When the Chinese government announced that it would be ending its One-Child Policy in the summer of 2015, 36 years after it was first implemented, the topic exploded on Weibo. Many netizens applauded the news and considered it a step forward in people’s personal freedom and individual rights.
The Two-Child Policy (二孩政策) allows all couples to have a maximum of two children. But now, over a year after it has gone into effect, there are also voices saying that the new family planning policy is actually a setback for women’s rights in China and that the One-Child Policy, as controversial as it might have been, has greatly improved the role of women in society in multiple ways.
THE TWO CHILD POLICY: A YEAR LATER
“The vigorous propagation for women to return home to have children goes against the image of the emancipated Chinese woman.”
One of the consequences of China’s One-Child Policy, designed to curb the growth of China’s population, is that Chinese society is now ageing. The latest population statistics after the introduction of the ‘Two-Child Policy’ show that 17,86 million children were born in 2016; an increase of 7.9% compared to the year before (when the One-Child Policy was still in place).
But the current population growth might not be enough to combat demographic challenges in the decades to come. Chinese state media are now encouraging couples to have more children, something that became particularly clear during this year’s CCTV Gala and a recent lengthy People’s Daily article that hinted at the legalization of surrogacy to increase the country’s birth rates.
It led to angry reactions on Chinese social media, where many women felt that they were being degraded to “breeding machines”, and that the “vigorous propagation” for women to “return home to have children” goes against the image of the emancipated Chinese woman.
ONE-CHILD POLICY: THE SIGNIFICANCE FOR WOMEN
“Slogans propagated that daughters could also carry the honor of the family line, and that girls and boys were equally important for the future of China.”
The Feminist Webforum (@女权主义贴吧) recently posted an article (link in Chinese) on Weibo titled “The One-Child Policy’s Three Major Contributions to Chinese Women’s Status,” in which it argued that the China’s One Child Policy (1979-2016) has significantly emancipated Chinese women.
The article looks back at different government’s slogans that were widely propagated during the One-Child Policy, and explains how and why they contributed to a bettered women’s status in China.
It also indicates that the recent developments around the Two Child Policy, with increasing media emphasis on reproduction, is negatively affecting the status of women in Chinese society.
The slogans “It is all the same whether you give birth to a boy or give birth to a girl” (生男生女都一样) and “Daughters also carry on the family line” (女儿也是传后人) were propagated throughout China since the 1980s up to the most remote parts of rural China.
In the patriarchal Chinese society, there is a deep-rooted preference for sons. Boys are expected to carry on the family line, become the laborers, and support the older generations (Sudbeck 2012, 44).
With the implementation of the One-Child Policy, the government strongly pushed the idea of male-female equality. Slogans propagated that daughters could also carry the honor of the family line, and that girls and boys were equally important for the future of China.
The Female Webforum article argues that this widely propagated government stance improved the status of women, as daughters came to play a more important role in the family and received more attention and a better education.
This is also reiterated by Kristine Sudbeck in the article “The Effects of China’s One-Child Policy: The Significance for Chinese Women” (2012), in which she writes that China’s One-Child Policy has indirectly benefited the role of women in society because, among others, singleton daughters received greater parental investment in terms of wealth, pride, and education (43-44).
The improved education levels for women also opened the doors to more non-traditional jobs for women, with which came a greater gender equality – not just within the family, but within the society at large.
In 2014, 64% of Chinese women were in the labor force, and the percentage of women in management positions in China is much higher than that of neighbouring countries like South Korea, Japan, India, or Taiwan (Catalyst 2016, CS 2014: 8).
But the Feminist Webforum writes that since the introduction of the Two-Child Policy, the calls for extended maternity leaves and for women to return home to be a good mother are growing louder every day, potentially harming the (economic) position of women in China in the long run.
Another propagated principle during the One-Child Policy was that of later marriage and later childbirth.
Although the legal age of marrying in China is 20 for women and 22 for men, late marriage (23+ for women and 25+ for men) have been specifically encouraged by Chinese authorities to benefit the state, the family, and the individual.
The propagation of late marriage and childbirth meant that women could first concentrate on their studies and career before taking on the role as wife or mother.
Since January 2016, it seems that getting married later on is no longer encouraged. At the same time the Two-Child Policy was implemented, the Chinese government canceled the ‘late wedding leave’: a 30-day paid work leave to encourage getting married after the age of 25.
The Feminist Webforum article writes that Chinese media have started to encourage women to have children while still attending college, as in this widely published article (link in Chinese) titled: “University students have children while still in school: third-year students already have 2 children, majority does not regret.”
