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China Fashion & Beauty

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



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

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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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 Brands, Marketing & Consumers

China’s ‘Chanel’? Chinese Beauty Brand Florasis Is Raising Eyebrows on Weibo

Some netizens wonder if the Florasis PR team might have lost their marbles, as their strategy appears to have taken an unusual turn, featuring emotionally charged replies on Weibo.

Manya Koetse



Lost Marbles or marketing logic? Following its involvement in the Li Jiaqi ‘eyebrow pencil gate,’ Chinese beauty brand Florasis’ social media strategy has taken an unconventional turn. The domestic brand recently went trending after declaring its ambition to win over the global luxury cosmetic market, and its plans to challenge established giants like Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

In the world of Chinese cosmetic brands, all eyes are on Florasis (花西子) recently. This Chinese make-up brand gained significant attention earlier this month when the popular beauty influencer ‘Lipstick King’ Li Jiaqi promoted one of their eyebrow pencils during a livestream.

After some viewers questioned whether a single eyebrow pencil costing 79 yuan ($10.8) was perhaps too expensive, Li lashed out and suggested viewers should instead ask themselves if they worked hard enough to deserve a raise.

That moment triggered a social media storm (read here), and suddenly everyone knew about Florasis, which is known as Huāxīzǐ (花西子) in China.

“Huaxi Coins” and Public Mockery

The incident sparked a series of memes and discussions, and among them, the question of what one can buy with 79 yuan in China today was a big one.

While some suggested they could feed an entire family for one day with 79 yuan, others said that it would buy their office lunches for a week. This humorous situation gave rise to the term ‘Huaxi Coins’ or ‘Floracash’ (花西币), with netizens playfully using the price of one Florasis eyebrow pencil’s price as a new currency unit (one ‘Huaxi Coin’ equals 79 yuan/$10.8).

Although Li Jiaqi apologized to his viewers soon after his controversy, it took some time for Florasis to respond the controversy the brand found itself embroiled in.

Florasis, a brand established in Hangzhou in 2017, is deeply connected to Li Jiaqi, as he has been the chief brand ambassador since 2019 and has actively participated in their product development.

Li Jiaqi x Huaxizi/Florasis.

The entire social media storm prompted a heightened focus on why Florasis products are perceived as relatively expensive.

As reported by Qing Na at Dao Insights, one post that gained significant traction on September 12 revealed that a five-piece Jade Makeup Brush set from Florasis, priced at 919 RMB ($126.28), was, in fact, made by using synthetic fiber bristles, considered cheap and of lower quality. This revelation garnered over 240 million views in just a few hours, adding to the public mockery of the national beauty brand.

The Florasis Dream: Becoming a Leading International Luxury Brand

On September 19, Florasis/Huaxizi finally apologized on social media for its late response to the controversy, and the brand stated that the incident provided an opportunity for them to listen to “the voice of their consumers,” although they did not delve deeper into the price of their products.

Florasis apology on Weibo, screenshot.

Although people criticized the letter posted by Florasis and the words they used in it, their decision to release a statement initially seemed fruitful: they gained 20,000 new followers in a single night.

Chinese netizens picking apart the apology letter posted by Huaxizi/Florasis. Via Xiaohongshu user @边际平衡術.

While the entire situation drew more attention to the Chinese make-up brand, it also seems to have prompted Florasis to reconsider its own position in the cosmetics industry, both in China and globally. Because on September 26th, the brand publicly and somewhat suddenly declared its ambition of becoming a leading international luxury cosmetics brand.

“Me, Florasis, I’m 6,5 years old,” the post read: “I have a dream: to be a high-end brand, rooted in China, going global.”

Florasis announces its ambition to become a globally recognized make-up brand.

In their post, Florasis used a quote saying “A Positive Mindset Shapes Huaxizi’s Lifetime,” which is derived from the title of a well-known Chinese self-help book from 2012 called “A Positive Mindset Shapes a Woman’s Lifetime” (好心态决定女人一生).

One of the main ideas presented in this book, authored by Li Jin (李津), is that success can never come from a negative or pessimistic mindset; if you see yourself as a failure, you’re likely to fail, but if you envision success, you’re more likely to achieve it.

