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Clicking Into the Craze: Exploring the Rise of “Ethnic-Themed Photos” Among Chinese Tourists

Patriotic, problematic, or purely photogenic? The trend of ethnic photoshoots has sprouted across Chinese social media platforms.

Zilan Qian

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What looks like a professional photoshoot in a fashion magazine, is actually a local photo service found in one of China’s many popular tourist destinations. Dressing up as various ethnic minorities is not just a souvenir for domestic Chinese travelers; it presents a chance to indulge in a glamorous fantasy.

Exquisitely blushing cheeks, voluminous artificial eyelashes, meticulously styled hairdos, alluring ethnic garments, and enchanting landscapes. These are the captivating elements of the “ethnic-themed photo” (民族风写真) trend that has become increasingly popular on Chinese social media.

The trend is all about Chinese domestic tourists, predominantly young women, who adorn themselves in the traditional attire of China’s ethnic minorities while exploring various regions across the mainland, seeking to capture glamorous moments for their social media posts.

The favored destinations for these photoshoots predominantly encompass regions like Yunnan, Xinjiang, or Tibet— home to various Chinese ethnic communities. For the shoots, they usually wear popular ethnic dresses that are aimed to simulate those worn by people belonging to the Tibetian, Miao, Naxi, or other ethnic groups who each have their own unique cultures and traditional clothing.

Meanwhile, a flourishing industry has emerged to cater to the production of these ethnic photos for tourists. While some visitors simply rent ethnic dresses from shops, many opt for more comprehensive and professional services provided by local photo studios that offer a convenient “one-stop” experience.

Ethnic photos shared by netizens on Xiaohongshu.

Situated in popular tourist destinations, these studios not only provide an extensive selection of ethnic dresses and accessories, but also skilled makeup artists catering to individual preferences, professional photographers capturing moments throughout the daytime excursions, and photo editors perfecting the final photos.

For example, a studio located in Lijiang, Yunnan, promoting its services on the social media app Xiaohongshu, boasts a diverse collection of more than 300 dress choices along with complementary accessories. Their offerings encompass makeup services, ranging from applying false eyelashes and intricate small-scale face painting to skillfully braiding hair.

A studio located in Lijiang advertising on Xiaohongshu. It offers ethnic dresses, makeup, photography, and retouching starting as low as 59 yuan ($8.5).

The studio even promises to deliver the final retouched photos within just 24 hours. Prices for these convenient “one-stop services” differ, starting from less than 100 yuan (approximately US$14) and going up to over 1700 yuan (about US$240). The final cost depends on several factors, including the studio preference, preferred styles, the number of people in the photographs, and the quantity of retouched photos the tourists opt for.

 
Unique Captures: The Thriving Dress-Up Photography Industry
 

As the trend of snapping ethnic-inspired photos during trips gains traction in China, the idea of indulging in dress-up photoshoots with stunning makeup and glamorous outfits is not exactly new.

Photography studios specializing in diverse personal portrait services have been a fixture in China for quite a while. These all-inclusive packages usually encompass makeup, hairstyling, outfit selection, backdrop arrangement, skilled photography, and the final retouching.

Some of these studios focus on offering uniquely themed photo shoots, from Tang Dynasty to Disneyland or the magic world of Harry Potter. The customs and backdrops are usually carefully crafted to create extraordinary settings. It is quite common for people to have a series of artistic photos captured for special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or weddings (read more about wedding photoshoots in China here).

Haimati (海马体), a trending photography studio, advertising their new styles of Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter photoshoots.

In recent years, this concept of unique photoshoot experiences has been embraced within the realm of travel. What were previously staged backgrounds painted on canvases have evolved into real tourist attractions, and the studio attire has made way for genuine local outfits. Rather than opting for Disney princesses or Hogwarts students’ costumes, Chinese tourists are now embracing a variety of outfits like kimonos, Hanbok, and Chut Thai as they explore destinations like Japan, South Korea, and Thailand.

Netizens posting photos of themselves in Chut Thai, traditional Thai clothing, when visiting Thailand on Xiaohongshu.

Netizens posting photos of themselves in Hanbok, the traditional clothing of Korea, when visiting Seoul on Xiaohongshu.

Netizens posting photos of themselves in kimonos when visiting Kyoto and Tokyo on Xiaohongshu.

The popularity of these practices has grown so much that many Chinese internet users have shared stories of mistaking young women wearing kimonos for locals and asking them for directions, only to find out they are fellow Chinese tourists. As one internet user commented on a video featuring people in kimonos in Kyoto, “It seems like around 90% of the people wearing kimonos on the streets of Kyoto are Chinese.”