Articles such as these falsely suggest that it might be easier to find a job when women are already married with children. But according to the Feminist Webforum, the employment rate of women without children is actually much higher than of those who have had a baby.
Getting married and having a baby after the age of 25, the article argues, is better for a woman’s mental and physical health, as well as for her future education and career. Encouraging women to start having children early on might negatively influence her future and her independence – a setback for female emancipation.
A third and final point mentioned in the article is that under the One-Child Policy the slogan “Superior Birth, Superior Childrearing” (优生优育) was propagated, in which there was an emphasis on conceiving and raising a ‘quality child.’
The article points out that with a general heightened focus on prenatal and postnatal care, thousands of women were saved from maternal death.
Before the One-Child Policy and in its early years, there was a great lack of prenatal care, and many women only relied on midwives while giving birth – if they could afford one at all. The rate of in-hospital delivery increased from 43.7% of women in 1985 up to an in-hospital delivery for rural women of 96.7% in 2011.
The Feminist Webforum points out that in the first half year since the implementation of the Two-Child Policy, there was a staggering 30% increase in maternal mortality. This increase relates to a larger proportion of elder pregnant women, causing more health problems during pregnancy and childbirth. It also has to do with health care resources being unable to deal with the rise in births, and, according to the article, is another reason why the Two Child Policy is not improving the situation of women in China.
A ROSE-COLORED PICTURE?
“Although China’s One-Child Policy is known for creating hardships, it has helped to greatly improve the position of women in China.”
Is the Feminist Webforum right? Was the One-Child Policy really so beneficial for women? Although China’s One-Child Policy is mainly known for creating hardships for women, studies have shown that it has indeed helped to greatly improve the position of women in China in terms of gender equality, parental investment, educational attainment, career, and in terms of their familial, societal and political participation (Sudbeck 2012, 55).
Although providing very valid points, the Feminist Webforum’s article is making the decades of the One-Child Policy appear somewhat more rose-colored than they were. For example; even if the rate of prenatal complications and maternal deaths greatly improved after the implementation of the One-Child Policy (and have worsened after ending it in 2016), the article does not mention that women with unapproved pregnancies received less prenatal care and had a much higher risk (2.5 x) of maternal death than with an approved pregnancy (Nayak 2008, 14).
It also does not mention female infanticide or the large number of female-selective abortions. In the 1980-2000 period alone, it is estimated that the total number of female selective abortions was around 4 million (Sudbeck 2012, 47). Nor does it mention the abandonment of children, who were mostly girls. Around the turn of the century, China had around one million almost exclusively female orphans.
The One-Child Policy also had other far-reaching consequences. Some couples moved away from mainland China to have more freedom in their reproductive rights, while others paid for expensive fertility drugs (under the policy, having twins or triplets would still count as ‘one’ legal birth).
When placed into a larger perspective, it is apparent that Chinese women have indeed made advantages towards more gender equality within China as a by-product of the One-Child Policy, but that this advancement has come at a high price.
“Our reproduction rights are taken from us, step by step.”
On Weibo, the Feminist Webforum’s article received over 50,000 views and many comments shortly after it was posted. Many commenters seemed to share similar concerns as the Feminist Webforum, and praised the One Child Policy era while expressing their concerns over the Two Child Policy.
“The Two-Child Policy is the worst news I have heard in years,” one person writes.
“Now they enthusiastically promote for us to return home and have a second baby. Will they promote us to obey our fathers, husbands and sons, and to bind our feet hereafter?”, one commenter writes.
Another female netizen says: “Since the introduction of the ‘two child policy’, male-female relations have been more out of tune, the mortality rate of pregnant women has gone up, and the discrimination on the employment market has increased dramatically. Our reproduction rights are taken from us, step by step.”
Someone else writes: “The family planning policy was not bad, it had so many benefits (..). It was not only in line with the state of society, it also gave women the right to stop giving birth [to multiple children] and to give birth safely.”
But not all netizens agree that the role of women in Chinese society today is all owed to the One-Child Policy.
“It needs to be said that there are many ways to improve women’s status,” one person writes: “and the One-Child Policy is the most inhumane one, which has caused a lot of damage to women’s health. It was never intended to improve the status of women, and is just a by-product.”
Another woman writes: “All I can think of is that one colleague of my mum who was caught with a second (unapproved) pregnancy when she had a big belly of 7-8 months. She was forced to have an abortion.”
