Sometimes I find it baffling to hear well-educated, generally non-religious young people talk about how they plan their children’s births to match the ancient zodiac. But this is just one minor example of traditional Chinese beliefs maintaining their relevance to modern life. The impact, in fact, seems to be growing. Across China, young people are looking to their past for inspiration and guidance. It is remarkable, especially as the nation spent much of the twentieth century questioning and, at times, destroying that very past.
Perhaps the most striking place we see the fusion of new and old is in design. Contemporary Chinese design, commonly called "China Style" (Zhong guo feng in Mandarin), has become one of the most popular trends in the country, joining NBA-inspired hip hop and European luxury brands.
China Style grafts elements of Chinese tradition onto fundamentally Western forms. It spans both the modernizing of the old and the Occidentalizing of the West. According to ChinaWhispers, a pop culture and lifestyle tracking study Jigsaw conducts with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, over 40% of young people here are very interested in China Style, with only half that number claiming disinterest. If you suspect it's just a superficial trend, think again: 55% of young people are sure it’s not, against a mere 14% who consider it might be.
China Style comes from a creative collision between two dynamics. First is the modernity of today’s urban China. Travel, media, and brand activities are all bringing Chinese youth closer to the global mainstream. This has not gone unnoticed; 57% of youth say Chinese lives will be more and more Western in 10 years, and only 15% disagree. That suggests they will have consumption habits more and more similar to their peers overseas, buying the latest from the world’s best global brands. They are reveling in their Ikea sofas and Starbucks frappuccinos, not to mention their street culture stores and urban magazines.
The second dynamic is of a renewed pride in China’s cultural inheritance. Chinese kids today are growing up with a positive view on Chinese culture. They have seen few of the attacks on Confucius and Chinese history that have characterized much of the twentieth century. For them, Chinese culture is not about feudalism or inequity but instead is a strength that has enabled China’s impressive growth and presence in the world. They are looking to explore that strength and understand what it is that makes China so successful.
Merely decades ago, China revolutionized and damaged its cultural inheritance. Here we are in 2007, and a remarkable 68% of young people say that they are interested to learn about Chinese history and tradition, versus a tiny 9% who claim not to be interested. As one young woman in Chengdu told me, “Of course I am interested in Chinese traditions. We have moved so far Western that it is time to find the things that are uniquely ours. It’s a balance.”
The combination of enthusiastic modernization with proud embrace of Chineseness results in this new China Style, a style both modern and Chinese. Recent examples include phoenix brocade sneakers, breakdancers dancing with terracotta warriors on tv, and the hardcore rapper who raps in Tang Dynasty poetry. Or just check out Curse of the Golden Flower, China’s film hit of the year. It stars the region’s hottest R&B talent, Jay Chou, a luminary in the China Style movement.
To understand the weirdness of a pop star starring in an ancient costume drama, picture Britney Spears starring in Macbeth. Right. And with that, enjoy the banquets, watch out for the firecrackers, and have a very happy year of the pig. Gong Xi Fa Cai!
P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. He can be reached at email@example.com.