In answer to this tourist trend, Chinese photography studios have started to broaden their horizons and new industries have sprung up in bustling domestic tourist spots in China. These industries offer comprehensive services similar to those provided by traditional studios, but making the people in the photographs look more exotic, elegant, and enchanting.

 
Following the Stars and Praising the Country: Embracing Ethnic Attire
 

While the trend of donning ‘exotic’ outfits for sophisticated photoshoots is not new (and not unique to China), the recent growing popularity of local photoshoots themed around Chinese ethnic minority groups is about more than China’s thriving themed-focused photography industry alone – ethnic-themed photos possess a unique appeal for Chinese travelers.

Chinese social media and celebrities have played a significant role in inspiring numerous people to embrace the ethnic clothing trend. Celebrities like Yang Chaoyue (杨超越) and Mao Xiaotong (毛晓彤) frequently appear in online conversations about ethnic-themed photography. Admiring the beauty of these celebrities in ethnic dresses, many bloggers on Xiaohongshu use their photos as references to analyze outfits and photo filters, aiming to recreate similar styles during their own travels. One Xiaohongshu user excitedly shared, “I can’t believe I achieved the same kind of ethnic look as Yang Chaoyue!” alongside a picture of herself dressed similarly to the Miao ethnic group.

Photos of Yang Chaoyue (left, source) and Mao Xiaotong (right, source) in ethnic dresses.

Some individuals take the trend a step further by fully immersing themselves in a fantasy world through dressing up. One Chinese blogger portrays herself as a “playful chieftain’s daughter, beloved by many,” while adorned in ethnic attire. Another, set against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, describes the liberating sensation of embodying a carefree “daughter of the gods” (神明少女) and a radiant Gesang flower (格桑花) — a bloom cherished by the Tibetan people as a sacred symbol of love and good fortune. To them, ethnic clothing offers an escape from the ordinary routines of daily life, allowing them to embrace a desirable alternate reality within their imaginations.

Furthermore, in contrast to foreign attires such as kimonos, ethnic dresses hold a unique allure as they symbolize the ethnic diversity within China, evoking a sense of patriotism among Chinese travelers.

Recently, numerous videos have emerged featuring bloggers proudly donning traditional clothing from the 55 ethnic groups, apart from the Han majority, with the goal of showcasing ‘the charm of Chinese culture.’

A screenshot from a Bilibili video featuring the blogger wearing traditional costumes of various ethnic minority groups. The video proudly presents itself as “Showcasing the beauty and allure of China’s 56 ethnic groups.”

The growing trend of ethnic photos is being embraced as a way to honor China’s abundant cultural legacy and the essence of being Chinese. “Chinese girls indeed look stunning in red,” one netizen expressed in a blog post featuring photos of her donning a vibrant red Monongalia dress, accompanied by a national flag emoji within the sentence.

A screenshot of the netizen’s Xiaohongshu post.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this trend and its patriotic undertones have garnered support from Chinese state media, with the People’s Daily recognizing ethnic minority-themed photoshoots as a contemporary portrayal of Chinese ethnic traditions, highlighting “the distinct aesthetics inherent in Chinese traditional culture.”

 
Perpetuating Problematic Portrayals of Ethnic Minorities?
 

While there may be plenty of positive stemming from the revival of public interest in China’s ethnic minority communities through the ethnic photoshoot trend, there are also some less rose-colored consequences to consider.

Firstly, certain popular ethnic photoshoots might inadvertently perpetuate problematic portrayals of ethnic minority cultures. While ethnic photos claim to provide a glimpse into the cultures of ethnic minorities, their primary focus lies in showcasing the beauty of those being photographed for social media purposes, often at the expense of the authenticity of the minority culture they claim to represent.

The ethnic dresses provided by studios for tourists often display mismatches with local traditions. For instance, some tourists dress up as Tibetans in Miao villages, while studios located in Yunnan, home to major ethnic groups like Yi, Bai, Hani, Zhuang, Dai, and Miao, allow customers to don Uyghur outfits, even though Uyghurs are primarily found in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Additionally, many so-called ethnic dresses are often modified to serve customers’ demands. This may include incorporating elements like black chiffon skirts into traditional Miao attire or introducing ditsy floral patterns to traditional Tibetan dress.