Many netizens refer to themselves as ‘the last generation of singleton daughters.’ They suggest that with China’s new family planning policies, there will always be couples having just one son, but if they have one daughter they will try hard to have a second child that is male: “This was the last era of the only daughters – every era is that of the only sons.”
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Catalyst. 2016. “Women In The Workforce: China.” Catalyst, July 8 http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-workforce-china [5.2.17].
Credit Suisse. 2014. “Women in Senior Management.” Credit Suisse, September https://publications.credit-suisse.com/tasks/render/file/index.cfm?fileid=8128F3C0-99BC-22E6-838E2A5B1E4366DF [5.2.17].
Feminist WebForum [女权主义贴吧]. 2017. “独生子女政策对中国女性地位的三大贡献 [The One-Child Policy’s Three Major Contributions to Chinese Women’s Status].” Feminist Webforum / Weibo, February 4 http://www.weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309404071219883321876#_rnd1486322999846 [5.2.17].
Nayak, Satyam. 2008. “An Overview of China’s One Child Policy and Health Consequences on Society.” Master of Public Health, The University of Texas School of Public Health.
Sudbeck, Kristine. 2012. “The Effects of China’s One-Child Policy: The Significance for Chinese Women.” Nebraska Anthropologist: Paper 179.
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K-Pop’s Recipe for Success: Why Korean Idol Groups Got So Big in China and are Conquering the World
The success of K-Pop in China and beyond is evident – the causes for its success are less obvious.
On coming Saturday, October 13, the South-Korean boy band BTS will perform in an Amsterdam area in front of thousands of fans who have been looking forward to this event for months. Ticket sales for the first concert of the 7-member boy group in the Netherlands were sold out within minutes, despite their relatively high prices, with people paying up to €250 ($290) in the official sales, or even €400 ($460) and more for a single ticket in the unofficial online sales afterward.
It is not just the success of the BTS European tour that is making headlines; the record-breaking views on YouTube on their videos – the latest being the song ‘Idol’, that had more than 200 million views in little over a month – is also attracting the attention of the media.
And BTS is not alone. Other Korean pop (K-Pop) groups such as EXO, BIGBANG, TWICE, Shinee, or Got7, have also broken records when it comes to online video views or Spotify plays.
Although the English-language media attention for the K-pop phenomenon is more recent, the Korean entertainment industry has since long been extremely popular in China and on Chinese social media. In this overview, What’s on Weibo explores the K-Pop popularity (focusing on its idol boy and girl groups), its short history, and success formula.
BTS and More: An Army of Fans
The pop group BTS (방탄소년단), also known as the Bangtan Boys (防弹少年团, lit: ‘Bulletproof Boyscouts’), is an award-winning seven-member South Korean boy band formed by Big Hit Entertainment that debuted in the summer of 2013. They are currently hyped as the “biggest boy band on the planet.”
Initial auditions for the band were held in 2010, followed by roughly three years during which the band was formed and prepared for their major debut, that was promoted on social media months before their actual launch in June of 2013.
The band consists of multi-talented young men. Singer-songwriter Kim Seokjin (Jin) (1992) was studying film at Konkuk University when he was invited to audition by Big Hit; rapper Min Yoongi (Suga) (1993) was an underground rapper before he was signed; dancer and rapper Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) (1994) was part of a dance team in his pre-BTS life.
Lead rapper Kim Namjoon (RM) (aka Rap Monster, 1994) was already active in the music scene as rapper and producer; dancer and vocalist Park Jimin (Jimin) (1995) was a top student as Busan School of Arts before joining; vocalist Kim Taehyung (V) (1995) is known to have one of the most expressing voices of the group; and main vocalist Jeon Jungguk (Jungkook) (1997) was only 12 years old when he auditioned for BTS, followed by three years of intense training.
BTS, formerly ‘Behind The Scenes’, is known for its strong social media presence, which helps to spread its music and connect to its fans, who call themselves an ‘ARMY’ (also stands for Adorable Representative Master of ceremonies for Youth). The band has more than 16 million followers on Twitter, 3.3 million fans on Weibo, 12 million subscribers on Youtube, and nearly 8 million followers on Facebook.
Although BTS is the band that is currently dominating the headlines, there are many more K-Pop bands that are extremely popular on Weibo and beyond. The nine-member South Korean–Chinese boy band EXO, for example, has dozens of fanclubs on Chinese social media. Band member Oh Se-hun alone already has almost 9,5 million fans on his Weibo page. BIGBANG has more than 7 million Weibo fans, the eight-member girl band Girl’s Generation (少女时代) is on the rise with 1,5 million Weibo followers, Super Junior over a million, and the list goes on.
