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.
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?
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.
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.
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.