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The Early Days of Rock in China – Interview with Sinologist & Hardrocker Jeroen den Hengst

From copied tapes to a unique rock scene – Jeroen den Hengst was part of the Beijing rock scene when it first awakened.

Manya Koetse

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Dutch Sinologist and musician Jeroen den Hengst was part of the Beijing rock scene when it awakened in the late 1980s. Nearly three decades later, Den Hengst looks back on the early days of rock in China – before, during and after the Tiananmen protests – and talks about the music scene in Beijing and his personal path from young Sinologist to serious hardrocker.

When I notice some glitters sparkling on Den Hengst’s face as I meet him in downtown Amsterdam in early Spring, he nonchalantly brushes them off. He was performing the night before, he tells me.

Den Hengst is the host and guitar player of Amsterdam’s Hardrock Karaoke, which has become quite a phenomenon in Amsterdam and beyond. We sit down, order a beer and talk about Den Hengst’s musical journey that started in the early days of China rock.

 

FIRST STEPS ON THE MAINLAND

“There was simply no access to pop music. I had brought forty cassette tapes with music to China; they were copied hundreds of times.”

cuijiantape

“I arrived in China in September 1987 when the famous Beijing musician Cui Jian (崔健) was just getting big. I came to China to study at Peking University as part of my Sinology studies at Leiden University, but soon ended up more in the Beijing music scene than I was in class,” Den Hengst tells:

“I never used to be a really good student – music was always my true passion. I had also played in bands throughout high school. But I was very interested in China. I had to learn its history for my final high school exams. The language intrigued me. So I started studying it at university and had already finished my third year when I arrived in Beijing. I soon discovered I couldn’t even properly order food, despite studying the language. It was my first time in China.”

“Singer Cui Jian got together at the time with Eddy [Randriamampionona] from Madagascar and drummer Zhang [Yongguang]. They would perform in Ritan Park with their band Ado. I would go there, and found out that there were quite some young people making music.”

cuijiantiananmen

THE ADO BAND IN 1989 WITH FROM LEFT TO RIGHT SANR (DRUMS), EDDIE FROM MADAGASCAR (GUITAR), BALASZ FROM HUNGARY (BASS), LIU YUANR (SAX) AND FRONTMAN CUI JIAN (IMAGE FROM REDIANWANG)

“Zang Tianshuo (臧天朔) would also play there, and I became acquainted with Chinese rock musician He Yong (何勇), who later became well-known with his album Garbage Dump (垃圾场). I knew all of them, it was just a small bunch of people in that scene. Especially the foreigners in Beijing knew each other at the time – there were not that many, and if there was something happening we just knew it through word of mouth.”

xin_0520307151412015265624Singer He Yong in early 1990s (Xinhua).

“I started frequenting these sort of performances and would join on stage every now and then, as I did with the band Mayday (五月天), in which He Yong also played. They had all just started playing and had zero background knowledge in pop music as there was simply no access to that kind of music. I had brought forty cassette tapes with me to China; they were copied hundreds of times. Before I knew it I was hanging out with these guys days on end, recording songs in the studio. They would also make cassette tapes with Toto music, for which I would do the singing. I would get 500 kuai [±80$] for it, which got me through another month. I lived on the campus anyway, and did not need much to get by.”

“I’ve always felt very welcome, and our interest was mutual. I wanted to play music with them, and they needed a guitar player. The fact that I was foreign didn’t matter – we were all equals. I stopped going to Chinese classes at university, but in the meantime, my Chinese was improving every day because I was talking to my new friends. I once went back to class in the second semester and discovered I was ahead of the others. By then I couldn’t just properly order food – I was talking Chinese the whole time.”

 

THE EARLY DAYS OF ROCK IN CHINA

“The years from 1986-1989 were the blossoming days for rock music – those were the days of liberation.”

heibaoHeibao band members (Zhihu).

