Tea Leaf Nation
Meet China’s Beverly Hillbillies
The absurdity of the Middle Kingdom's Bentley-driving, blinged-out nouveau riche.
They have been mentioned more than 56 million times on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. Everyone wants to be their friend, but no one likes them. They seem to be everywhere, throwing around their newly minted renminbi and well-used UnionPay debit cards; yet they are elusive and shun the media. Their love for bling has become the backbone of the global luxury goods industry, yet they are also the subject of disdain, the butt of jokes, the punching bag for that which is offensive to good taste.
They are the tuhao — tu means dirt or uncouth; hao means splendor — and they are the Beverly Hillbillies of China. Or something like that: A crowdsourced translation call on China’s social media yielded "new money," "slumdog millionaire," the "riChinese" and "billionbilly." When English falls short, French is on hand to help: Tuhao have the artistic sensibilities of the arriviste, the social grace of the parvenu, and the spending habits of the nouveau riche.
Tuhao once meant rich landowner — the villainous landed gentry and class enemy of communist China’s proletariat — but the term’s modern revival began with a popular joke that made its rounds on Chinese social media in early September. A young man asks a Zen master, "I’m wealthy but unhappy. What should I do?" The Zen master responds, "Define ‘wealthy.’" The young man answers, "I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?" The Zen master silently holds out a hand, inspiring the young man to a realization: "Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?" The Zen master says, "No … Tuhao, can I become your friend?"
This rather lame joke struck a chord with China’s middle class, a rapidly expanding group that now numbers over 300 million. As a middle-class lifestyle grows increasingly normal, so has disdain for flaunted wealth. Many Chinese would now say they consider themselves the antithesis of tuhao — educated, fashionable, and disdainful of conspicuous consumption. After taking office in November 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping started cracking down on corruption in the Communist Party. Chinese officials, some of the most notorious wearers of tuhao goods, cut down on ostentatious purchases, and luxury brands suffered.
At the same time, Chinese live in a society where understanding tuhao is valuable, catering to tuhao taste is lucrative, and making tuhao friends is sensible. Multinational corporations, while wary of going against Xi’s policies, understand this. Fancy a Hermès bag with the Chinese national flag on it? Done. Want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a watch with a Chinese zodiac motif? Why, you have more than 20 to choose from.
Tuhao had their breakout moment on Sept. 20, when Apple introduced a gold version of the new iPhone 5s smartphone. Despite initial disbelief that Apple would indulge such tackiness alongside its Zen-like tradition of elegant design, the gilded phone has become insanely popular in China, where it is known — even in state media headlines –as the "tuhao gold."
The tuhao concept extends beyond gilded gadgets. On Sept. 22, members of Hollywood royalty, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Weinstein, and Nicole Kidman, flocked to the seaside Chinese city of Qingdao for the opening of a cinema complex owned by developer Wang Jianlin, whom Bloomberg calls China’s richest man. China’s Internet users labeled the event an "Extravaganza of Tuhao" and a celebration of "Haollywood" [sic] because while Wang’s company spent a considerable amount of cash to lure the big names to Qingdao, the event’s fusty Chinese flavor reduced its glamour factor. A-listers rubbed shoulders with security guards in uniforms styled after those worn by soldiers in China’s People’s Liberation Army; elderly locals performed Chinese opera. The country’s middle class, it seems, is conflicted: The nouveau is surely gauche, but the old is still uncouth.
Among stiff competition, the most famous tuhao on the Chinese Internet in early October was a nameless woman in backwater Anhui province. Chinese media reported that she gave a Bentley worth approximately RMB 4 million (about $650,000) to her son-in-law as a wedding gift. Some allege the reporter fabricated the story, but it has already caused uproar online, where responses range from derision to expressions of real or exaggerated jealousy of the young man’s good luck.
Those combinations — derision and jealousy, dirt and splendor — go to the root of the conflicts undergirding modern, gilded-age China. Wealth alone is proving to be an empty promise, yet it remains essential for many kinds of access and influence. Small wonder that while Chinese may resent tuhao and poke fun at their taste, making their acquaintance (or better yet, marrying into their families) remains a convenient and enviable way to move up China’s increasingly treacherous social ladder. Reactions to the Bentley story "highlight a blatant opportunistic mentality" among our youth, commented a blogger who goes by the name Jumo. "If our young people didn’t face so much totally unfair and unclear competition in their personal lives and careers, they would not have to bear so much pressure or be so impetuous, anxious, or old before their time." Then perhaps they wouldn’t need their mother-in-law to buy them a Bentley.