These disparities highlight that the contemporary trend often diverges significantly from the genuine portrayal of the minorities it purports to represent (sometimes, the costumes really have more to do with imaginary minorities than representing actual traditional attire). Instead, it frequently caters more to tourists seeking a fantastical and fun experience rather than fostering genuine insights into local traditions and realities.

A traditional Miao dress posted by China & Asia Cultural Travel (left) and the “Miao dress” provided by a photography studio (right).

A traditional Tibetan dress posted by Tibet Vista (left) and the “Tibetan dress” provided by a photography studio.

As the ethnic photo industry continues to expand, questions also arise concerning its repercussions on local economies and the communities residing within these popular tourist spots.

Accounts from tourists in Lijiang, Yunnan, paint a vivid picture of a bustling scene, where the entire Lijiang old town is alive with visitors seeking opportunities for ethnic-themed photography. One observant netizen notes, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that you can find an ethnic photography studio every ten steps in Lijiang.”

Does this intense enthusiasm for ethnic photos actually serve as a catalyst for local economic growth? Or will it inadvertently reduce the rich cultural experience in these tourist destinations into mere picturesque settings for photography? Is there a risk of these places becoming the next Zibo, experiencing a temporary surge in popularity at the expense of the peaceful lives of local communities, only to eventually face a decline in popularity?

Chinese netizens seem less preoccupied with deeper discussions about the impact of ethnic minority representations and their influence on these tourist destinations. Online conversations are largely dominated by tourists showcasing pretty photos of themselves, while studios vigorously promote their services in a fiercely competitive market.

Photo by Life Photo
生活视觉女子写真摄影.

Where does the future trajectory of the trend of ethnic photos lead? Will it simply continue to exist as another form of exquisite photo service, providing people with an opportunity to escape from mundane life and experiment with different styles for cherished memories? Or will it evolve into something more significant, igniting broader discussions on cultural representations and the far-reaching influence of tourism?

Images via photo studios promoting their services on Taobao.

While some may find the trend problematic and complex, many see it as merely photogenic and fun. In the end, regardless of where the ethnic photo hype ultimately will lead, it crystallizes a moment where the interplay of China’s social media’s lens, the surge in domestic tourism, and the intrigue surrounding ethnic minorities seamlessly intersect. Whether it’s a mere snapshot in time or a lasting chapter, this phenomenon captures a blend of cultural curiosity, social media dynamics, and new Chinese traditions in the digital era.

By Zilan Qian

 

Featured image is part of a ethnic photoshoot in Lhasa in 2021, copyright by What’s on Weibo.

This article has been edited for clarity and commissioned by Manya Koetse.

 

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©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Zilan Qian is a China-born undergraduate student at Barnard College majoring in Anthropology. She is interested in exploring different cultural phenomena, loves people-watching, and likes loitering in supermarkets and museums.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Jia Ling Returns to the Limelight with New “YOLO” Movie and 110-Pound Weight Loss Announcement

After a year away from the spotlight, Chinese actress and director Jia Ling is back, announcing both a new film and slimmer figure.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese actress and director Jia Ling (贾玲) has been trending on Weibo thanks to her upcoming film YOLO (热辣滚烫) and her remarkable weight loss transformation.

Jia Ling is a famous Chinese comedian actress, known for her annual Spring Festival Gala performances. She has been especially successful in the previous years as she made her directorial debut in 2021 with the award-winning box office hit Hi, Mom (Chinese title Hi, Li Huanying 你好,李焕英), in which she also stars as the female protagonist. That same year, audiences saw her as Wu Ge in Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你).

It has been a while since we’ve heard from Jia Ling, but on January 11, she resurfaced with a Weibo post in which she explained her absence from the limelight.

In her post, Jia wrote that she has spent the entire year working on the YOLO (热辣滚烫) movie, for which she lost a staggering 100 jin (斤) (110 lbs/50 kg). Just as with Hi, Mum, Jia is both the director of YOLO and the lead actress.

According to Jia, it was a tiring and “hungry” year, during which she ended up “looking like a boxer.” She added that the movie, set to premiere during the Spring Festival, is not necessarily about weight loss at all, but about learning to love yourself.

Within a single day, Jia Ling’s post received nearly 60,000 replies and over 855,000 likes.

Jia Ling’s post on Weibo.

The topic became top trending due to various reasons. It is because fans are excited to see Jia Ling back in the limelight and are anticipating the upcoming movie, but also because they are eager to see Jia Ling’s transformation.

From fans on Weibo: Jia Ling fanart and a meme from one of her well-known Spring Festival performances.

