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Chinese Fashion First: Consumer Nationalism and ‘China Chic’

Consumer sentiments on Western brands and made-in-China fashion are changing.

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At a time when Chinese media, celebrities, and consumers are condemning and boycotting Western brands, Chinese fashion and luxury brands are flourishing in a new era of “proudly made in China.”

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

“The first thing Chinese fashion magazines should do is support the Chinese fashion industry, Chinese domestic brands, and Chinese designers!” In a video that went viral on social media, Hung Huang (洪晃), the famous American-Chinese television host and publisher of fashion magazine iLook, called out for a healthy development of China’s fashion industry that does not rely on Western brands to continue growing.

Hung Huang’s remarks were made in late March of 2021, around the time when a social media storm broke out in China over the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and its brand members – including H&M, Nike, and Adidas – for no longer sourcing cotton from China’s Xinjiang region. This boycott generated a huge backlash in mainland China. The online anger was mainly directed at H&M, since the Swedish retailer is a top member of the BCI and had previously released a statement on its site in which the company said it was “deeply concerned” over reports of alleged forced labor in the production of cotton in Xinjiang.

The news developments were followed by a wave of social media boycott campaigns and Chinese brand ambassadors cutting ties with international brands. It also ignited a social media movement in support of domestic brands, ‘made in China,’ and Xinjiang as China’s largest cotton-growing area.

The hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” (#我支持新疆棉花#) received a staggering 7.9 billion views on Weibo within a few weeks time. Simultaneously, a rising confidence in national brands became increasingly visible on social media, where the calls for supporting domestic brands are growing louder.

A recent survey by state media outlet Global Times suggests that most Chinese consumers believe that Western brands could be replaced by Chinese ones. The article claims that 75 percent of its survey respondents agree that “national products could fully or partially replace Western products.”

 
Proudly Made in China
 

Recent years have not just seen a rise in Chinese fashion brands, but also the emergence of a fashion scene where traditional Chinese elements play a major role. The Hanfu movement, for example, seeks to revitalize the wearing of Han Chinese ethnic clothing. But beyond that, brands are also weaving more Chinese themes into everyday fashion items such as sneakers and t-shirts.

China themed fashion on e-commerce platform Taobao.

The rise in popularity of Chinese fashion brands and styles was dubbed the “China Chic” trend by CGTN in 2020. “China Chic” is a translation of “guócháo” (国潮), which literally means “national tide,” referring to the rise of domestic brands, with their designs often incorporating culturally Chinese elements into the latest trends. In 2021, for the first time ever, the Spring Festival Gala (Chinese state media’s biggest live televised event) also included a fashion show to show the beauty of Chinese costumes to “demonstrate cultural confidence.”

With celebrity endorsements being one of the most important strategies for social media marketing, Chinese celebrities play a crucial role in this trend as guócháo ambassadors. Chinese actor and singer Xiao Zhan (肖战) was praised on social media for becoming the new brand ambassador of the Chinese sportswear brand Lining. When celebrity Wang Yibo became the spokesperson for the domestic brand Anta Sports, one Weibo hashtag page on the topic received over one billion views (#王一博代言安踏#) in late April of 2021. The promotional poster featuring Wang Yibo shows him wearing a t-shirt with “China” on it, including the national flag – profiling Anta as a nation-loving brand.

The rising popularity of ‘made in China’ fashion is noteworthy in a consumer culture where Western brands are often viewed as being of higher quality than domestically produced fashion. The very fact that these foreign brands succeeded in gaining access to China’s market is, in the eyes of many consumers, a reason to believe they must be of higher quality.[1] Those sentiments now seem to be shifting.

A recent Chinese short documentary produced by Tmall titled “Proudly Made in China” (爆款中国) discusses how Western brands have dominated the Chinese fashion and luxury market for years, making it more difficult for Chinese brands to become big players in their own field.

“Why are Chinese brands not as highly accepted by Chinese consumers?”, asks Li Jiaqi (李佳琦), an influencer and new brand recruiter for Tmall who is featured in the short film: “Why do Chinese consumers seem to have a preconceived and biased view that Chinese products are of poor quality?”