A Short History of K-Pop: Finding a Sublime Entertainment Formula
Besides media attention, there has been ample scholarly attention for the Korean pop culture phenomenon over the past decade. The year 2012 especially marked a special moment in the history of K-Pop, when the song ‘Gangnam Style’ by Korean rapper Psy broke all YouTube records and became a global hit.
But before K-Pop became a global force to reckon with – that seemingly rose out of nowhere -, it had already made its first international successes in neighboring countries China and Japan since the early 2000s.
In China, the success of Korean popular culture is defined as Hallyu (韩流)*, the ‘Korean Wave’ since 1997 (Yang 2012, 105). Hallyu encompasses far more than idol bands; it includes the boom of South-Korean dramas, films, celebrity idols, and entertainment programs. In 2002, for example, the South-Korean soap opera ‘Winter Sonata’ became a hit in both China and Japan.
The early 2000s mark the ‘first Korean wave’ in China, that mainly revolved around TV dramas produced in South Korea and were liked by females above the age of 30. It was followed by the second wave from the mid-2000s to 2010, when the K-Pop music genre popularized in China.
The third period, after 2010, marks the moment when K-Pop was further incorporated into mainstream Chinese popular culture, with a ubiquity of K-Pop idols in everyday Chinese pop culture, and the launch of Chinese versions of Korean entertainment programs (Ahn 2014, 47). It was also in this ‘third wave’ that you saw the debut of pop groups such as EXO. Formed in 2012, that band incorporates both Korean and Chinese members, performing in both languages.
Although K-Pop from South Korea became somewhat less visible in the PRC during the past few years, mainly because the industry suffered from various politically-motivated bans on Hallyu in China, the genre’s influence on China’s mainstream pop culture is evident, with some Chinese groups, for example, also being modeled after K-Pop bands.
Many studies explain the foreign success of Korean popular culture in Asia, mainly China and Japan, through “cultural proximity,” saying that the success of K-Pop especially occurred in China and Japan because they have, for example, linguistic similarities and corresponding Confucian values (Ahn 2014, 47; Messerlin & Shin 2017, 412).
But the more recent global wave of K-Pop shows that cultural proximity is not the sole answer to the genre’s success. Besides, there is actually nothing traditionally “Korean” about K-Pop, which only emerged in the 1990s (Shin & Kim 2013, 256).
The genre’s success mainly lies in the big players that brought forth the first Korean pop idol groups and have excelled (and still do) in selecting the right entertainment “products” to invest in, with a strong focus on both on the production side and the market demand side.
SM Entertainment, JYP, and YG Entertainment are the first major and leading entertainment houses of the 1990s. Big Hit Entertainment, home to BTS, followed later; founder Bang Si-Hyuk (1972) used to collaborate with JYP Entertainment founder Park Jin-Young (1971) before going his own way in 2005.
-SM Entertainment, founded 1988 by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man (1952)
-YG Entertainment, founded in 1996 by musician Yang Hyun-Suk (1970)
-JYP Entertainment, founded in 1997 by musician and producer Park Jin-Young (1971)
-Big Hit Entertainment, founded in 2005 by producer/songwriter Bang Si-hyuk (1972)
What characterizes these entertainment houses is that they are/were small in terms of revenue and employees (very different from big labels such as Sony or Universal), and play multiple roles as intermediate between musicians and consumers, as well as producers.
Different from many international big players in the entertainment world, K-Pop entertainment companies integrate processes of artist selection, songwriting, management, signing advertisement deals, etc. in-house rather than leaving these processes to various parties outside their own studio (Shin & Kim 2013, 260). Significant about the founders of these entertainment powerhouses is that they all had ample experience in the music industry themselves before starting their studios.
The story of SM Entertainment, which was founded by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man in 1988, is crucial in understanding the beginning of the K-Pop industry. Lee was inspired by the transforming American music market after spending time there in the 1980s, and decided to replicate US entertainment in a new way. In his first studio he brought together the right equipment, the right expertise, and the right talent all in one place to kick-start his business (Shin & Kim 2013, 263).
Although the first acts that came from SM’s studio were no instant success, Lee was determined in learning through trial and error until he found the right beat and image that struck a chord with young consumers. In doing so, he adopted a strategy in which teenagers were surveyed on what they wanted, and in which he focused on scouting new talent from all over the country to give them intensive training in dancing, singing, and acting at the SM Studio (Shin & Kin 2013, 264).