“The years from 1986-1989 were the blossoming days for a new type of music in China, but it was more than that: those were the days of liberation. Everybody thought: we’re opening up, we’re becoming modern. It was the build-up to the student movement of ’89. Rock music was a big part of it.”

“The late ‘80s were not necessarily the beginning of pop music in China, as you also had music by Chinese pop queen Teresa Teng and others which was popular before that time. But the rock scene provided a different sound – it was not as sweet as Teresa Teng, and it was influenced by the cassettes that were passed around, which included sounds by Toto, The Police, Bob Marley, and other artists. The difference between pop and rock is lifestyle; it was no music for the millions, it was a hip and alternative scene.”

“The ‘rock scene’ maybe consisted of 30 to 40 people. Cui Jian played an important role in those early days of rock. For many young adults, he was that critical voice against the authorities. He was very good with language, and also used Chinese instruments in his music. He really knew how to do it. Nobody ever surpassed him in that way.”
cuijiandingingCui Jian in 1990.

“Many musicians of those days were part of danwei’s [work units] focused on dance and music. Most of them were able to play a traditional Chinese instrument. They all came from a musical environment, but their power was to give those Chinese musical influences a new twist and combine them with the music that came in via Europe or America. In the music from those days, you can clearly hear what they listened to. Part of it is coincidence; Cui Jian sometimes only sounds like The Police because that was the cassette tape that happened to be available to him, while others weren’t.”

hei baoThe Heibao band 黑豹乐队 (image from my.isself).

“Heibao (黑豹乐队, Black Panther) was a band that was also formed at the time. They later became the best-selling mainland Chinese rock band ever. More people started engaging with the rock scene. The simple core value in the beginning was that everyone just wanted to make music. Those were the free days. We would hang out together in the studio and if we went out we would hop on our bikes and cycle through the city. The streets were pretty empty. Looking back, I mainly remember that feeling of freedom and spontaneity. ”

 

THE TIANANMEN MOVEMENT

“The army had taken over the city. There was no more music, no more nothing.”

tiananmenaftermathThe aftermath: cleaning up Tiananmen Square, June 1989.

“I lived in Beijing throughout 1987-1988 and then went back in 1989. The liberal politician Hu Yaobang died in April 1989 and everyone mourned his death because he was a reformer who inspired people – he was, amongst others, against corruption. He was very popular amongst Chinese students. University students in Beijing went through the city in a procession to honour him and then the slogans started coming against corruption. It became political very quickly.”

“I arrived again in Beijing with a crew on the day Hu Yaobang died to make a documentary about youth culture in China for Dutch television and we recorded everything. For us, it was a coincidence that we arrived exactly at that moment, and we saw more and more international press arriving while we were filming all along. We only later realised how big this event actually was. It was one big roller coaster.”

19890515_hungerStrike1Picture of Tiananmen square protests, 15 May 1989 (source).

“We were staying at the Peking University campus, and saw more and more trucks coming and going with students hopping on to go to Tiananmen Square. If I had to compare it with anything, I’d say it was like Woodstock – a bizarre hopeful and loving vibe was capturing Beijing. I absolutely loved it, and I was one of the hundred-thousands of people standing on Tiananmen. We would go there all the time, also in the middle of night, and all my friends from the music scene would also be there to provide entertainment to the students who stayed there.”

“Cui Jian’s Tiananmen performance was legendary. His songs also made sense, singing about ‘I’ve got nothing to my name’ [see song translation]; he voiced the feelings many had the time. But there were a lot more people there who made music, there were many from the art and music scene. Students were even setting up a Statue of Liberty on Tiananmen. It was one big party.”

“At a certain point I realized that things were going the wrong way; things started to get dirty, literally, and I was too caught up – although I wasn’t politically involved at all. It was just that there were many cute girls and it was all so rock ’n roll, and I enjoyed it, but I got it all wrong. People started getting tired and not much was really happening. The height of the moment was gone. The same familiar faces were appearing in the media and the atmosphere changed. We decided to go to Shanghai by the end of May to further work on our documentary there.”

nytimes(Image by New York Times.)

