BLOG#4: Cosmopolitan Identity in Chinese Comics: Representations of Traditional Clothing (Hanfu)

Abstract

This research project explores the revival of a unique traditional clothing trend (Hanfu) among urban youths in contemporary China. This report draws on a critical analysis of both scholarly literature and social media sources, to argue that this Hanfu clothing fashion blends skillfully the broader East Asia popular culture with the Chinese tradition, inspiring Chinese millenniums and post-millenniums to develop a sense of confidence on their cultural heritage and to reevaluate the various components of Chinese tradition, which have been dismissed by urban, western-educated elites in the past thirty years. More importantly, the emergence of the Hanfu fashion, as a new cultural movement, has greatly contributed to the younger generations of Chinese artists’ creativity and their pursuit of individualism. The preference for the Han Chinese culture is shaping the contemporary Chinese popular art market, resulting in an unprecedented popularity of the circulation and consumption of domestic Chinoiseries Animation, Comics and Gaming. This project also explores an ongoing social media movement, entitled Chuang-zuo-bu-si (Creativity Should Never Die), launched by young artists and their supporters to empower creativity, encourage critical thinking, and rethink the making of national identity in response to social and public health crisis.

Overall Experience

I enjoyed this year-long research project because it enriches my professional career as a young Chinese artist. I employed the methodology of fieldwork in Shanghai, eastern China last summer. As a cosmopolitan city with its long history of interactions with the West and Japan, Shanghai’s rich cultural scene allows me to collect qualitative data from fellow fashion artists and arts companies. Upon my return to the U.S., I further analyzed various case studies of the Hanfu products and tested my findings against the scholarly literatures. I worked closely with my mentor, Prof. Joseph T. H. Lee, who helped me to contextualize my research in relation to broader political, social and economic transformations of China. As a post-millennium Chinese, I was exposed to the appeal of the Hanfu fashion since the 2010s, and had made and sold some of my artistic designs to advance this significant popular cultural trend.

Observations at the Contemporary Chinese Popular Art Community

While looking at the resurgence of the Hanfu fashion this academic year, this project came across three associated incidents of social media debates among Chinese Hanfu artists over the escalation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests against China, the outbreak of Coronavirus, and the spread of a social media campaign known as the Chuang-zuo-bu-si(Creativity Should Never Die). Chinese young artists are major participates in responding to these three spontaneous events through a wide range of Chinese social media platforms. I find many of these young Hanfu artists to be quite innovative in expressing their social and political critiques through entertainment materials such as animation, short movies, and manga. These creative works, once published online, immediately appeal to their fans, and become a force of opinion in their own social media circles.

Challenges that I Faced as a Popular Culture Artist

Because this project sets out to situate my analysis of the Hanfu fashion in a wider historical context, the challenge for me is to maintain certain degree of objectivity while analyzing my fieldwork data. Through the help of my mentor, I explore the symbiotic relationship between post-millennium artists and social media ecology in China. This investigation challenges me to critique the widespread practices of “borrowing” from Japanese artistic designs and styles, without proper acknowledgement, among young Chinese artists. While the young social media artists are genuinely keen to reconcile Chinese tradition with global modernity, their tendency to “copy” from artists of neighboring countries poses an ethical and legal problem. When appropriating advanced artistic designs from Japan, do these young artists intend to entertain their readers only? Or do they try to make themselves appealing so as to gain popular attention and seek professional fulfillment in an oppressive environment?

Accomplishments

To avoiding being too subjective is a challenge at first, especially when I study the continuity and change in modern and contemporary China. Accounts of wars, revolutions, and regime changes depress me because I am a sensitive and emotional artist. However, I learn to be critically objective about historical controversies and to be more open-minded about the politics of state-controlled nationalism and that of grassroots activism among artists. This awareness leads me to observe a latest shift in the Chinese social media landscape after the outbreak of Wuhan Corvaid-19. Shocked by the scale of deaths and sufferings, more and more young artists are driven to transform their creative arts work from a commodity to an instrument of public dialogue and civic engagement.

This research project shapes me as an artist really. Many of these artists under study are self-made, and do not have access to proper training in the academies. Since China has the largest population of social media users in the world, it is necessary for the artists to express their creativity and ideas in a more constructive and reflective manner because their audiences are mostly teenagers who would need positive guidance from the society. It is the new generation of Chinese artists’ responsibility to be more aware of their far-reaching influence on the youths.