In 1996, eight years after Lee Soo Man started his entertainment company, and going through years of changing, refining, and improving his strategies, the first success was there. The boy band H.O.T., consisting of five hand-picked members who each had their own strength, debuted in 1996 and became the first major success in the short history of K-Pop.
Companies that followed after SM’s initial successes further experimented in adopting new strategies and trying out new styles of music, but stayed true to the idea of in-house training of young, new artists, rather than selecting renowned artists with defined styles (Shin & Kim 2013, 264). With frequently held auditions and training programmes that can last for years, some trainees start as young as 5 or 6 so that they are fully equipped for the entertainment industry by the time they reach adolescence (ibid., 265).
More than being teachers, producers, songwriters, marketers, etc., these entertainment houses are also trend watchers; training their talents in various areas now in order to be able to place them in the right setting and format in the future, corresponding with (global) market demands.
Companies such as SM place an emphasis on the export of music, and focus on appealing to global audiences, making use of hundreds of composers and experts from around the world in doing so. In producing and performing the K-pop girl band Girl’s Generation’s song ‘Genie’, for example, SM Entertainment used a Japanese choreographer, a Norwegian songwriter, and Korean lyricist (Shim 2016, 38).
The Popularisation of K-Pop: A Digital Strategy
Although a main cause of K-Pop’s initial success lies in the (training) strategies adopted by the aforementioned entertainment houses, there are also other major factors that have contributed to its global influence.
The Korean government contributed to the initial success of K-Pop by developing a world-leading internet infrastructure (although the goal of developing that infrastructure, obviously, was not to promote K-Pop), which helped the rapid rise of the genre through online strategies.
According to some studies (e.g. Messerlin & Shin 2017, 422-425), Korean entertainment companies have been the first in the world when it comes to realizing the potential of the internet for the distribution and marketing of their performances; they were already long awake to its possibilities and were acting upon them, while many big players in Europe and America were still focusing on traditional album formats.
What also helped the spread of K-Pop at the time were the relatively friendly and equally balanced Korean policies on issues such as copyright, that were (and are) less protective and restrictive compared to America or the EU (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 421).
The first success (1997-2007) of K-Pop and other Korean popular culture products in China, Japan, and other countries within Asia, have also been called the first major Korean Wave, whereas the current period (2008-present), represents the ‘New Korean Wave,’ that is defined by the role that is played by new media technology and social media as a platform for K-Pop to reach every corner of the world (Jin 2016).
Online strategies were particularly relevant in the context of the (early) K-Pop industry because 1) it was dominated by relatively small businesses that did not have the means to invest in other major publishing platforms than that of efficient online distribution and 2) they did not have costly plants where they could produce CDs, DVDs, or vinyl. Having the high-tech Korean electronical market on their side, online strategies were thus a natural and cost-efficient solution to give publicity to their performances (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 426). More so than focusing on traditional album releases, the release of digital singles that come with visually attractive online videos, for example, is one important K-Pop production characteristic.
Probably the best example showing that this strategy works is the global success of ‘Gangnam Style’ that was made possible through YouTube. By now, six years after its release, the world-famous song by Psy, who was signed by YG Entertainment, has over 3,2 billion plays on YouTube.
The revenue of concert tickets for K-pop performances, its merchandise industry, the digital singles, advertisement income, the many brands wanting to associate themselves with the star industry that K-pop has generated, etc., makes K-Pop production a money-making machine that shows that the model that focuses on traditional (CD) album formats and promotional single releases has become outdated.
Marketing more than a Band: Active Fans and Interesting Characters
While South-Korea’s innovative music enterprises were crucial for the international launch of K-pop, its worldwide fanbase has now also become a motor driving its continuing success.
Different from the initial spread of K-Pop in China or other Asian countries – where K-Pop has become common in everyday pop culture -, is that many consumers of the genre in the US, Europe, or elsewhere, fully depend on the internet and social media to access K-Pop, as it is not a genre that is prevalent in the mainstream popular culture of their own countries.
The fact that fans of K-Pop in these regions have to actively seek for the latest information and releases of their favorite groups, also means that they have become participatory and engaged consumers in the spread of K-Pop – almost turning them into the ‘soldiers’ of fandoms such as the BTS ‘army’. They have become part of enormous (online) subcultures in various countries across Europe and America.
More than just listening and watching K-pop, these fans become members of the ‘culture’ by translating material, circulating it to friends, or integrating it on their own social media channels (Jin & Yoon 2016, 1285).
What further strengthens this fandom is that the successful K-Pop bands are anything but one-dimensional. More than just building on their synced choreography, flawless singing, fashionable looks, and visually attractive videos, the band members of groups such as BTS, EXO, or TWICE, have their own identities, voices, and goals that go beyond music; their various characters and roles within the group resonate with their different fans.