“It was night in Shanghai, on June 4th, when there was a quiet procession throughout Nanjing Avenue with people carrying big posters. On the trees we saw stapled faxes with images that had gotten through via Hong Kong about what had happened in Beijing. We saw dead people and burnt soldiers. I almost couldn’t believe it – that such a peaceful and care-free time had turned into such a dark thing. We did not return to Beijing afterwards, as we had nothing to do there anymore. People from the Dutch embassy in Beijing went to the campus to collect our photos and films to make sure they were safe. The army had taken over the city. There was no more music, no more nothing.”

“In those last months of 1989 and in the early nineties I went back to Beijing, but things had changed a lot – especially in the music scene. There were a lot of wild parties, but everything had become more underground. Many musicians endured hard times during those days.”

 

AFTER THE EIGHTIES

“Many of the guys from those days have gone mad.”

funeralphoto Beijing musicians at funeral of bassist Zhang Ju of band Tang Dynasty (founded by Kaiser Kuo with Ding Wu and Zhang Ju in 1988). Zhang died in a motorcycle accident in 1995. From left: Zhang Ling (Mayday), Zhu Jia, Zhou Ren (Xiutie/Pork), Jin Hai, Li Ji (Budaoweng) and Li Jie. Photo by Gao Yuan).

“People living in a dictatorship develop techniques to know the margins within which they can operate. In the early nineties, I noticed that the guys in the music scene somehow always knew when their friends were getting out of prison. Or when they could organise a party. It was also the time when Ecstacy came up – it was called  yáotóuwán (摇头丸) in Chinese, literally: ‘shake-head-pill’, ’cause it made their heads shake.”

“It seems like not many people were able to pick up the music vibe where it had left off before those dark days in 1989. Some just couldn’t get on with the changing times, others were on drugs. Not many were arrested, but there were a lot of them who had to lay low for a long time after 1989. Zhang [Ado drummer] committed suicide last year. He Yong is now either imprisoned or in a mental hospital. Many of the guys from those days have gone mad or suffered a severe setback after their moment in those early flourishing days of rock had passed.”

“Now the music scene seems to be somewhat blooming again. Beijing really has got some good bands. Shanghai has got a nice jazz scene. But there is no solid base for these bands to build on. Japan and Korea are far ahead of China when it comes to the music scene. In China’s music scene, people are more individualistic – they are staring at the ground when you want to find the groove together. If everyone is only looking to do their own thing and don’t work together, you don’t get that music to the next level.”

“After living in China, I continued my own musical career in the Netherlands as a musician and producer. China never really influenced my career back home. But I did once produce a song in Chinese for Dutch singer Brigit Schuurman. I still go back to Beijing and get on stage every now and then. Last year I performed in Yugong Yishan together with Li Ji (Jige) from the band Budaoweng (不倒翁). I’m also working on recording a duet between Shanghai musician and friend Coco Zhao and my wife [Dutch singer Monique Klemann].”

denhengtbeijing Den Hengst in Beijing in 2015 with good friend and fellow musician Li Ji (aka Jige) on his right and two Taiwan friends from the rock scene.

“I will go back again this Summer and I will perform again. Somehow I always get that same nostalgic feeling I had in the Spring of 1989 when I walk on the streets of Beijing – that feeling of freedom, that anything’s possible.”

denhengst2Den Hengst dressed in full attire for Hardrock Karaoke (left) and on the right during live performance. In the featured image, Den Hengst is performing at Yugong Yishan in 2015.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Manya Koetse in Amsterdam.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Zheng Shuang, Zhang Heng, and ‘Surrogacy Gate’: A Timeline

One celebrity couple breakup, two children born through surrogacy: this sad and messy topic has exploded on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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A celebrity surrogacy scandal is dominating discussions on Chinese social media, with one hashtag on the case attracting over 3 4 billion views. The scandal is triggering discussions on the topic of surrogacy in China.