Initiative

It is necessary to problematize the social and cultural impacts of popular artworks on teenagers. Three issues can be discerned from the current development. The first concerns the excessive consumption of popular artworks among urban teenagers. The second concerns the intense emotions and anxieties that some art works are shaping the views of their recipients, and this is particularly true for those widely-circulated online flyers and videos that demonized protesters in Hong Kong, and any dissidents critical of China’s crisis management in the latest pandemic. Unless everyone has free access to credible information in the Chinese media landscape, it is hard for the readers to distinguish reliable news from faked ones. The third challenges concerns the availability of sexualized materials which might perpetuate and even reinforce the existing gender biases in a patriarchal society. I plan to author with my mentor a publishable article on the rising Hanfu fashion in China’s social media landscape, and submit it for peer review this summer.

Reflection

This research project provides a significant lesson for me as an artist and as an analyst of the impacts of social media on young Chinese artists. It is essential for creative ones who have the ability to influence and shape opinion to utilize their online platforms for the common good, because the social media interactions could easily contribute to intense exchange of opinions among passionate fans of artists. Despite this challenge, old cultural boundaries are crushing down, and cosmopolitan trend, as shown in the revival of the Hanfu fashion, is becoming an integral part of the Chinese Internet culture.

BLOG#3 Cosmopolitan Chinese Identity in Comics: Representations of Traditional Clothing (Hanfu)

As I continue  this research project that investigates the widespread embrace of the Hanfu practice among Chinese millenniums and post-millenniums, several significant events which took place in the first two months of 2020 completely transformed the landscape of popular culture. In response to the severe outbreak of Wuhan Coronavirus, the social-media-art-community of young Chinese artists or illustrators (Huishi) have shifted their focus of attention from the design of ACG (Animation, Comics and Gaming) subjects to utilizing arts to addressing the latest social and political crisis. The on-social-media movement voluntarily launched by young artists has developed a catchy slogan,  “Creativity Shall Never Die”(Chuangzuo busi), to build cross-sectional alliances of different generations of artists, and this new trend in Chinese popular culture has offered a new opening for me to expand this research project.

At this point, my project argues that the Hanfu (traditional fashion) trend in contemporary China is not only a popular cultural icon and product inspired by the Japanese popular culture, but also an advanced way of expressing young artists’ pursuit of individual creativity and their attachment to nationalistic symbols. Thus, the rise of traditional Chinese fashion exhibits a constructive tension between individualism and patriotism. Besides, the art market of Chinese youth is expanding, and prompting artists to take seriously the protection of intellectual copy-rights. Many of the Chinese ACG artists have adjusted and adapted to this new environment as they are changing their motivation of creating artworks from a pure commodity for mass consumption into a non-commercial art for the public’s appreciation.

In my research, I draw on some further discussion of data derived from the recent release of new artworks and discourses by young Chinese artists on major online platforms such as Weibo, Lofter and Qzone. I identify the following new patterns of development among these artists.

Main Theme: Growing Self-Awareness and Creativity

At this point, this research project strives to investigate the relationship between the Hanfu trend and the growth of self-awareness of national identity and individual creativity. A contextual understanding of today’s Chinese popular art market is essential. Hanfu is one of the most popular trends in the youth art market, compared with similar trends like the Cosplay (costume play), JK uniforms (Western-style uniforms, the word ‘JK’ comes from initials of High School in Japanese), and Lolita. The last 5 years has witnessed a proliferation of the Hanfu products, with increasing commercial potential for the domestic Chinese consumers, and with a variety of new designs that reconcile tradition with modernity in fashion.

Historical Evolvement of Chinese Definition of ‘Art’

The first part of my research explores the contributions and legacy of several significant artists from modern and contemporary China.  Since the end of the 19th century, Chinese artists started to re-evaluate their opinions on art by learning from the West in order to better respond to chaotic social and political changes.

Overall, there is also a significant cultural difference between the Chinese and Western understanding of ‘artists’. In Chinese Art and Culture, Robert L.Thorp and Vinograd Ellis Richard survey the localization of contemporary art in China, and they argue that the advent of Western art in the 19th century gave rise to an intense debate among local artists. Rather than being vocational artisans who produced artworks for the Confucian state officials, the artists  re-imagined their self-identity as a professional one, making arts for fine art’s sake (Beijing, 2011). This search for a professional identity still influences today’s young artists in China.

The term “artisans” is often used  to describe people pursuing an artistic career. Historically, the imperial court was the major patron of traditional art, which means that the quest for individualism and artistic freedom was not of prime concern to the court artists in the past.