Next to Chanel: Confusion about Florasis’ Public Relations Tactics

The company’s ambition, on its own, may not be particularly surprising. As stated in a report published by Paicaijing (派财经), Florasis’ co-founder, Fei Man (飞慢), had previously questioned in an interview why Chinese brands were always associated with being cheap, expressing Florasis’ wish to break the “price ceiling” (价格天花板) and escape the ongoing “low price competition” (低价竞争) in China’s beauty industry by delivering high-quality products at a premium price.

However, the wording and the timing seemed odd, and the post created both banter and confusion about Florasis’ public relations tactics, especially because they did much more than that post alone.

On September 20th, approximately ten days after the ‘eyebrow pencil gate’ controversy, the company’s founder, Hua Mantian (花满天), made an announcement on his WeChat channel. He revealed that the brand would be distributing their premium eyebrow pencils, originally priced at 119 yuan ($16.3), during a livestream promotional event that night. They planned to give away free pencils to hundreds of viewers every ten minutes. By giving out over 10,000 free eyebrow pencils in total, the company allegedly hoped to gain more feedback on their product in order to further improve it. Over 400,000 people tuned in to that livestream.

Since then, Florasis seems to be doing all it can to catch the public’s attention, and some netizens even wonder if the editors at the Florasis PR team might have lost their marbles, as they keep posting a lot of unusual replies, – some emotional and somewhat unhinged, – to their own threads on their Weibo account.

Throughout September 26, the account posted dozens of texts/replies, responding to many netizens’ comments. Florasis not only declared its wish to be China’s ‘Chanel’ when it comes to beauty products, it also praised its own efforts in contributing to women’s mental health, preserving traditional culture, innovating cosmetics, and much more.

Their social media texts included phrases such as: “I’m super awesome,” or writing:

I’m really becoming a bit emotional. I established my own laboratory at just three years old! We now have over 200 research partners, and their leader is Li Huiliang (李慧良), known as the “Number One in Chinese Cosmetics Research and Development.” He’s like a superstar in the industry. We have five big innovation research and development centers, over 7000 square meters, larger than a football field. Don’t I deserve a gold star sticker for that?


As a Chinese brand, every generation has a mission. Our generation’s mission is to fight in the international market with high-end presence! You can mock and ridicule me, it’s ok [sad face emoji] I’m already neighbors with Louis Vuitton and Gucci at the [Hangzhou] West Lake [shopping street]! And I will be next to Chanel at Japan’s top-notch department store Isetan. Next up is France, Dubai, America, see you there!

Subsequently, the hashtag “Florasis Says It’ll Be Side-to-Side with Chanel” (#花西子称要和香奈儿门对门#) received over 470 million views on Weibo. Another hashtag, “Florasis Wants to Be a High-end Brand” (#花西子称想做高端品牌#), received more than 220 million views.

Mad Marketing

By now, the hashtag “Huaxizi Lost It” (#花西子发疯#) has also gone trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where people have different thoughts on what might have triggered Florasis’ social media behavior.

While some people really think that Florasis has gone crazy, others see the entire ordeal as a social media spectacle meant to distract attention from what happened with Li Jiaqi, or as a cheap marketing stunt.

One poll conducted by Sina News asked people about the situation. The majority of respondents believed that the social media editor must have lost their mind, while others considered it just another version of “bad marketing is still marketing” – suggesting that even if the publicity strategy is cheap or questionable, it is still used as a marketing tactic to gain attention.

Another question is: does it even matter what the reason behind this unusual online media approach is?

If Florasis is really letting its PR team run wild, it is doing so at a crucial moment, shortly after a significant controversy that cast the brand in a negative light. This moment calls for careful control rather than unconventional tactics. Furthermore, the social media strategy appears to be at odds with Florasis’ typical marketing image, which emphasizes tradition, glamour, and perfection.

If Florasis is using this strategy to attract and divert attention, it also appears that this approach is not yielding the desired results, as many people express a common sentiment: “I didn’t purchase Florasis before, and I certainly won’t be buying it now.”

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

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China Celebs

Three Reasons Why Lipstick King’s ‘Eyebrow Pencil Gate’ Has Blown Up

From beauty guru to betrayal: why one livestream moment is shaking China’s internet.

