China Has Hipsters, Too

A study of the country's "cultured youth"

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"Cultured youth" reciting poetry aboard a subway in Shanghai (Weibo, via Tea Leaf Nation)

It's happened all over the world, and it's happening in China, too. As the country's middle class swells in number -- and its people discover the pleasures and disappointments of a life spent pursuing material comfort -- there has come the emergence of a distinct counter-culture. In Chinese, they are the wenyi qingnian (文艺青年), or wenqing for short, literally meaning "cultured youth." It's China's closest equivalent to the alternately beloved and reviled English word, "hipster."

What does a typical "cultured youth" look like? Baidu Baike, China's version of Wikipedia, contains an entry on the term that quotes writer and musician Guo Xiaohan: "I'm a very typical wenyi qingnian. I like poetry, novels, indie music, European cinema, taking pictures, writing blogs, cats, gardening, quilting, making dessert and designing environmentally friendly bags."

They are twee, nostalgia-driven, and hipster-ish, with a dash of poet. Spiritual at heart, yet living in a very secular, money-driven modern China, wenqing are marked as highly individualistic, romantic, cultural connoisseurs.

They are more likely to be middle-to-upper class city dwellers, and stand in deliberate contrast to their Louis Vuitton-bag toting, BMW-driving, nouveau riche counterparts so well-known in China. They are defined much less by what they own, and much more by how they think. And as Faye Li, a 27-year-old NGO worker in Beijing, said with a tinge of gentle mockery, "they always like to be different from everybody else."

Like hipsters, wenqing stridently resist labeling themselves as such. The term "cultured youth" can divide Chinese audiences, alternately attracting admiration or derision. A perfect example recently emerged on Sina Weibo, one of China's popular microblogging sites, with this post entitled, "Photos of Shanghai 'cultured youth' girls aboard a subway reading poetry."

The post features a video showing three women dressed in striped dresses with tiny, feathered top hats pinned to their hair. On board a crowded subway carriage they read aloud a poem about nature. Some commenters congratulated the performers, commending them for their creativity and daring. But others called the video "rubbish" or noted that there did not seem to be much difference between "cultured youth" and "dumbass youth," written in Chinese Internet slang as "2B qingnian" (二逼青年).

One Internet user decried the three performers as inauthentic, writing, "Wenqing doesn't mean going through the motions; it's about the content, and even more about the feelings of the inner world. Go and live in the world of wenqing, and you'll realize it has nothing to do with age or gender." The commenter's own earnestness is a cultural hallmark of these "cultured youth."

A viral photo collage that has been reposted over 7,000 times on Sina Weibo may help to illuminate the precise differences between a "cultured youth" and a "2B youth." It illustrates a number of day-to-day activities, such as driving, writing and eating, but each is performed in three different styles: The ordinary way, the "cultured youth" way, and the "2B youth" way.

While meant to be humorous, it also keenly illustrates how the definition of "cultured youth" diverges from that of a "2B youth." It also shows what the avowed "dumbasses" of China share in common with American hipsters, or at least with their counter-culture origins.

In the United States, hipsterism first grew out of the slacker era of the '90s. Slackers were frustrated youths, stuck in low paid "McJobs" and pessimistic about their futures. They had witnessed the sophistication with which corporate America had so magnificently co-opted the values and alternative lifestyles of the hippies, protest culture and other counter-cultures of the previous three decades. Their response was to stop creating new culture altogether, indeed, to stop believing in anything.

Of course, the adaptability of corporate America continues to prove itself, and in the last decade we have seen hipsterism well and truly enter the American mainstream. Where recycling ideas from the past or from the working class was once a kind of anti-fashion, it is now fashion. And yet hipsterism has retained a flavor -- however empty -- of rebellion.

These characteristics are common to China's "2B youth." They are young men and women who have nothing much going on. As the photo collage suggests, "2B"ers like to engage in pointless and deliberately self-defeating behavior, all, it sometimes seems, for nothing more than the "lulz."

Behind these Chinese counter-cultures lies a hard reality. A recently released Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that 81 percent of those polled in China agreed with the following statement: "The rich just get richer while the poor get poorer." And as Foreign Policy reported last month, the country's gender imbalance -- 120 boys for every 100 girls -- has put serious pressure on the nation's bachelors. Those hunting for a bride have come to understand that they should come calling only when armed with an apartment. This, even though "the average property in a top-tier Chinese city now costs between 15 and 20 times the average annual salary."

In the face of such daunting social pressures, it's small wonder that some Chinese youth have made giving up an art form and a point of pride. Terms once slung like stones -- "2B qingnian," along with diaosi (屌丝), meaning "loser" or "deadbeat" -- have been reclaimed by their victims and are now employed in deliberate self-mockery. These words provide a sense of identity and belonging to young Chinese who feel that on the bitterly competitive playing field of Chinese society, they are not simply falling behind; they're altogether out of the race.

For the majority of young Chinese, the formula for success in their fast-rising, hard-charging society remains the same: Study assiduously, chase the big bucks, become "mortgage slaves," quickly get married, and have a kid. Then watch the cycle repeat. But for the growing number who find these goals harder to achieve, embracing their outsider status might be the best -- and perhaps only -- way forward.

This post was produced in collaboration with Tea Leaf Nation.