled last year due to disapproval from the Chinese authorities.
And at a time when anti-Japanese propaganda and sentiments were being fanned due to territorial disputes in the last quarter of 2012, Japanese fashion giant Uniqlo, a frequent go-to for chaoren, surprisingly held its own, reporting higher-than-expected sales for the three months from September to November 2012.
There has been growing concern on the part of the Chinese authorities that the use of Internet slang terms, as powerful markers of identity, could lead to moral degradation. Cai Guoxuan, vice-president of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, observed in The Nanfang in February that the volatility of terms like diaosi that have not been properly defined could adversely affect China’s reforms and efforts at development due to their lack of ideological and conceptual clarity.
Zhuang is equally despondent about the perceived arrogance of wenqing: “They have become rigid and inflexible in their perceptions of the world. I once met a couple of literary types who simply refused to entertain your opinions, and are bent on showing off their superiority in taste and lifestyle choices.”
For Shu Yong, an Internet entrepreneur in his early thirties from Chengdu who identifies himself as “a wenqing who sells fruit”, the situation is a lot more simple than that interpreted by Zhuang and Cai. “As long as you enjoy a form of artistic or cultural pursuit, I would consider you to be a wenqing,” he told China Outlook. He earns a few thousand to ten thousand yuan a month from his fruit-selling business on Taobao, and features his original poetry on his Weibo page, which has more than 100,000 followers.
One thing is clear: whether they identify as chaoren, wenqing or diaosi, Chinese millenials seem determined to do things their own way, unencumbered by rigid definitions and often straddling positions that fall somewhere in between this spectrum of malleable identity categories.