Manya Koetse




Li Jiaqi, also known as Austin Li the ‘Lipstick King,’ has become the focus of intense media attention in China over the past days.

The controversy began when the popular beauty influencer responded with apparent annoyance to a viewer’s comment about the high price of an eyebrow pencil. As a result, his fans began unfollowing him, netizens started scolding him, Chinese state criticized him, and the memes started flooding in.

Li Jiaqi’s tearful apology did not fix anything.

We reported about the incident here shortly after it went trending, and you can see the translated video of the moment here:

The incident may seem minor at first glance. Li was merely promoting Florasis brand (花西子) eyebrow pencils, and some viewers expressed their opinion that the pencils, priced at 79 yuan ($11), had become more expensive.

In response, Li displayed irritation, questioning, “Expensive how?” He went on to suggest that viewers should also reflect on their own efforts and whether they were working hard enough to get a salary increase.

But there is more to this incident than just an $11 pencil and an unsympathetic response.


#1 The King Who Forgot the People Who Crowned Him


The initial reaction of netizens to Li Jiaqi’s remarks during the September 10th livestream was characterized by a strong sense of anger and disappointment.

Although celebrities often face scrutiny when displaying signs of arrogance after their rise to fame, the position of Li Jiaqi in the wanghong (internet celebrity) scene has been especially unique. He initially worked as a beauty consultant for L’Oreal within a shopping mall before embarking on his livestreaming career through Alibaba’s Taobao platform.

In a time when consumers have access to thousands of makeup products across various price ranges, Li Jiaqi established himself as a trusted cosmetics expert. People relied on his expertise to recommend the right products at the right prices, and his practice of personally applying and showcasing various lipstick colors made him all the more popular. He soon garnered millions of online fans who started calling him the Lipstick King.

By 2018, he had already amassed a significant fortune of 10 million yuan ($1.53 million). Fast forward three years, and his wealth had ballooned to an astonishing 18.5 billion yuan ($2.5 billion).

Despite his growing wealth, Li continued to enjoy the support of his fans, who appreciated his honest assessments of products during live testing sessions. He was known for candidly informing viewers when a product wasn’t worth buying, and the story of his humble beginnings as a shop assistant played a major role in why people trusted him and wanted him to succeed.

However, his recent change in tone, where he no longer seemed considerate of viewers who might find an $11 brow pencil to be expensive, suggests that he may have lost touch with his own customer base. Some individuals perceive this shift as a form of actual “betrayal” (背叛), as if a close friend has turned their back on them.

The viral cartoon shows Li Jiaqi going from a friendly beggar to angry rat.

One cartoon shared on social media shows Li Jiaqi, with mouse ears, as he initially begs his online viewers for money. However, as he becomes more prosperous, the cartoon portrays him gradually growing arrogant and eventually scolding those who helped him rise to fame.

Many people accuse Li of being insincere, suggesting that he revealed his true colors during that short livestream moment. This is also one of the reasons why most commenters say they do not believe his tears during his apology video.

“He betrayed China’s working class,” one popular vlog suggested.


#2 Internet Celebrity Crossing the Lines


Another reason why the incident involving Li Jiaqi is causing such a storm is related to the media context in which Chinese (internet) celebrities operate and what is expected of them.

Whether you are an actor, singer, comedian, or a famous livestreamer/e-commerce influencer, Chinese celebrities and performers are seen as fulfilling an exemplary role in society, serving the people and the nation (Jeffrey & Xu 2023). This is why, as explained in the 2019 research report by Jonathan Sullivan and Séagh Kehoe, moral components play such a significant role in Chinese celebrity culture.

In today’s age of social media, the role of celebrities in society has evolved to become even more significant as they have a vast reach and profound influence that extends to countless people and industries.

Their powerful influence makes celebrities important tools for authorities to convey messages that align with their goals – and definitely not contradict them. Through the media and cultural industries, the state can exert a certain level of control within the symbolic economy in which celebrities operate, as discussed by Sullivan and Kehoe in their 2019 work (p. 242).

This control over celebrities’ actions became particularly evident in the case of Li Jiaqi in 2022, following the ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件). This incident unfolded during one of his livestreams when Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced a chocolate cake in the shape of a tank, with an assistant in the back mentioning something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”). This livestream took place on June 3rd, on the night before the 33rd anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen protests.