A short scene from the movie showed Jia Ling’s slimmer appearance, and a screenshot of it went viral, with Weibo users saying they hardly recognized Jia anymore.

One hashtag related to Jia Ling’s weight loss, about expert views on losing so much weight in such a relatively short time, received over 450 million on Weibo on Thursday (#医生谈贾玲整容式暴瘦#).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, medical experts quoted by Chinese media outlets caution against rapid weight loss methods, recommending a more gradual approach instead.

Nevertheless, there is great interest in the extreme diets of Chinese celebrities. As discussed in an earlier article about China’s celebrity weight craze, the weight loss journey of Chines actors or influencers often capture widespread attention as people are keen to adopt diet plans promoted by celebrities.

YOLO (热辣滚烫), which will hit Chinese theaters on February 10, tells the story of Le Ying (乐莹), who has withdrawn from social life and isolated herself at home ever since graduation. Trying to get her life back on track, Le Ying meets a boxing coach. The meeting proves to be just the beginning of a new journey in life filled with unforeseen challenges.

The Spring Festival holiday typically sees peak box office numbers in China, making this movie highly anticipated, particularly after the success of Hi, Mum three years ago. On Weibo, many view Jia Ling’s weight loss as a testament to her dedication and are eager to see the results of her year-long efforts in the cinema next month.

By Manya Koetse

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©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

Too Sexy for Weibo? Online Discussions on the Concept of ‘Cābiān’

Delving into the ongoing discussion on ‘cābiān’ and its influence on women’s expression in China’s digital realm.

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Chinese social media is seeing more discussions recenty on the blurred boundaries of Cābiān. This seemingly never-ending discussion raises questions – not just about sexually suggestive content, but also about the evolving perceptions of women’s bodies and freedom in the digital age.

In the fast-moving world of China’s internet, a new term has emerged: Cābiān (擦边). Originally a sports term describing a ball grazing the edge of a table (擦边球), it now primarily refers to the delicate balance in content that may be seen as sexually suggestive, teetering on the line between ‘sexy’ and ‘sexually explicit’ in the context of China’s internet culture.

The term mainly refers to women’s behavior, style, language, and actions that are considered inappropriate or that are pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Cābiān can be understood as borderline sexual content that basically navigates the boundaries of platform rules without actually breaking them. Nevertheless, is generally seen as ‘not in line’ with what is expected of Chinese women in today’s society.

This term has sparked controversy recently, prompting fervent debates surrounding its implications for women’s self-expression.

 
Too Sexy for Weibo? Jingchuan Liyu’s Divisive Pictures
 

Social media plays a central role in the “cābiān” debate. A recent example involves a Weibo post by Jingchuan Liyu (井川里予, @悲伤荷包蛋), a prominent Chinese influencer active on Weibo and Xiaohongshu.

Jingchuan Liyu is known for embodying both innocence and sensuality in her online persona. Mainly by male netizens, she has been labeled as a symbol of “chúnyù” (纯欲). This term signifies a blend of childlike innocence (纯洁, chúnjié) and allure (欲望, yùwàng).

Jingchuan Liyu became a focal point in the cābiān debate when she posted a series of photos during the summer of this year. While these photos didn’t violate any official guidelines, they departed from her typical “innocent yet sexy” style. In these pictures, she was seen wearing thongs and other undergarments, which apparently made some social media users uneasy.

The controversy surrounding the photos intensified when Jingchuan Liyu responded to these criticisms on her Weibo page. While her supporters defended her freedom to dress as she pleases, others viewed her photos as being more about provocative sexual suggestion than about freedom of fashion.

 
Dog-Headed Lolita: Judged, Harassed, and Labeled Cābiān
 

Beyond online debates, the condemnation of “cābiān” is also having real-world consequences. One recent example is the case of the Chinese influencer known as Dog-Head Lolita (狗头萝莉 @我是狗头萝莉).

Despite having a problematic childhood, ‘Dog-Head Lolita’ managed to turn her life around and became a successful streamer. But her reputation suffered a severe blow when explicit videos of her, recorded by her ex-boyfriend, were made public.

This incident and its aftermath damaged her career and, partly due to getting cheated by her manager, was left with a staggering debt of 6 million RMB ($836K). Trying to start an alternative career, Dog-Head Lolita took up selling Chinese pancakes (jiānbǐng 煎饼) at a street stall as a means to make a living and work towards repaying her debts.

In addition to her physical labor, she also posted short videos of herself selling pancakes online and continued to livestream and engage with her followers to generate more income.