Her name is Zheng Shuang (郑爽, 29), his name is Zhang Heng (张恒, 30). They’re both celebrities in China; she is a super famous actress, he is a well-known producer.

This week, it is not their work that made them go viral on Chinese social media, but a surrogacy scandal taking place in the United States that is dominating all trending lists on Weibo.

Zheng and Zhang in happier times.

The social media storm started on Monday, January 18, when rumors surfaced on Weibo and Wechat that the celebrity couple had separated. Some netizens had located a ‘dissolution’ case concerning the couple through the public access of the US federal court system.

Subsequently, news and rumors began circulating that the couple had two children in the US through a surrogacy arrangement, but that actress Zheng Shuang refused to have them because she and Zhang had broken up – even though her name was on their birth certificate.

The topic soon became known as the Zheng Shuang ‘Surrogacy Gate’ (郑爽”代孕门”).

Chinese media outlet Netease Entertainment published images of the children’s birth certificates and confirmed through sources close to producer Zhang Heng that he was stranded in the United States with the two babies, unable to bring them back to China with him since Ms Zheng allegedly did not cooperate with the necessary legal procedures.

It was Zhang Heng himself who spoke out about the situation on his Weibo account (@张恒KN) on January 18. He wrote the following post:

“Hi everyone, I’m Zhang Heng. Long time no see. As everyone has seen, I again hit the hot search lists recently. Since the past year or so, there has been baseless slander, disrespect, and endless online violence against me on the internet. My family is also frustrated, helpless, and mentally exhausted because of my problems. There’s no way to lead a normal life or to socialize normally. We’re unable to reunite because of this. I really feel so, so bad.   

I realize I can’t bury my head in the sand any longer. Because it’s not just me facing everything; it’s also my cherished family members. I’ve decided to speak up, for my family and for myself, and to set the record straight. 

The online rumors about me committing fraud, borrowing from loan sharks, evading debts, taking funds and slinking off to America, etc –  they’re all rumors and I swear I’ve never done these things, nor would I ever do them. It is true that I am in America, but my family and I have been in the United States for over a year because we had to take care of and protect our two young and innocent children. We had no choice but to remain here.

I have hired a lawyer to handle related matters, and I believe the actual facts will be restored by the American and Chinese courts. Finally, I hope the media and righteous people can recognize the truth in this matter, and will not be blinded by internet rumors.” 

The children caught up in this scandal are one girl, born on January 4 2020, registered in the state of Nevada; and a boy, born on December 19 2019, registered in the state of Colorado. The birth certificates that were leaked to Chinese media show both Ms. Zheng and Mr. Zhang as the legal parents of the two babies.

Also leaked to Chinese media is an older audio recording in which Zheng, Zhang, and both of their parents allegedly discuss what to do with their unborn babies. In the voice recording, Zheng’s side argues that the children should be given up for adoption, with Zheng herself even complaining that the babies could not be aborted because the surrogate mothers were already seven months pregnant.

On January 19, Zheng Shuang herself also responded to the matter on Weibo (@郑爽SZ), where she did not address the matter directly but said that this is “a very sad and private matter that I did not want to discuss in front of everybody.” She further wrote that legal teams in China and the US “never gave up defending the legal rights of me and my family since last year.”

Zheng Shuang, image via Sohu.

Of the two former partners, Zheng is the most famous celebrity. Born in Shenyang in 1991, she rose to fame when she starred in a popular TV series in 2009 (Meteor Shower 一起来看流星雨). She became an award-winning actress and was chosen as one of the most bankable young actresses of the post-90s generation. On her Weibo account, she has over 12.4 million followers.