The fact that many K-Pop groups and members also have an androgynous and gender-bender appearance also makes them more interesting to many fans, with many K-pop boys being ‘pretty and cute’ and girls having a ‘strong and handsome’ look, breaking through typical male and female stereotypes.
Furthermore, more than pop bands, these K-Pop groups have virtually become ‘platforms’ with their own streaming channels, websites, television shows, merchandise shops, lively online communities, stories, and so on.
In their recent appearance on the US Tonight Show by Jimmy Fallon, BTS frontman RM explained the group’s mission in perfect English, saying: “It is about speaking yourself, instead of letting other people speaking for you. Cause in order to truly know ourselves, it is important to firstly know who I am, where I’m from, what my name is, and what my voice is.”
Many find their voice in K-Pop. And that is a sound, from a local Korean product to a global force, we can expect to grow much louder in the future.
* For clarity: note that due to scope this article focuses on the development of the K-pop phenomenon, and does not explore the anti-Hallyu or anti-Korean wave movement in China, and the previous bans on Hallyu in the PRC.
Ahn, Jungah. 2014. “The New Korean Wave in China: Chinese Uders’ Use of Korean Popular Culture via the Internet.” International Journal of Contents, 10 (3): 47-54.
Jin, Dal Yong. 2016. New Korean Wave: Transnational Culture in the Age of Social Media. University of Illinois.
Jin, Dal Yong, and Kyong Yoon.2016. “The Social Mediascape of Transnational Korean Pop Culture: Hallyu 2.0 as Spreadable Media Practice.” New Media & Society 18 (7): 1277-1292.
Messerlin, Patrick A. and Wonkyu Shin. 2017. “The Success of K-Pop: How Big and Why So Fast?” Asian Journal of Social Science 45: 409-439.
Shim, Doobo. 2016. “Hybridity, Korean Wave, and Asian media.” Routledge Handbook of East Asian Popular Culture,Koichi Iwabuchi, Eva Tsai, Chris Berry (eds), Chapter 3. London: Routledge.
Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-Pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia 30: 255-272.
Yang, Jonghoe. 2012. “The Korean Wave (Hallyu) in East Asia: A Comparison of Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese Audiences Who Watch Korean TV Dramas.” Development and Society, 41 (1): 103-147.
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Beyond Four Walls: ‘Home’ and ‘Unhomeliness’ in a Rapidly Transforming China
About changing concepts of home in China: from ‘home is where my pig is’ to ‘has your frog returned home yet?’
According to a global research report released by IKEA Group this week, traditional ideas of where people “feel at home” are drastically changing. The annual study on international living trends found that 35% of people feel more at home elsewhere than the place where they live, with a staggering 29% of people not feeling at home where they live at all.
The findings show remarkable changes associated with “feeling at home” compared to earlier annual reports, indicating that demographic, technological, and cultural forces are rapidly transforming conceptions of “home” in various places across the world.
China is part of this trend. The report, undertaken by London-based agency C Space, is based on studies that were conducted from March to August of 2018. Besides China, a large-scale survey was undertaken in 21 other countries among 22,854 respondents (11,325 from urban areas), and qualitative research was conducted in China, US, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and the UK.
The results of the study might resonate with what many experience in Europe and the US, but also with the societal changes they have seen in China over the past decade – although the reasons for these developments are different between these places.
These are transformations that do not only become clear from the trends on Chinese social media, but, for me personally, also from the lives of friends and social circles in Beijing and Shanghai, and the rapid pace in which I have seen them moving from residence to residence, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and sometimes even from city to city, often with seemingly little emotional attachment to the houses where they have lived for years as urban dwellers. Where is that place called ‘home’?
Going “Home” in China
“‘Home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks.”
Every year at the time of China’s Spring Festival, there is one hashtag that always goes trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo: “Return Home”, #回家, Huíjiā.
For many people, the Spring Festival is the only time of the year they can return to their hometowns to celebrate the new year with their family and friends. As many now know, the travel season leading up to the Festival, the chūnyùn (春运), is the biggest annual mass migration of the world. Many of China’s urban areas become deserted as people return to their native provinces to be ‘home.’
The word for ‘home’ in Chinese, ‘家’ jiā, means both ‘home’ and ‘family.’ The character has a history of some 3000 years; first depicting a house with a pig inside, as this article explains, and then evolving into the character it is today (see image below). In its earliest meanings, the ‘home’ was simply there where pigs were raised and where family activities took place; there where the family house was situated.
