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.

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