 

‘Surrogacy Gate’: The Timeline


 

While this case is unfolding in front of netizens’ eyes and through their own research, more and more details are coming up.

Money plays a major role in the falling-out between Zheng and Zhang, and a private lending dispute – involving no less than 20 million yuan (around 3 million dollars) – seems to be one of the reasons for their break-up.

Since the story is somewhat messy and complicated, we will attempt to reconstruct a timeline of events here.
 

TIMELINE:

2018, May
• Zheng and Zhang meet on the set of the variety show This Is Fighting Robots (这就是铁甲), where Zhang does the show’s production. Weeks later, intimate photos of the two surface online.

2018, August
• The couple officially announces their relationship status and start a company together.

2018, November
• Ms Zheng allegedly loans Mr Zhang 20 million yuan ($3 million).

2019, January 19
• Zheng and Zhang ‘secretly’ get married in the United States on January 19 of 2019. Zheng’s dog, “Wolfberry Kris” (@枸杞kris), has its own Weibo account where some ‘wedding photos’ of the joyous occasion are shared on this day.

2019, Fall/Winter
• Zhang and Zheng both appear on the TV show Meeting Mr. Right (女儿们的恋爱).

• An annual report of Zhang and Zheng’s entertainment-meets-tech company, a joint business venture named Shanghai Whale Valley AI Tech (上海鲸谷座人工智能科技有限公司), shows that Zheng Shuang invested over 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) while Zhang – the company’s legal representative – only contributed 200,000 yuan ($30,800).

2019, September
• In a Weibo post of January 2021, Zheng Shuang claims that Zhang cheated on her in September of 2019, which is why she left the US and went back to China.

2019, October 31
• Zhang Heng and Zheng Shuang go viral on Chinese social media when Zhang writes a love song for Zheng, and publicly announces his love for her (#张恒给郑爽写歌#).

2019, December 18
• Zhang Heng and Zheng Shuang announce their breakup, and rumors suggest that the two are caught up in a dispute over money.

2019, December 19
• The son of Zhang Heng and Zheng Shuang is born through surrogacy in Colorado.

2020, January
• The daughter of Zhang Heng and Zheng Shuang is born through surrogacy in Nevada on January 4.

• Zheng Shuang files a lawsuit in Shanghai, suing Zhang Heng for borrowing 20 million yuan from high-interest loaners under her name to invest in personal business ventures.

2020, November
• Shanghai Jing’an Court rules that Mr. Zhang needs to pay back 20 million yuan ($3 million) plus overdue interest to Ms. Zheng. Zhang Heng appeals the case, arguing the money involved was never a loan but a financial compensation and advance payment for invested labor, since Zhang also acted as Zheng’s manager while they were together.

2020, December
• Zheng Shuang quits as a mentor on the Shine! Super Brothers (追光吧!哥哥) variety TV show after a clip exposing her gossiping about the past relationship of two co-stars circulated online.

2021, January 18
• Zhang posts his story on his Weibo account, stating he is stranded in the United States to take care of his two young children, implying Zheng has abandoned the babies. He also posts a photo of him with the two children.

• A voice recording in which Zheng talks about what to do with her unborn children surfaces in Chinese media, along with the birth certificates. The topic explodes on Chinese social media.

2021, January 19
• Zheng Shuang posts a reply to the matter on her own Weibo account, in which she is vague and evasive about the issue concerning the children. She implies that Zhang has “ulterior motives.” She later adds that Zhang cheated on her in the fall of 2019.

• In light of all controversy, Italian fashion brand PRADA cuts ties with Zheng Shuang, with whom they had a cooperation agreement. Zheng was announced as one of the brand’s new Chinese ambassadors earlier in 2021.

• London jewelry brand Lola Rose deletes all content including Zheng from their social media.

• Harper Bazaar deletes a feature on Zheng Shuang from their social media.

• Chinese cosmetic brand Chioture also posts a statement on Weibo saying it has terminated its contract with Zheng Shuang, who formerly was a spokesperson for the company.