This duality in the concept of jiā still plays an important role in how the meaning of ‘home’ is understood in China today. In a small-scale survey that was done for the dissertation research of Wei Zhao (2015), for example, participants had various answers to the simple question of “what is jiā?”, some describing it as a space or place, some seeing it as an abstract concept (representing, amongst others, ‘harmony’), with others understanding it as the (extended) family itself (Zhao 2015, 125).
A simple search for the words ‘going home’ (回家) on Chinese social media today comes up with dozens of photos of mostly food, with Weibo users describing ‘home’ as that place where they eat the traditional home cooking from their family, also suggesting that ‘home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks, it is there where the land is, it is there where the family residence might have been situated for decades.
According to Wei Zhao’s research, people from Yanxia, a town in the Zhejiang region of China, often associate ‘home’ with the various forms of land, both in the present and past, that is tied to where their families live or lived. It is a “place-bound relationship,” Zhao writes (2015, 123), “enriched with social meanings,” where the land incorporates those places that “support various kinds of daily activities, help construct social relations, and sustain cultural performances.”
Many people who have moved from outside their family homes or villages to far away places or cities are no longer physically connected with this concept of ‘home’, drastically impacting how people experience “feelings of home” and how it relates to the places where they actually reside.
Unhomeliness and the City
“36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces outside their residential home.”
Due to many different factors, including the privatization of farmland, surplus of rural labor, and increased labor demands in the city, China is currently seeing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history.
Rural residents who have lived in the same homes for decades are being relocated to new settlements, old houses are being demolished, and China’s so-called ‘ghost cities‘ are rapidly coming to life.
For the first time in Chinese history, more people are living in China’s cities than they do in the countryside. In 2020, it is expected that 60 percent of the Chinese population will be permanent urban residents (Xinhua 2018).
A significant percentage of China’s population is what is called a “floating population,” China’s internal migratory population; those who are living as temporary residents or ‘migrant workers’ in the cities (without changes in their ‘hukou‘ or household registration). According to data provided by Chinese state media, that number of people is expected to hit 291 million in 2020 (Xinhua 2015).
As described by Yang et al (2014) in their article in Transforming Chinese Cities, there is a gap in living conditions between household residents and the ‘floating’ population, with the latter holding an 11,4 square meter size residence per capita, compared to 27.1 square meter per capita for the household population. Besides size, the ‘floating’ population also has less access to the more basic necessities in a home such as a kitchen (more than 45% has no kitchen) or flushing toilet (nearly 75% have to do without) (Yang et al 2014, 71).
In cities such as Beijing, underground nuclear bunkers from the Cold War era still serve as a residence to many urban dwellers. According to some sources, there are still one million people living in this underground world in Beijing alone, often dealing with poor air circulation and tiny living spaces with no daylight.
Although the nuclear bunkers are an extreme example, the living conditions of many people in Chinese cities, whether they are migrant workers, students, or those who have restricted access to urban housing, are far from ideal; think of overcrowdedness and a lack of what many would consider basic conditions for comfortable housing.
So, without even considering the idea that the perfect concept of “home” might always be a place outside of one’s (urban) residence, it perhaps does not come as a surprise that many people do not always feel at home at all in their own house.
In China, the IKEA-commissioned study* found that 32% of those surveyed felt more at home outside their residential home, and that 36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces than where they actually live (in other physical and/or virtual environments).* Since 89% of those surveyed lives in an urban location, these sentiments are especially telling about experiences of ‘home’ in the city.
A Sense of Belonging
“I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’.”
When residences are experienced as “unhomely,” it could mean many things. There might be a lack of comfort, a lacking sense of community, a feeling of security/privacy that is not there, or a missing feeling of ‘rootedness’ in the place where one lives.
The findings of IKEA’s study in China perhaps makes more sense when one considers the study’s results that found that 62% of those surveyed believe that community is an extension of the residential home. This strengthens the idea that ‘home’ is not the four walls one lives in, but an emotional landscape that is influenced by all kinds of factors.
An interesting 2013 study by scholar Xiaobo Su argues that ideas of ‘home’ are made through social and emotional relationships, and that ‘houses’ in China are often perceived as exchangeable commodities to which one does not necessarily have these emotional connections, whereas ‘home’ is a sphere where one feels free and at ease.
People, therefore, go looking for that ‘experience of home’ through other ways; it might be through friends and social events, through (digital) communities, or through tourism: traveling to those places where people do get that sense of home. Su (2013) suggests that Chinese domestic tourists consume the idea of ‘home’ by visiting (heritage) tourist sites that embody that image for them.