Chinese millenniums and post-millenniums, who are now growing up in an relatively opened environment, are exposed to the influx of Western and Japanese popular culture. The Chinese word ‘绘师’ (Huishi), which is derived from the Japanese word ‘絵師’ (Eshi), refers to illustrators. The same word is now widely used in both countries as a collective label for artists who working in the fields of animation, comic and video game (ACG).

The contemporary Chinese ACG illustrators arenot necessarily trained in professional art. In reality, full-time high school and college students make up the majority of this community. Mostly inspired by the Japanese popular culture, they mainly work with computers and tablets. They are often seeking commission opportunities online. Compared to the traditional mode of art trade, these ACG illustrators and their clients have created a new egalitarian market for themselves, with less restrictions from the guilds.

Popular Artistic Expressions as Responses to Crisis

Ever since the Coronavirus outbreak, The autonomic on-social-media movement “Creativity Shall Never Die” has become extremely popular across major Chinese online platforms, bypassing official censorship and critiquing the state’s ineffective response to the public health crisis. From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014 to and the current mass protests in 2019, Chinese state has taken aggressive actions to censor and regulate sensitive contents on social media. On Weibo, for example, a text that contains certain words critical of the state will be automatically deleted after it is published. The same restriction is applied to social media images and videos which are deemed by the state as sensitive. A huge number of posts regarding Wuhan, health crisis, Coronavirus are deliberately deleted, and several popular tags are blocked. This has made it difficult for people to exchange medical information, seek scientific advice, and express grievances online. In this environment, young artists feel frustrated as the victims of Coronavirus, and they start to reflect on their own motivation of making art. Out of fear of the increasing online censorship, the artists choose to speak out for themselves in order to fight for an artistic landscape that encourages self-expression, creativity, and individualism.

The Coronavirus health crisis has become a watershed moment in the circle of ACG illustrators, and some artists have created a mixture of the Chinese and Japanese popular artworks to defend the public’s access to social media platforms. I am currently collecting samples of these political arts from various Chinese online avenues. Notably, some of the artworks are similar to the Western and Japanese political comics of the 19th and early 20th centuries, suggesting that young artists are learning from the past, and are keen to appropriate diverse artistic techniques and modes of expression from other cultures. This cultural trend highlights a dramatic attitudinal change  from using art as an instrumental tool of pure entertainment into a reflective tool of reimagining one’s role in a society deep in crisis.

Further Discussion

The latest generation of Chinese millenniums and post-millenniums embrace popular arts passionately, and see it as an important mode of self-expression. In a collective society that emphasizes group solidarity and peer pressure, Chinese youth turn to popular arts as their way of building self-confidence and individual empowerment.

It must not be ignored that the authoritarian political system somehow discourages the growth of individualism, especially among young citizens. However, young artists find their own way of expressing creativity by tapping into the unregulated domestic Hanfu market, utilizing the economic autonomy to gain additional resources and promote individual artworks. They are mostly high school and college students, bringing a breath of fresh air to the domestic art market, and reinventing themselves as influential individuals, or informal public intellectuals, online.

More importantly, the Hanfu trend seeds the growth of personal awareness and the formation of a civic identity among the youth, encouraging teenagers to think about the meaning of being a responsible and independent citizen. In a society where civic engagement is not part of the formal education, teenagers only experience a gradual process of political awakening  through their involvement in the Hanfu trend.

Meeting peers and debating artistic designs online, Chinese youths  learn to become more critical of a troubling reality, more self-aware of their identity as defenders of artistic creativity, and more willing to speak out against artistic oppression.

The boldness and creativity of the Japanese popular art also inspire and encourage young artists to express their own ideas critical of the state. Japanese artists often discuss philosophical and political controversies in their works, and those animations and manga greatly impact Chinese readers. As Nissim Otmazgin and Rebecca Suter argue in Rewriting history in manga, Stories For The Nation, mangas that narrate the historical controversies of Japan’s war responsibility  really appealed to the Japanese youths during the Cold War (New York, 2016).

Furthermore, the circle of ACG illustrators is not a homogeneous entity. A recent disagreement concerning the meaning of Hanfu between Chinese young adults aged over 20 and teenagers highlights an educational gap between them. The debate reveals the teenagers’ biases against marginalized groups, especially LGBT and Africans, and this has to do with the enduring of sexism and racism in the Chinese public discourse. This research project will use this example to illustrate the fact that female artists actually make up the majority of the designers and participants in today’s Hanfu market.