• The second hearing of the Zheng versus Zhang lawsuit takes place in a Shanghai court over the disputed loan. Zhang and Zheng are both represented by their lawyers. (No news on outcome yet).

• State broadcaster CCTV condemns surrogacy in a post on Weibo.

• Zheng Shuang appears in public in Beijing, where she is followed by paparazzi. She does not respond to any questions, but her appearance still goes viral on social media with over 640 million views (#郑爽风波后首现身#).

2021, January 20
• Huading Awards announces it will revoke the honorary titles of Zheng Shuang, renouncing Zheng’s former awards as best actress and favorite TV star. Over 2.2 million people ‘liked’ this update on Weibo (#华鼎奖取消郑爽荣誉称号#).

• China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television officially shuts out Zheng Shuang.

• The Weibo hashtag “Birth Certificates of Zheng Shuang and Zhang Heng’s Children” (#郑爽张恒孩子出生证明#) reaches a staggering 4 billion views.

2021, March 22
• The hearing for the supposed dissolution of Zheng and Zhang’s marriage is scheduled to take place in Denver, US.

 

Surrogacy Abandonment


 

Although the timeline of events leading to the current situation might suggest that Ms. Zheng and Mr. Zhang are both at fault for handling matters in an irresponsible way, it is Zheng’s “surrogacy abandonment” that mostly triggers the public’s anger on social media.

Many people feel that Zheng Shuang is lacking morals for abandoning her children and call her “cold-blooded.” There are also those who think the actress has serious mental problems. Despite all backlash, Zheng still has a strong fan base with people who still support her.

The scandal has sparked more discussions on the issue of surrogacy in China, which already was a big topic earlier in January when a story came out on a baby born through surrogacy who had no birth certificate and no legal registration (link here).

Although surrogacy is officially not legal in China, there is a flourishing underground surrogacy market, and many couples who are struggling with fertility issues travel overseas for surrogacy arrangements. It is not clear why Zheng and Zhang used surrogates to have children.

On Weibo, many people speak out against surrogacy practices, arguing that having children is not a business and surrogacy puts vulnerable women at increased risk of exploitation.

The hashtag “Firmly Oppose All Forms of Surrogacy” (#坚决反对一切形式的代孕#) received over 290 million views and thousands of comments.

One person commented: “Children are not a commodity you can buy, sell, or return. They’re a life-long responsibility, they are the future of our society.”

 
This story will be updated following the latest developments.
 
By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes


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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Arts & Entertainment

“Not Just a Style, But a Mission” – China’s Online Hanfu Movement

What started with a 2003 internet sensation grew into a massive movement – Hanfu is booming on Weibo and beyond.

Things That Talk

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It’s been nearly two decades since the Chinese traditional clothing trend named Hanfu 汉服 first became noticeable as a popular social phenomenon in mainland China. Throughout the years, Hanfu has gone from a fashion style to a full-fledged movement that is flourishing on Chinese social media. Koen van der Lijn reports.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

This last Christmas, Hanfu was once again a trending topic on Weibo. Enthusiasts of the traditional Chinese clothing trend posed online in their Christmas inspired Chinese clothing.

It was yet another development in the Hanfu Movement, which has been a hot topic with hundreds of hashtags and thousands of pictures, videos, and stories on Weibo, with the official Weibo Hanfu @微博汉服 account boasting a whopping 1.8 million followers and a Weibo ‘supertopic’ on Hanfu being joined by nearly half a million fans.

“You can also wear Hanfu during Christmas,” post and images by @弥秋君 on Weibo.

One example of the manifold of Hanfu content on Weibo is a video recently posted by Chinese actress Xu Jiao (徐娇). In the short video, which is an advertisement by the e-commerce platform RED (小红书), the actress wears Hanfu in various settings while talking about the meaning behind the fashion. Xu Jiao, being 23 years of age, is part of Generation Z (mid-1990s – early 2010s), who are adept users of social media and make up the mass of Hanfu enthusiasts.

