China’s Cultural Revivalists: More Than Just Quirky Throwbacks
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2017-11-06 05:33:45

In today’s China, it’s considered cool to look like a throwback to a former time. Retro fashions come and go everywhere, of course, but people here don’t do things by half measures: For many, there’s nothing more cutting-edge than dressing like you’ve just time-traveled over from the Han Dynasty.

Recently, Chinese social media lit up with discussion following a report about a rather quirky father living in the outskirts of Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province. A self-taught enthusiast of guoxue — the study of ancient Chinese civilization — Li Li took his three-year-old son to kindergarten every day riding on a cow.

In interviews, Li said that he felt true Chinese culture should shine through in the way one treated life’s essentials: food, clothing, housing, and transportation. He has worn long, traditional gowns for almost 30 years, never donning jeans, suits, or other Western-style clothes. Believing that traditional Chinese housing represents the perfect union of humans and nature, he lives in a farmhouse.

But the traditional culture craze — known as fugu in Chinese — isn’t limited to eccentric parents; young people are getting involved, too. Take Kang Wei, a sophomore at Chengdu’s Southwest Petroleum University, for example. He wears nothing but hanfu, the flowing gowns that will look familiar to fans of martial arts movies; writes Chinese poetry in the classical style; plays time-honored instruments like the guqin, a form of zither, and the dongxiao, a kind of bamboo flute; dabbles in the tea ceremony; and drinks Osmanthus wine. Other fans of ancient culture periodically make the news as well, such as those who opt for traditional Han-style weddings or universities whose graduates receive their degrees at ceremonies that emulate the most revered institutions of ancient China.

Kang Wei (left), a student from Southwest Petroleum University, wears traditional Han clothing at the campus in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 10, 2017. Wang Xiao/Chengdu Business Daily/VCG

Kang Wei (left), a student from Southwest Petroleum University, wears traditional Han clothing at the campus in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 10, 2017. Wang Xiao/Chengdu Business Daily/VCG

In a rapidly modernizing society like China’s, why are so many people acting like they’re living in the past? One interpretation is that people disillusioned by today’s ever-changing, industrial, consumerist society sometimes long for romanticized, pastoral idylls of bygone eras. In other words, fugu fashion, hobbies, literature, and art are a resurgent form of naturalism that balances, complements, or critiques present-day reality.

Other critics point to the fact that the Chinese government has thrown its weight behind the revitalization of traditional arts in recent years in order to strengthen “cultural confidence.” At the 18th Communist Party Congress in 2012, President Xi Jinping described traditional culture as “rooted in the fertile soil of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Since 2014, the government has released a slew of edicts designed to build up social support behind traditional culture.

Yet for many fugu aficionados, traditional culture is something that merges with modern life instead of resisting it. College cosplay fans who dress in hanfu, for example, are often fans of mainstream modern films, rock music, anime, and sci-fi. To them, fugu represents an altogether different kind of idiosyncrasy, where “old” does not carry the weight of being outdated. Instead, an ultra-retro way of life is a way for them to pursue individualization, and feel special and unique.

Paradoxically, traditionalists are able to revive a decidedly illiberal ancient idyll precisely because of the freedom that a modern economy affords them.

Fugu may look like a harmless, frivolous pursuit. But some of its advocates genuinely long to recreate the lifestyles of the ancients. These commentators believe that today’s China has become too drastically Westernized, and that society must revive its long-abandoned cultural traits to recover its uniqueness.

This is the point at which fugu intersects with politics. Some academics even equate the wearing of hanfu with themes of national self-reliance, self-sustenance, and cultural awareness, claiming that it is embarrassing that Chinese people attend social functions or major international occasions dressed in suits, ties, and leather shoes — which not only fail to represent their homeland, but also imitate the garb worn by the erstwhile outsiders who once brought China to its knees.

It is important to bear in mind, though, that China’s reappraisal of its traditional culture is a distinctly middle-class pursuit. Dressing in hanfu, wearing strings of Buddhist rosary beads on the wrist, learning the zither, practicing tea ceremonies, studying guoxue — these supposedly elegant, tasteful alternatives come at no little cost, transforming them into status symbols for China’s growing bourgeois class.

Most paradoxically, Chinese traditionalists are able to revive notions of a decidedly illiberal ancient idyll precisely because of the freedom and individualism that a modern economy affords them. Today, many middle-aged Chinese remember life before the 1980s, when everybody’s lives were tightly regimented and society was taught to “face the powder, not powder your face” — a line from a poem by Mao Zedong used to compel the masses to wear the same khaki military uniform, regardless of gender, age, or occupation.

Prior to China’s reform and opening-up, scissor-wielding cadres locked young workers in their factories and dutifully snipped away at their “bourgeois” bell-bottoms and long hair. Thankfully, Chinese society today is much more liberal and less overtly political, and people can, broadly speaking, exercise their right to dictate their own lifestyles and values, even if that means pledging allegiance to the strictly ordered, austere world of ancient China.

Detractors do not necessarily oppose the right of cultural revivalists to display their commitment to fugu. However, they tend to stand against their ideology insofar as it is forced on everyone, whether that be in the workplace, at school, or in the home.

And at their core, revivalists are mired in another dilemma. Ancient China was not the static, romantic “age of innocence” that it is often portrayed as. Different dynasties, regions, classes, and ethnicities have always lived in disparate ways, and a plurality of cultures has always intermingled. All of this makes what it means to be “traditionally Chinese” much murkier — not only culturally, but also racially.

If we want to bring back our supposedly illustrious traditional culture, to which period, exactly, should we look for inspiration? The Han Dynasty? The Tang? The Ming? All of these cultures, despite spanning hundreds of years, had, at their height, one thing in common: They were adaptable. Revivalism isn’t about copying down the Chinese classics, dressing in flowing robes, or remaining stubbornly conservative; rather, it’s about skimming off the cream of the cultures that have forged modern Chinese society and using it to nourish us further.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A young woman in traditional Han clothing poses for a photo in Beijing, Oct. 31, 2017. Wang Shi/VCG)