While Li Jiaqi did not directly touch upon a politically sensitive issue with his controversial livestream, his actions were perceived as a disregard for customer loyalty and displayed an arrogance inconsistent with socialist core values. This behavior garnered criticism in a recent post by the state media outlet CCTV.

Post by CCTV condemning Li’s behavior.

Other state media outlets and official channels have joined in responding to the issue, amplifying the narrative of a conflict between the ‘common people’ and the ‘arrogant influencer.’


#3 Striking a Wrong Chord in Challenging Times


Lastly, Li Jiaqi’s controversial livestream moment also became especially big due to the specific words he said about people needing to reflect on their own work efforts if they cannot afford a $11 eyebrow pencil.

Various online discussions and some media, including CNN, are tying the backlash to young unemployment, tepid consumer spending, and the ongoing economic challenges faced by workers in China.

Since recent years, the term nèijuǎn (‘involution’, 内卷) has gained prominence when discussing the frustrations experienced by many young people in China. It serves as a concept to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class who often find themselves stuck in a “rat race”; a highly competitive education and work environment, where everyone is continually intensifying their efforts to outperform one another, leading to this catch 22 situation where everyone appears to be caught in an unending cycle of exertion without substantial progress (read more here).

Weibo commenters note that, given China’s current employment situation and wage levels, hard work is not necessarily awarded with higher income. This context makes Li Jiaqi’s comments seem even more unnecessary and disconnected from the realities faced by his customers. One Shanghai surgeon responded to Li’s comments, saying that the fact that his salary has not increased over the last few year certainly is not because he is not working hard enough (#上海胸外科医生回应李佳琦言论#).

Some observers also recognize that Li, as an e-commerce professional, is, in a way, trapped in the same cycle of “inversion” where brands are continuously driving prices down to such low levels that consumers perceive it as the new normal. However, this pricing strategy may not be sustainable in the long run. (Ironically, some brands currently profiting from the controversy by promoting their own 79 yuan deals, suggesting their deal is much better than Li’s. Among them is the domestic brand Bee & Flower 蜂花, which is offering special skin care products sets for 79 yuan in light of the controversy.)

Many discussions therefore also revolve around the question of whether 79 yuan or $11 can be considered expensive for an eyebrow pencil, and opinions are divided. Some argue that people pay much more for skincare products, while others point out that if you were to weigh the actual quantity of pencil color, its price would surpass that of gold.

The incident has sparked discussions about the significance of 79 yuan in today’s times, under the hashtag “What is 79 yuan to normal people” (#79元对于普通人来说意味着什么#).

People have shared their perspectives, highlighting what this amount means in their daily lives. For some, it represents an entire day’s worth of home-cooked meals for a family. It exceeds the daily wages of certain workers, like street cleaners. Others equate it to the cost of 15 office lunches.

One netizen posts 79 yuan ($10.9) worth of groceries.

Amid all these discussions, it also becomes clear that many people are trying to live a frugal live in a time when their wages are not increasing, and that Li’s comments are just one reason to vent their frustrations about the situation they are in, In those regards, Li’s remarks really come at a wrong time, especially coming from a billionaire.

Will Li be able to continue his career after this?

Some are suggesting that it is time for Li to take some rest, speculating that Li’s behavior might stem from burn-out and mental issues. Others think that Li’s hardcore fans will remain loyal to their e-commerce idol.

For now, Li Jiaqi must tread carefully. He has already lost 1.3 million followers on his Weibo account. What’s even more challenging than regaining those one million followers is rebuilding the trust of his viewers.

Update: On September 19, the Florasis/Huaxizi brand finally apologized for its late response to the controversy, and the brand stated that the controversy provided an opportunity for them to listen to “the voice of their consumers.” Their decision to release a statement seemed fruitful: they gained 20,000 new followers in a night.

By Manya Koetse

with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Jeffreys, Elaine, and Jian Xu. 2023. “Governing China’s Celebrities.” Australian Institute of International Affairs, 18 May [12 Sep 2023].

Sullivan, Jonathan, and Séagh Kehoe. 2019. “Truth, Good and Beauty: The Politics of Celebrity in China.” The China Quarterly 237 (March): 241–256.

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