Screenshot of video posted by Xu Jiao 徐娇

Though Hanfu enthusiasts seldomly go out on the streets whilst wearing the clothing style,1 Hanfu sales have been increasing a lot over the past few years.2 Possibly linked to the popularity of Chinese costume dramas, many Chinese youth have started to wear Hanfu in the past two decades. However, it is not just a form of cosplay or a new clothing style. As Xu Jiao says herself in the video: “It’s not just a style, it’s a mission.”

 

Background of the Hanfu Movement


 

It was November 2003 when Wang Letian walked the streets of Zhengzhou in Hanfu. News of his action rapidly spread over the internet through websites such as hanminzu.net.3

Besides online discussions, an article was also written about Wang Letian’s bold move in the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, helping spread word about the young man’s actions. This moment was seen as the start of the Hanfu Movement.

Wang Letian in the Lianhe Zaobao of November 29, 2003.

Now, roughly twenty years later, the wearing of Hanfu has developed into a true movement, with many young Chinese participating in the wearing of the traditional Chinese dress. Especially on college campuses, the trend is very much alive.

In its most basic idea, the Hanfu Movement can be described as a social movement that supports the wearing of Han Chinese ethnic clothing. The emphasis on the Han ethnicity is of importance here. Han Chinese make up the vast majority of the population in China, accounting for more than 90% of China’s total population. However, aspects famous outside China for being typically Chinese, such as the queue, are actually of Manchu origin.

The Manchus are an ethnic group from Northeastern China, showing cultural similarities to the Mongols, who ruled China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Their clothing style has influenced foreign perceptions of China, due to the fact that the Manchus were the ruling class in the last Chinese imperial dynasty.

Image via https://shop60421556.taobao.com/.

Hence the emphasis on the Han ethnicity. Central to the Hanfu Movement is the idea that ethnic Han clothing, as worn during Han Chinese ruled dynasties, such as the Han dynasty (202BC-220AD), the Tang dynasty (618-907), and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), has much value in its own and should be worn and appreciated by contemporary Han Chinese, just as the ethnic clothing of China’s minorities is appreciated in contemporary China.4

 

The Mission


 

On 4 December 2020, blogger Mi Qiujun posted a video with the hashtag #How to make the world understand Hanfu?#, (#如何让世界了解汉服#), gaining many likes and comments. Showing clips of herself wearing Hanfu in Egypt, the United States, France, and Japan, she tells how she became determined to make people around the globe understand China’s traditional culture after her clothing being wrongly identified as a Japanese kimono at her first stop in Nepal.

Mi Qiujun discusses an important aspect of the Hanfu movement. Hanfu enthusiasts feel that their ethnic clothing is not understood well enough by others, and showing the rest of the world their clothing is a true mission.

Hanfu enthusiasts have found themselves in online quarrellings about what can be defined as Hanfu, and what cannot be defined as Hanfu. It is worth noting that some scholars have disputed the existence of a uniform Hanfu throughout Chinese history.5 Instead, Hanfu is seen to have been popularised by students through the internet, without strong knowledge of Han Chinese clothing traditions.6 This makes it difficult to assess what does and what does not count as Hanfu.

Online quarrelings have therefore become part of the Hanfu Movement. In November 2020, for instance, Chinese netizens found themselves in an online discussion with their Korean neighbours. That month, Chinese actor Xu Kai (许凯) posted a photo of himself in traditional costume from the set of the Chinese drama titled Royal Feast (尚食), which is set in the Ming Dynasty.

A controversial selfie.

After South Korean web users pointed out that the traditional costume worn by Xu resembled Korean traditional clothing named Hanbok, the drama’s producer Yu Zheng (于正) posted a response on social media in which he firmly stated that this clothing was not Hanbok but Hanfu, adding that Korea was a vassal state of China at the time and that only “uncivilized people” would call it ‘Hanbok.’