Earlier this year, the huge success of the mobile ‘Travelling Frog’ game in China became a media hype. The game revolves around the travels of a little frog who lives in a stone cave and goes on frequent trips. Although perhaps far-fetched, some Chinese media tied the success of this game to a need for belonging and family, saying that higher house prices, intensive jobs, and the collapse of the pyramid family structure had led to a decline in young people starting their own family and homes; and started looking to these type of games or digital communities to fill the gap. “Has your frog returned home yet?” even became somewhat of a common question among young people in January of 2018.
Besides the rise of various online communities, the rapid digitalization of China has also made it easier for families and friends to stay in touch through social media and messaging apps. This also brought about that physical proximity to relatives has become less of a priority now than in earlier (nondigital) times (Tao et al 2014, 197).
A China Merchants Bank commercial that went viral in late 2017 titled ‘The world is no bigger than a fried tomato omelette’ (“世界再大，大不过一盘番茄炒蛋”) shows how a mother helps her son to cook a home-made dish via mobile video while he is studying abroad. The viral campaign hit home for many exchange students.
Despite the fact that the dwellings of many people in present-day China lack space, privacy, or comfort, it does not necessarily mean that those living in these houses are dissatisfied. An interesting study by Li Tao et al (2014) on residential satisfaction of migrant workers in China found that kinship, family, friendship, and mobility, all play a significant role in how people feel about how they live. Additionally, instead of a focus on the sizes of their houses or the privacy they have, there is also a heightened focus on the low costs and transportation convenience of where one lives.
The fact that ‘home’ is an ever-changing and hot topic also becomes evident from the many posts on Chinese social media dedicated to this issue. As said, food is a recurring topic in these posts. On October 9, one Weibo netizen named Zhang Xizi (@张西子) wrote:
“What do you think is ‘home’? For me, at one time, I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’. If I was hungry, I would just order something, and I hardly touched my stove at all. But then I started feeling that although I rent my home, it is still my life. Home should be a place with character. And then I started to enjoy cooking, especially when other people enjoy the food with me, is when I feel happy. So feel welcome to come to my home.”
Another Weibo user nicknamed ‘I love rabbits’ (@我爱兔子) writes:
“What is home? It’s a person’s most private space. What is happiness? It is the warmth one feels with every dish at the dining table after returning home.”
A person named Sofo concludes: “What home is? If the people I love are there, then even a tent on the beach could be my home.”
Interested to read more relating to this topic?
* Viral Merchants Bank Commercial Hits Close to Home for Chinese Students Abroad
* Chinese Ghost Cities Coming to Life
* Chinese Media Ascribe ‘Traveling Frog’ Game Hype to China’s Low Birth Rates
* “I Am Fan Yusu” – Beijing Migrant Worker’s Writing Takes Chinese Internet by Storm
Find the IKEA Life at Home report here.
* Note that not all of the market specific results have been publicly issued by IKEA. What’s on Weibo author has access to the market-specific results. Please email us if you have further questions about this data and the report’s findings or contact IKEA.
* The report says that “36% of renters look to other physical spaces or even virtual environments for a sense of belonging”; for Chinese home-owners, this is 22%.
IKEA. 2018. Beyond Four Walls: Life at Home Report 2018. October. https://lifeathome.ikea.com/home/ [9.10.18].
Su, Xiaobo. 2014. “Tourism, Modernity and the Consumption of Home in China.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(1): 50-61.
Tao, Li, Francis K.W. Wong, Eddie C.M. Hui. 2014. “Residential Satisfaction of Migrant Workers in China: A Case Study of Shenzhen.” Habitat International 42:193–202
Xinhua. 2015. “China’s floating population to hit 291 million in 2020: report.” China Daily, Nov 12. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2015-11/12/content_22438127.htm [9.10.18].
Xinhua. 2018. “Urbanization rate of China’s agricultural province exceeds 50 pct.” Xinhua, March 5. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/05/c_137017957.htm [9.10.18].
Yang, Shangguan, Chunlan Wang and Mark Y. Wang.2014.”Synergistic Evolution of Shanghai Urban Economic Development Transition and Social Spatial Structure.” In Transforming Chinese Cities, Mark Y. Wang, Pookong Kee, and Jia Gao (eds). London: Routledge.
Zhao, Wei. 2015. “Home Beyond the House: The Meaning of Home for People Living in Yanxia Village, Zhejiang Province, China.” Dissertation / Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture, Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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