While her efforts garnered sympathy and admiration from some netizens, she also faced accusations of using her pancake-selling business as a form of cābiān.

Her choice of attire, which emphasized her figure, became a central topic of discussion. Some netizens raised questions about whether her videos, showcasing her interactions with fans while selling pancakes, carried a sexual undertone. Moreover, there were arguments suggesting that her true business wasn’t selling pancakes but rather producing sexually suggestive content.

Some critics of Dog-Head Lolita went further and turned online criticism into harassment. Some filed reports regarding the hygiene conditions of her business, while others intentionally vandalized her pancake cart and left insulting messages on it.

Facing this harassment linked to accusations of being cābiān, Dog-Head Lolita voiced her frustration on her Weibo page.

She emphasized that her physique was something beyond her control and that selling pancakes shouldn’t be judged in the same way as her previous online presence. She complained that her livelihood was being scrutinized, even in the most ordinary and innocuous settings.

 
Challenging the Concept of Cābiān
 

Defining the precise boundaries of what is and is not cābiān is not easy, as it has become a catch-all term for anything remotely sexually suggestive, erotic, or resembling “soft pornography.”

While the distinction between suggestive and non-suggestive content remains hazy, new voices have emerged to challenge the very idea of “cābiān.”

Some believe that cābiān is a societal construct imposed on women, rather than an intrinsic concept. They argue that before the term “cābiān” gained popularity, suggestive pelvic dances were widespread in China due to the prevalence of K-pop boy groups, and male celebrities could appear shirtless and flirtatious on TV without anyone accusing them of “cābiān.”

But when it comes to women, the standards of cābiān can be unclear and are often unforgiving. This term is used not only to regulate their clothing choices but also their behavior or even facial expressions—essentially, anything a woman might do.

Once a female online influencer is seen as attractive and desireable, she seemingly becomes more prone to be labeled a “cābiān nǚ” (擦边女) – a woman who is seen as flaunting her sensuality within the context of social media and online platforms.

If this trend of labeling people as sexually suggestive continues, “cābiān” might turn into an unclear social rule, resulting in ongoing moral judgments of women, especially female online influencers.

On the other hand, some netizens see the increasing acceptance of women displaying their bodies in a sensual manner as a form of female empowerment.

One notable Weibo by ‘Wang’ede’ (@王饿德) post that gained a lot of attention suggested that there is a distinction between how others interpret women’s bodies and how women themselves perceive it. The post asserts that revealing skin and wearing “sexy” clothing can be a proactive expression of women’s own desires and confidence rather than solely meaning to please a male audience.

This active pursuit is seen as a form of ‘decolonization’ of the traditional patriarchal gaze— it’s described as “a reevaluation of women’s bodies by women themselves that allows us to reclaim ownership of our bodies,” as stated by the author of the post.

 
Neverending Discussions
 

As the debates continue, Weibo users are noticing a deadlock in these online discussions. Conversations about the who, what, and why of cābiān are recurring and appear to be never-ending.

In 2019, a significant debate arose concerning the attire worn by actress Rayzha Alimjan. In 2022, controversies revolved around busty women. There was also a cyberbullying incident involving a mother who had recently lost her son in a car accident and faced criticism for wearing elegant clothing and makeup (read). Most recently, there has been a series of new discussions, ranging from criticizing the latest TV drama starring singer/actress Lai Meiyun and onwards.

Contemplating this phenomenon, some internet users are thinking about the evolution of Jingchuan Liyu’s style. A decade or two ago, her aesthetic might have been categorized as ’emo,’ ‘alternative,’ or just seen as a form of decadent beauty. However, nowadays, it is quickly subjected to examination to determine whether or not it falls into the category of cābiān.

In the eyes of many Chinese netizens, this trend is seen as a discouraging step backward. Influential bloggers repost their previous cābiān-related Weibo posts from years or even just months ago, highlighting the seemingly futile nature of these discussions.

Who will be the next woman to be branded as cābiān? Will she face online insults and offline harassment? On Weibo, some express their exhaustion at being stuck in this repetitive loop, engaging in similar debates time and time again.

Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the term “cābiān” and engage in more meaningful discussions about women’s bodies and their freedom in China. As one netizen put it on Weibo: “Maybe we should redirect this energy toward discussions that genuinely promote progress instead of endlessly revisiting these cyclic debates.”

By Ruixin Zhang

edited for clarity by Zilan Qian & Manya Koetse

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