 

A Nationalist Movement?


 

These kinds of discussions also show another side of the Hanfu Movement. For some Hanfu enthusiasts, Hanfu is more than a mission to let others understand Han ethnic culture; instead, it is a way to construct a purified Han Chinese identity, free from foreign influence.7

Girl dressed in Hanfu while visiting the Forbidden City. Photo by Manya Koetse.

This foreign influence is often linked back to the Manchus once again. ‘Uncivilised practices’ in contemporary Chinese society are attributed to the Manchus. This rhetoric reinforces the belief of Han supremacy, which has existed long before the invention of the internet, where the ‘civilized’ Han Chinese believe themselves to be superior to the ‘uncivilized’ barbarians, such as the Manchus.

This rise in Han Chinese nationalism started in the past few decades.8 The Hanfu Movement thus has followers who are a part of this new turn, where Han Chinese want to restore the glory of their past and turn away from Western and Manchu influences.9

These hardcore Han nationalists are but a small part of the movement. The Hanfu Movement encompasses a large and diverse group of people, who all share a certain belief that Hanfu should gain more appreciation in China and abroad. These are, for instance, some of the comments under Xu Jiao’s video:

– “(…) Xu Jiao speaks for Hanfu!!” (@怪物与约翰)

– “Do not be afraid to doubt, never forget the original intention, Hanfu is a style, it’s a mission, it’s culture, and it’s an attitude.” (@打翻废纸篓)

– “I am so thankful we have you! I really like your work and your attitude towards Hanfu!” (@小瓦肯Shail)

What connects most Hanfu enthusiasts then? Hanfu enthusiasts take pride in wearing Hanfu, and they wear Hanfu simply because they like wearing it. Moreover, they believe it to be important to make others, both in and outside China, gain a deeper understanding of Han Chinese ethnic culture. Hanfu is more than a fad. It is a subculture, it is a style, and for Xu Jiao and many others, it is their mission.

 
By Koen van der Lijn

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. A story focused on the background of the Hanfu Movement and objects associated with this movement has previously been published on Things that Talk, go check it out!
 

Notes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Buckley, Chris, and Katrina Northrop. 2018. “A Retro Fashion Statement in 1,000-Year-Old Gowns, With Nationalist Fringe.” New York Times, Nov 22 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/22/world/asia/china-hanfu-gowns-clothing.html [Jan 16 2021].
2 Zhou Xing 周兴. 2020. “Report: Hanfu turnover on Taobao platform exceeded 2 billion yuan in 2019 [报告:2019年淘宝平台上汉服成交金额突破20亿元].” Dianshangbao, August 2 2020 https://www.dsb.cn/124836.html [Jan 16 2021].
3 Cui Chentao 崔晨涛. 2016. “Han Costume Movement and National Culture Rejuvenation [汉服运动“与民族文化复兴的诉求].” Journal of Yunyang Teachers College 36(5): 19-24.
4 Cui Chentao 崔晨涛. 2016. “Han Costume Movement and National Culture Rejuvenation [汉服运动“与民族文化复兴的诉求].” Journal of Yunyang Teachers College 36(5): 19-24.
5 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
6 Zhang Xian 张跣. 2009. “‘Hanfu Movement’: Ethnic Nationalism in the Internet Age [“汉服运动”:互联网时代的种族性民族主义].” Journal of China Youth University for Political Sciences (4): 65-71.
7 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. “Imaginary Communities: Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification,” in The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, chapter 1. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
8 Dikötter, Frank. 2001. “Nationalist Myth-making: The Construction of the Chinese Race.” Human Rights in China, 27 April https://www.hrichina.org/en/content/4573 [16 Jan 2021].
9 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. “Imaginary Communities: Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification,” in The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, chapter 1. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Featured image: Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

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