Tea Leaf Nation

Home for the Holidays, Chinese Hipsters Post Peasant Selfies

For stylish youth in China’s growing cities, the lunar new year means a return to family, village, and really tacky pants.


Across China, people are gathering to savor home-cooked feasts, set off firecrackers, and spend quality time with relatives. It’s the spring festival, a week-long national holiday when many Chinese return home to be with their families. It’s the largest annual human migration in the world. And in China, where rapid urbanization has drawn hundreds of millions to the country’s burgeoning cities in recent decades, that means new urbanites often drop their city slicker ways and return to a rougher, more rustic lifestyle — if only for a few days.

This new year, young Chinese have taken to Weibo, China’s huge microblogging platform, to document their temporary transformation from urban chic to dowdy rustic. Born in the 1990s and later, when fashion magazines, pop music, and the Internet had already become normal features of urban life, China’s young city dwellers are known for their love of stylish clothing and sunglasses, messaging apps, and selfie sticks. But many still have close ties to the villages where they or their parents were born. Indeed, most people refer to their ancestral villages as “home,” even if they’ve spent little time there themselves. Home is often where relatives still tend vegetable gardens on the old family plot, heat their homes with coal, and pad around wearing thick cotton trousers in garish patterns to guard against the cold. This year, as young Chinese have headed home and traded their designer jeans for quilted pants and coffee shop hangouts for cabbage fields, they’ve taken before-and-after photos on their ubiquitous smartphones and posted them online.

The pictures have quickly become a viral sensation. On Feb. 9, a related hashtag, “Before going home and after going home,” was among the top trending topics on Weibo, China’s huge microblogging platform, and related posts racked up tens of thousands of shares and likes. One set of photos showed a young women an edgy haircut and an elegant blouse sitting in a posh café; in the next photo, she was tending a huge wok in a tiny drab kitchen with bare cement walls, enveloped in an oversized dirt-colored coat. Another pair of photos featured a young woman standing proudly in sunglasses and flowing white miniskirt, the Eiffel Tower in the background; set against another photo showing her stomping through a hillside vegetable garden in sneakers and a boxy cotton-padded jacket, a brown knitted scarf wrapped around her head.

The before-and-after images seemed to evoke nostalgia and knowing chuckles from the thousands of web users who left comments. “Home is a place you can be ugly and comfortable,” wrote one user. “There’s nothing you can do about it — home is simply too cold,” wrote another in a highly up-voted comment, referring to the many rural homes that lack central heating. “When you go back, you have to wear three layers of underclothes and three layers of outerwear.”

As in the United States, where urbanites often look down on the accents, habits, and dress of country folk, the rural-urban divide in China also invites value judgments. China’s biggest and most prosperous cities are modern, sophisticated, and at least feel Western; the countryside, the trope goes, is backwards, ignorant, and traditional. That’s one reason first-generation city dwellers often take such care to dress fashionably; they’re trying to distance themselves from their rural roots. It’s also a likely reason that such the photos seem to have struck a chord online. The before-and-after shots now being passed around offer a refreshingly honest portrayal of the dual inner identity that characterizes so many of China’s newly urban. “Before you all went home, you were the Linda, Mary, Vivian, George, Michael, and Justin in the tall office building,” wrote one user in a comment that garnered more than 1,000 likes, referring to the common practice among white-collar workers of taking English names. “After you go home, you become Guifang, Cuihua, Xiulan” — stereotypically rural monikers.

At spring festival this year, as millions of Chinese millennials chat with their grandparents and help prepare traditional meals, turnips from the family garden in one hand and a smartphone in the other, they can feel themselves in good company. As one Weibo user wrote, with three laughing emoticons for emphasis. “Finally I know I’m not alone!”

Image Credit: Sina Weibo/Fair Use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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