As I continue this research, I will most likely investigate the current changes in civic values among Chinese young ACG artists. Findings and insights from my investigation should show that the emergence of Hanfu market serves as a window onto broader transformations in the Chinese social media and cultural landscapes, and the understanding of crisis among the urban youths.

Blog #2: Cosmopolitan Chinese Identity in Comics: Representations of Traditional Clothing (Hanfu).

I have analyzed quantitative data that I collected from a large comic convention in Shanghai last summer, and made preliminary findings on the current revival of traditional clothing fashion (Hanfu) in contemporary China. The Hanfu fashion, as a new trend of popular culture among urban youths, has made visible influence in the fashion industry over the last 5 years, transforming itself from an old-fashioned, yet controversial, style into a widely accepted dressing choice. With assistance from my faculty mentor, Prof. Joseph Lee, I am able to incorporate my oral and ethnographic materials into my summative investigation. By comparing my first-hand observation with the scholarly literature on Chinese popular culture, I am able to contextualize the current trend of Hanfu fashion as a newly emerged  urban style that juxtaposes tradition and modernity in an affluent and cosmopolitan society.

Historically, the Hanfu fashion was part of a larger national movement to revive Chinese cultural identity. Lately, this artistic dressing style has been welcomed by urban youths as a favorite way to express their individualism. My study argues that the Hanfu fashion not only entails a new urban dressing style, but also has a profound impact on contemporary Chinese cultural industry, especially the growth of the ACG (Animation, Comics and Gaming) culture. Nowadays, large-scaled comic conventions are one of the most important sites for the Hanfu fashion fans to get dressed up as traditional Chinese, share ideas and exchange interests. Besides the clothing fashion, a growing numbers amount of Chinese animations and games have used the Hanfu elements as their dominant theme, portraying characters in the traditional clothing style.

Empirically, my study relies on the first-hand field observation from the comic convention in Shanghai as well as from my years-long experience as a freelance Hanfu designer. In fact, the majority of Hanfu fashion designers and consumers are young people between 12 and 25 years old, and the average cost of a whole Hanfu suit costs about US$22 to 35, which is very affordable for middle-class and lower middle-class consumers. The traditional clothing is relatively cheap to produce compared with the conventional clothing, but some elaborately designed traditional styles cost or sell for over US$1,200. Given the affordability, urban school and college students are keen to adopt the Hanfu dressing in everyday life. It is common for them to wear Chinese traditional clothing in public. Nowadays, it is not surprised to see young people, in major Chinese cities, wearing long sleeved skirts inside shopping malls and tourist sites. However, just five years ago, people’s awareness of Hanfu was far less than it is now. To better understand this unique stylistic change of fashion against the backdrop of larger socioeconomic and cultural transformations in China, I review several scholarly publications on modern and contemporary Chinese arts.

The first book that I consulted is entitled The Return of Hanfu (Beijing, 2016), written by Chinese journalist Na Yang and others. Full of illustrations and historical background, this publication provides us with a general account of the revive of the Hanfu fashion since 2004. Yang’s findings help me to identify several significant Hanfu movements that took place in China since the 2000s, all of which have shaped today’s Hanfu culture. My research of the Hanfu fashion draws attention to a similar trend of integrating modern artistic techniques into the Chinese comic art during the early 20th century, a topic of discussion in Wendy Gan’s Comic China: Representing Common Ground(Philadelphia, 2018). Wendy Gan singles out Shanghai as the cross-cultural center between East and West since the 19th century. Comic artists from that early period profoundly influenced today’s ACGculture. A scholarly article about the life of early-20th-century cartoonist Zikai Feng in Shelley Drake Hawks’ The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China(Washington,2017) enables me to argue that the first generation of Chinese comic artists learned and absorbed the variety of comic art forms from Japanese manga and Western comics. Rather than coping the Japanese and Western styles, artists such as Zikai Feng developed his own unique technique to portray ordinary workers who were trapped in Shanghai’s modernized landscape, thereby commenting on the brutality of urbanization. Today, what is happening in China is similar to what happened in Feng’s period. Borrowing from the Japanese popular culture has become an integrated part of the influential Chinese ACG culture. Many young ACG artists study thoroughly the styles of their Japanese counterparts, and utilize their techniques to narrate the Chinese story for a domestic audience.