In the short film, Li explains that Chinese consumers have since long had worries about buying Chinese brands, and that one slight problem with a product will automatically negatively reflect on the entire brand.

Existing consumer preferences for Western brands have even created the idea that Chinese brands should register abroad and pose as a foreign brand to enlarge their chances to succeed in the Chinese market.

China’s flourishing live-streaming market and domestic e-commerce platforms have provided new opportunities for Chinese brands to shine once their products gain consumer recognition. Especially younger consumers, those born after 1995 or 2000, show more confidence in Chinese brands than the generations before them.

In the “Proudly Made in China” film, this growing trust in domestic brands among Chinese younger generations is linked to a striking confidence and pride in China, its national identity, and its culture. On Weibo, some commenters replied: “This is the era of domestic brands!”

 
Western Brand Controversies
 

Although the influence of national pride on China’s young consumers might already have been strong before, there are also changing dynamics in the relation between Chinese consumers and Western brands which seem to have boosted the ‘guócháo’ and domestic brand trend; Chinese brands have been cast in a more positive light over the past few years due to the controversies involving Western brands.

In 2018, Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) faced consumer outrage in China for publishing a culturally insensitive advertising campaign that showed a Chinese model clumsily using chopsticks to eat Italian dishes such as pizza, cannoli, and spaghetti. The campaign, which was titled “D&G Loves China,” completely backfired with many finding it racist and sexist and vowing to boycott the brand. The controversy became so big that a big D&G fashion show in Shanghai was canceled and the company saw a slump in its business on the mainland.

Still from the promotional D&G video that was deemed racist in China, causing major controversy in 2018 (whatsonweibo).

In 2019, many different international fashion brands, including Versace, Coach, Calvin Klein, Givenchy, and ASICS, were condemned by Chinese netizens for listing Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as separate countries or regions – not part of China – on their official websites or brand T-shirts. Chinese celebrities cut their collaborations with many of these brands.

When in 2020 the aforementioned Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) announced that it was ceasing all operations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region amid accusations of “forced labor” there, backlash in China further grew against the organization and the brands affiliated to it. As reported by CGTN, BCI has recently removed its statement on Xinjiang cotton from its website (allegedly this was related to a cyber attack), but the discussions on the position of Western brands in China continue, with both state media and netizens sending out the message that “foreign companies that slander China” are not welcome in the country.

 
The Future of Fashion Brands in China
 

“Boycott Nike? Support domestic brands? What are we supposed to do now?” It is a question posed by the Chinese ‘Sneakersbar’ vlogger Fang (@鞋吧Sneakersbar), a sportswear-focused self-media account with over 3,5 million followers on Weibo. The question resonates with many consumers, who are caught between politics, patriotism, and personal preferences for certain brands.

In their latest video, Sneakersbar makes up the balance on where Western brands, especially those affiliated with BCI, stand in the Chinese market today. On the one hand, Fang argues, many foreign brands, including Adidas, Nike, H&M, Uniqlo, and others, have already become part of China’s commercial fashion landscape and many consumers love these brands and their products. On the other hand, these foreign brands are also making political choices that Chinese consumers cannot ignore. But does this mean they should be boycotted forever? Does it mean that you should look down on others buying these products?

The video by popular weibo account Sneakersbar: “Boycott Nike? Support Domestic Brands? What are we supposed to do?”

The answer is that consumers should stay rational in their choices, Fang argues. This means that choosing Chinese brands out of a form of “rational patriotism” is fine, but people should not attack others merely because they wear foreign brands or work in their shops. The same goes for those consumers who only want to buy foreign brands just because they are foreign; they could also consider Chinese products to support domestic brands – especially those brands which refrain from copying foreign ones and have developed their own unique designs and styles.

Many commenters on Weibo support Fang’s message of “reasonable patriotism without blind worship” (“理性爱国,也不盲目崇拜”), supporting the idea that Western and Chinese brands can co-exist and that they can be competitors in a market where Chinese fashion labels are getting more room to grow.

“Nationalism and patriotism offer opportunities for Chinese brands,” one Weibo user writes: “China Chic and China fashion trends are putting more pressure on foreign brands. Because of the speedy rise of Chinese domestic brands, which are producing high-quality products and are applying smart marketing methods, more and more patriotic young people are buying their products.”

