Young Chinese Ask: Does This Life Spark Joy?
Can a new TV spark joy? How about a gaming laptop or handbag? For a growing number of young Chinese, burned out after a decadelong consumption binge, the answer is no.
Marie Kondo’s call to minimize the clutter in life didn’t just resonate in Japan or the West. Since it was introduced from Japan about a decade ago, millions of Chinese have embraced minimalism or minimalist lifestyles as a cure for their ennui. Some have even put their dreams into action: abandoning their jobs to join communes or learn woodworking in the countryside or becoming avid thrifters. On Douban, a sort of cross between Rotten Tomatoes and Reddit, forums for “minimalism” and “minimalist living” boast a combined 900,000 members; there, users swap tips, barter used goods, and share their anti-shopping lists.
In TED Talks, podcasts, and books devoted to the subject of minimalism, its tenets are often framed as an antidote to excessive consumption and materialism — language that is echoed among Chinese minimalist communities. One 28-year-old woman I interviewed refuses to buy a coffee table or a TV for her living room: “Every month, I reserve one day for shopping. When I plan to make a big purchase, I make three Excel documents analyzing the pros and cons of each item, and then I take three months to cool off before I decide if I really need it or not.” Another minimalist framed kicking her nightlife and luxury goods consumption habits as “social decluttering.” Instead of going out, she does housework, cooks, or reads novels. “I find this new lifestyle more relaxing,” she explained. (Although she is often credited for helping kickstart the movement, Kondo has disavowed “minimalist” terminology as a misunderstanding of her philosophy.)
Members of the community believe that everything they own should have a purpose. To squeeze every last drop of value out of their possessions, they repair them until they fall apart — or find imaginative new uses for them through upcycling. Disposable packaging becomes shelves or trash cans, old jeans become pouches and totes, and old clothes transform into reusable bags or mops.
However, after spending more than a year immersing myself in various online minimalist communities and conducting over a dozen interviews with self-described minimalists, I began to wonder if young Chinese people’s embrace of the philosophy was really a rejection of materialism — or if it was merely a way for them to regain a sense of control in a complicated, unstable world.
Many of the minimalists I spoke with grew up in an era of rapid development; their childhoods revolved around constant — and constantly upgrading — consumption. Few of my interviewees aspired to live off the grid or completely reject the commodity economy; most could even be considered enthusiastic consumers. The majority of the people I interviewed said they turned to minimalism as a way of sorting out their priorities and establishing order in their lives after suffering a setback. For example, a young man who’d just finished his graduate studies in Beijing told me that his conversion occurred after his transition to the workplace — and foray into the city’s rental market. After moving several times from one rental apartment to another, he experienced a revelation: “My possessions were a hefty emotional and financial burden. That’s when I truly went minimalist.”
Several people, such as a 26-year-old man about to embark on a career as a pilot, expressed anxiety about their futures. Sifting through old belongings or controlling their urge to spend allowed them to regain a sense of agency. For them, minimalism was an antidote, not to consumerism, but to the feeling of helplessness that comes from living in a period of tremendous instability and uncertainty.
Regardless of what led them to adopt this lifestyle, my interviewees agreed that minimalism had stopped them from defining themselves according to their possessions and living their lives according to others’ standards. As a result, they began to feel more in touch with themselves and more appreciative of what they already had.
Ironically, whereas in the West, minimalism is often an ethical stance tied up with greater social issues, such as environmentalism, sustainable consumption, or fair trade, Chinese minimalism is more centered on the individual: It’s a personal choice that people make in order to live more comfortably and freely. This divergence is related to the context in which the two movements emerged: In the West, social movements and consumption are both viewed as important means of self-expression; by comparison, many of the Chinese minimalists I interviewed said that, while they hope their families will respect their choices, they don’t want to impose them onto others or affect other people’s lives. Some don’t even want others to know about their lifestyles.
A few even defended consumerism on economic grounds. One interviewee told me: “I think that consumerism is necessary to the development of society. Without it, how can the economy continue to grow? That’s why I let other people shop, even if I don’t anymore.” Though they may care about sustainability and the environment, most Chinese minimalists have adopted this lifestyle out of individual rather than collective concerns, and they have little faith in individuals’ capacity to influence society.
That said, minimalism does represent a form of individual rebellion against traditional Chinese society’s complicated norms surrounding familial ties and human relations. In particular, young people who’ve migrated to the city have, to an extent, liberated themselves from these at times oppressive norms, thus giving themselves a chance to get in touch with their own needs and determine what they think is most valuable in life. “You discover that very few relationships are actually meaningful or valuable,” one interviewee told me.
The majority of my interviewees believe that the goal of minimalism is to forge a lifestyle with more room to focus on their growth and fulfillment instead of others’ expectations. In their eyes, societal pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” through a never-ending series of increasingly expensive purchases is at odds with their desire for individual autonomy.
At the same time, increasing precarity is pushing young people to reappraise their lives. At a time of record youth unemployment, layoffs in once booming industries like tech, and an uncertain post-pandemic economic situation, saving money and developing sustainable lifestyle habits can help young Chinese re-establish a sense of security.
Regardless of the context that birthed them, the rising popularity of notions such as decluttering and minimalism reflects the diversification of young Chinese people’s consumption behaviors and lifestyles. Sustainable consumption is becoming a greater presence in people’s lives, even if it remains limited to individual experiments.
This article was co-authored by Chen Youhua, a professor of sociology at Nanjing University.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visual elements from Rawpixel/VectorStock and saemilee/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)