Furthermore, the new generation of both Chinese Hanfu and ACG artists are not necessarily trained at professional art academies. Thanks to the proliferation of social media technologies, the artists can easily learn the basic techniques and utilize the newly available software to improve their computer graphic designs. As a result, minors and college students turn to the Hanfu fashion and ACG as their hobby, and they make up the majority of the ACG artists. Taking myself as an example, I have worked as  an independent ACG artist since I was 15 year old. It was convenient to get commission for my artistic products from companies on the Internet, as long as my works attracted much online attention. This convenience, however, has a downside. The current Chinese market demand for the Hanfu fashion designers does not reach the same professional level of many well-funded conventional fashion design companies. Consequently, a poor awareness of the intellectual property of the Hanfu artists prompts many companies to pirate the original designs of proper artists, causing numerous commercial disputes. The legal protection of the Hanfu fashion arts and products should be a new area of concern among scholars and government officials.

Several questions emerge from my current research. First, when a popular cultural trend like the Hanfu fashion becomes so influential in contemporary China, what does this cultural trend tell us about the socio-cultural values and norms of today’s young consumers?  Second, given the lack of legal protection of the Hanfu artists’ intellectual property, what are some potential limitations on the growth of this upcoming Hanfu market in China? Third, since the Hanfu fashion is closely connected with other modes of urban popular culture, both online and offline, I think that I need to problematize the conventional scholarly understanding of the conceptual term Hanfu. I ought to develop a more holistic definition of this analytical term that represents the deliberate mixing style of various dressing styles among young consumers’ fashion, and the impacts of this traditional fashion in Chinese animation, comics and gaming. Only by doing so can I better understand the co-existence of tradition and modernity in today’s Chinese young consumers’ values and behavioral norms.

 

Blog #1: Cosmopolitan Chinese Identity in Comics: Representations of Traditional Clothing (Hanfu)

The title of our project is “Cosmopolitan Chinese Identity in Comics: Representations of Traditional Clothing (Hanfu).” This project investigates a unique popular culture among millenniums and post-millenniums in contemporary urban China from both historical and sociological perspectives. This unique youth culture iscalled the ACG(Animation, Comics and Gaming). Influenced by the popular culture from Japan, Chinese youths are active participants in such animate-influenced activities. This  cultural trend not only entails economic benefits, but also encourages artists to challenge the old model of profit-driven commercial arts.

Focusing on the revival and reinvention of traditional fashion among Chinese youths, this research  discusses the convergence of two unique social phenomena, namely the popularization of  traditional clothing and the emergence of a large number of Chinoiseries ACG works.

There are three objectives for this project to accomplish. First, this project collects empirical data on contemporary Chinese ACG advocates, artists and consumers. Since there is still a lack of scholarly research on urban Chinese millennials and post-millenniums, this project strives to provide a general analysis of the economic potential of today’s Chinese animation market.

Second, this project will study the interconnected relationship between contemporary Japanese and Chinese popular cultures . The localization of Japanese comics and animation contributed to the growth of Chinese popular culture. This project reviews several unique case studies from Shanghai, and argues that the powerful force of globalization helps new Chinese ACG artists absorb popular culture from Japan in an effort to create their own unique culture.

Third, this research compares the aesthetical and sociocultural concerns of the young Chinese comic artists with the styles of the previous generations. In the 20thcentury, the aesthetics of comics in China was greatly influenced by Japan, the Soviet Union and the West. This comparative dimension is essential for studying the formation of today’s Chinese ACG culture.

This research (or This project) evaluates the youth-led practice of traditional fashion contributed by the ACG culture in contemporary China. The popular art environment in China has experienced rapid changes since 2015, facilitating the rise of new creative industries and of a sense of cultural confidence.

Evidence from my field study shows that the social phenomenon of Hanfu practice once was  controversial among Chinese youths. Historically, young citizens were easily mobilized by the state to take part in the campaigns of national renewal. Is this cultural revival movement advocated by today’s young generation, an expression of individualism, or a manifestation of wider nationalistic sentiments?

This research plans to use several methods. First, it is going to review several historical and sociological scholarly sources about popular culture and Chinese history. Some Chinese studies of traditional Chinese dressing or Hanfu are going to be reviewed and referenced as well.

Besides, this project is going to collect first-hand information from multiple animation-related industries in China by interviewing young artists as well as the ACG fans. I also went to a professional comic convention held in  Shanghai in June 2019 for data collection.

Last, as a comic artist myself. I have been working in the field for 5 years. The project enables me to reflect on my personal experience from a holistic perspective. I will contextualize my own publications and commissioned works against the commercialization of ACG art in China.