It is clear that many consumers in China support domestic brands and hope that Chinese fashion can flourish within its own market. But there are also those voices stressing the importance of consumers’ freedom to buy the brands that suit them, wherever they are from and regardless of politics. One person commented: “Western or Chinese brand, I just want to wear the shoes that are most comfortable for me to walk in.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 
[1] Tian, Kelly and Lily Dong. 2011. Consumer-Citizens of China: The Role of Foreign Brands in the Imagined Future of China. London & New York: Routledge. Page 7.
 

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Comic & Games

KFC China’s Psyduck Toy is a Viral Hit

As Psyduck goes viral, KFC Children’s Day toys are deemed “too childish for children but just perfect for us adults.”

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American fast-food chain KFC recently introduced three new Pokémon toys to go with its kids’ meals in various regions across China, with one of the toys, in particular, becoming a viral hit: Psyduck (可达鸭).

The new Pokémon toys were introduced on May 21st to celebrate Children’s Day (June 1). As reported by Shanghai Daily, the toys are randomly distributed in Children’s Day meals and will be released in different regions at different times.

Psyduck is a yellow duck-like Pokémon that is known to be confused because it’s bothered by headaches. One of the reasons why the Psyduck toy might be more popular than its fellow (Pikachu) toys, is because it dances, with its arms going up and down, and because of the catchy tune that starts once it starts moving. Psyduck is also a bit more dopey and ‘uncool’ than Pikachu, which makes him all the cooler (remember the Peppa Pig craze?)

Since its release, many people have been going crazy over the KFC toy. Psyduck fans have been hunting for the KFC treasure, and some have even turned it into a side business: they offer their services in getting as many KFC meals as necessary before grabbing the Psyduck toy – you’ll have to pay for their meal – and they’ll send the toy to their ‘customers’ later on.

The #Psyduck hashtag saw the first spike on Weibo on May 21st, the day of its release, when it received nearly 135 million views.

Although the toys were released for Children’s Day, most of these Psyduck fans are not kids at all. In one interview moment that went viral, an older man was asked about the Psyduck while he was standing in line at KFC. “I’m only here because my son wants it,” the man says. When he is asked how old his boy is, he answers: “He’s over thirty years old.”

A popular comment about the craze over the kids’ meal toys said: “This toy is perhaps too childish for children, but it’s just perfect for us adults.” The comment received nearly 20,000 likes.

If you buy a set meal including the toy, you will spend in between 59-109 yuan ($9-$16), but the reselling price of Psyduck has reportedly been as high as US$200 for just the Pokémon figure alone. KFC China has stated that it does not support this kind of reselling.

Illustration about the Psyduck crazy by New Weekly (@新周刊).

Especially among students, it has become popular to stick messages to the arms of the dancing Psyduck with motivational or humorous messages. Some students say the Psyduck keeps them company while they are studying.

Since short funny videos featuring Psyduck are going viral on Weibo and Douyin, a lot of Psyduck’s appeal relates to its social media success and joining in on the hype. People post videos of themselves unboxing their Psyduck, introducing it to their cat, imitating it, or they use the Psyduck in various creative ways.

This is not the first time for KFC toys to become a national craze. Earlier this year, KFC came out with limited edition blind boxes in a collaboration with Chinese toymaker Pop Mart. To get one of the dolls, customers needed to buy a 99 yuan (US$15.5) family set meal.

But the blind box sales also sparked criticism from China’s Consumer Association for promoting over-purchasing of its food and causing food waste. In order to get all of the six collectible dolls, including the rarest ones, customers would start buying many meals just for the dolls. As reported by SCMP at the time, one customer went as far as to spend US$1,650 on a total of 106 meals to collect all six dolls.

KFC is the most popular fast-food chain in China. People outside of China are sometimes surprised to find that KFC is so hugely popular in the mainland.

As explained in the book written about KFC China’s popularity (“Secret Recipe for Success“), its success story goes back to 1987, when the restaurant opened its first doors near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Some reasons that contributed to KFC’s success in China are the popularity of chicken in China, the chain’s management system, the restaurant’s adaptation to local taste, and its successful marketing campaigns.

Now, Psyduck can be added as one of the ingredients in KFC China’s perhaps not-so-secret recipe for success.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Featured image via @Baaaaaaaaal, Weibo.com

Image via Weibo

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Elementary School Textbook Triggers Controversy for Being “Tragically Ugly”

This elementary schoolbook by the People’s Education Press went viral for being ugly.

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The illustrations in a Chinese schoolbook series for children have triggered controversy on social media platform Weibo, where the hashtag “People’s Education Press Math Teaching Material” (#人教版数学教材#) attracted over 860 million views by Thursday afternoon, with the “People’s Education Press Mathbook Illustration Controversy” (#人教版数学教材插图引争议#) garnering over 190 million views.

The illustrations went viral after some netizens spotted that the quality of the design in one math textbook series stood out from other books in how ‘aesthetically displeasing’ it is.

The children depicted in the teaching material have small, droopy eyes and big foreheads. Some commenters think their clothing also looks weird and that the overall design is just strange and “tragically ugly.”

Some images depicting little boys also drew controversy for allegedly showing a bulge in the pants. Adding girls sticking out their tongues, boys grabbing girls, a reversed Chinese flag, and some depictions of children’s clothing in the American flag colors, many people think the books are not just ugly but also have “evil intentions.”

Besides the people who think the design of the textbook series is so ugly that it must have been purposely drawn like this, there are also those who are angry, suggesting China has thousands of talented art students who would welcome a project like this and do it much better.

Some parents are also concerned that such poor quality design will negatively influence the aesthetic appreciation of the children using the books.

Fueling the controversy is the fact that the textbook in question has been published and designed by a team of relatively influential and experienced designers and publishers.

The design was done by, among others, Lu Min (吕旻) and Zheng Wenjuan (郑文娟) of the Beijing Wuyong Design Studio (北京吴勇设计工作室). The book is published by the People’s Education Press.

The People’s Education Press (PEP) is a major publishing house directly under the leadership of the Ministry of Education. Founded in 1950, it is responsible for compiling and publishing all kinds of teaching material for elementary education.

The textbook already caught the attention of some parents in early May. One parent shared photos of the textbook illustration on Q&A site Zhihu.com, writing: “This textbook is so ugly! How did it ever pass the review?”

The ugly textbook design has made many netizens look back on their own childhood textbooks, suggesting that more traditional Chinese design is much better than what is being produced nowadays.

Old textbook design shared online for comparison.

On May 26, the People’s Education Press responded to the controversy on Weibo. In its statement, the publishing house said it would reevaluate its elementary school mathematics textbooks illustrations and improve the quality of the design. In doing so, the publishing house said it would welcome feedback from the public. The statement soon received over 600,000 likes.

Professional graphic design artist Wuheqilin also weighed in on the discussion (read more about Wuheqilin here). In a lengthy Weibo post, Wuheqilin argues it is too easy for people to share their old textbook covers and images to show how much better they used to be, blaming poor design on the quality of illustrators in modern times.

According to Wuheqilin, it is not so much a matter of illustrators who have become worse, but of publishing houses saving more money on illustrations. Publishers do not prioritize design and are still offering the same prices to illustrators as they did a decade ago.

“The market has expanded, illustrators’ prices have gone up, but the philosophy of publishing houses hasn’t kept up with the times. This has led to them not really raising their budgets. When I entered the industry some 12 years ago, publishers could still a good artist for 500-800 RMB [$75-$120] to do a fine cover illustration, but now it would be difficult to find an artist to do it for 8000 RMB [$1188]. Around 2015 I was asked by a publishing house to do the cover of a sci-fi novel series they produced, and the process of our talks all went smoothly, but when I quoted my price they looked displeased and told me that even if they would do their best to give me the highest budget possible, it would still only be one-tenth of my quoted price. The price I quoted was just the normal price for a game poster illustration at the time. I never spoke to that publisher again afterward. And this was 2015, let alone how the situation is nowadays.”

This is not the first time Chinese school textbooks trigger controversy online. In 2017, an elementary school sexual education textbook caused a stir for being “too explicit” (read here).

UPDATE TO THIS STORY HERE.

Read more about (controversial) Chinese children’s books here.

By Manya Koetse

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