friday 5 | china’s post-90 generation & the internet ::
:: like China’s “Post-80s Generation” before it, the “Post-90s Generation” is a shorthand for a vaguely-defined demographic group of Chinese people born roughly in the same decade. On the Chinese Internet, however, “Post-90s” has connotations of a young, affluent, urban, alternative aesthetic, and includes among its ranks people born in the mid to late 80s as well — see the reader age poll on FZL8.com which has choices for ages 16-21; 30% of respondents are under 16, and 15-20% were born in the 80s.
In hopes of helping everyone better understand this sometimes odd and detached demographic, the five categories below provide a rough outline of the image and characteristics conjured up in the minds of today’s Chinese netizens by the term “Post-90s.”
non-mainstream culture ::
Remember in the early part of the decade when Han Han and other young celebrities born in the 1980s were hailed as representatives of a new, “alternative” sub-culture in China? For the post-90s generation, the term “linglei” (另类, meaning: alternative) has been replaced with “feizhuliu” (非主流) which means something like “non-mainstream,” but it still refers to an “alternative” sub-culture, only one that is expressed by today’s teens (See here on Baidu Baike for a current in-depth discussion of the phenomenon). Fashion-wise, “non-mainstream” combines goth and punk elements with styles borrowed from trendy Korean and Japanese youth culture. Hallmarks of the “non-mainstream” photo: looking up at the camera, the subject (usually a teenage girl), often wearing clunky glasses, opens her eyes wide, purses her lips, and flashes a V-sign. Trendy consumer products are often visible in frame (see the “conspicuous consumption” below). In full length photos, toes are pointed inward to give the impression of innocence combined with reluctant exhibitionism (example). Often, text or cartoony images are Photoshop’d in, or the subject’s eyes are enlarged to make her look even more like a character from manga or animation (example). That example comes from a whole gallery of similar images that have been entered into a “Cool” contest on 360Quan. More angsty and emo are bloody, apparently Photoshop’d self-mutilation images. They’re not incredibly common, but their shock value has made disproportionately representative of the crazy moodiness of China’s Post-90s generation.
“Martian” language is a form of online writing that prizes linguistic and typographical playfulness: it combines abbreviations, letters, and numbers, with character combinations that correspond to pronunciations drawn from different Chinese dialects or tones of voice. It’s been around for a while, and is generally associated with online youth culture. The Huoxingwen BBS discussion portal has forums for various dialects, software that translates back and forth from standard written Mandarin to Martian, and conversation exchange. The Martian dialect most closely identified with the post-90s alternative subculture is “brain damaged writing” (脑残文), which is essentially standard Mandarin written using the most obscure characters possible. Traditional and rare variant characters are only the beginning: wrapping characters in other radicals, using duplicate and triplicate forms, and finding seldom-used characters that have a common character as a minor component are all valid techniques. Pinyin and English get rendered in Greek or Cyrillic. In its extreme stages, brain damaged writing literally splits the characters apart and builds them out of isolated radicals and phonetic symbols, example: ロ艾~~还媞叧リ冩 莪ㄋ，亻尒看，叧リヌ寸莪ㄖㄅ噫苋那庅茤，ㄝ子媞册リㄋロ巴 is an expansion of 哎，还是别提我了。你看，别对我的意见那么多。好是删了吧.
Although it would be misleading to assume that China’s Post-90s only hang out in one space on the Internet, 360Quan is a major focal point for post-90s teenagers, as evidenced by its overall “alternative” aesthetic and the tagline “young, stylish SNS” in the title bar. PK is a big activity on 360Quan: users can challenge each other head-to-head and vie for votes from the 360Quan userbase. PK categories include “alternative culture” (非主流), “sunniness” (阳光), “figure” (身材), “beauty” (美丽), “being cool” (搞酷), and “on the street” (街头). 360Quan also provides space for online “clans” (家族), ad-hoc groups of users linked by common interest or mutual acquaintance, a large number of whose names use Martian and brain-damaged writing. A wealth of similarly-targeted BBSs and social networks, successful and otherwise, can be found simply by searching for “90后” (meaning: post-90) in Baidu or other large search engines. Post-90s Home is one of the larger ones. Douban.com is also host to various post-90s communities, including The Nineties, with 1,281 members, and People of the Nineties with 1,190 members at time of writing. The BBS format and general tenor of Douban means that these forums feature some interesting discussions of post-90s identity – what does it mean to be part of that group?
conspicuous consumption ::
For better or for worse, China’s post-90s generation is seen as fairly materialistic. Born into an age of relative abundance, today’s urban teenagers seem entirely comfortable with consumerist culture, which they embrace fully without the ethical or cultural guilt shown by earlier generations, to the point that showing off wealth and possessions in online photo sets is a fairly common practice. A recent thread in the post-90s forum on Sina’s Women’s Channel asked members how much they typically spend on their clothes, in order to dispel the myth that they are a generation of spendthrifts. Brand-names pop up throughout the thread, and one netizen who claimed to be a 15-year-old girl attending high school in the US reported her current clothing and handbags were worth 37,030 RMB, generating a follow-up profile piece. Another post-90 girl won the moniker Sack-Girl (麻袋女) for carrying a bag full of cash to this year’s Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition. Her blog, “International Aristocrat,” expresses disdain toward Shanghainese and the Auto exhibition itself.
Inevitably, there has been a backlash. Baidu’s Postbar has a high-traffic “anti-alternative” BBS discussion forum where members post examples of post-90s culture to mock the generation. The top post for the time being is a poll: “What do you hate most about alternative culture?” The choices (which include “A disgrace to Photoshop,” “Pigeon-toed and costumed (fake Japan-esque + fake punk),” and “fake cons, fake CK”) sketch out a rough picture of how “alternative” is seen in the popular imagination. Chun Baba turned his acerbic barbs onto alternative post-90s in a (hilarious!) fake news broadcast that rounds up some of the Photoshop abominations mocked on the Baidu post. Another video blogger cooked up a widely-reposted 17-minute-long rant blasting the worship of Korean and Japanese culture that inspires post-90s alternative fashion. Finally, Douban hosts the “Post-90s Who Are Not Like Post-90s” group whose 288 members announce that they are not “alternative” and that they “wear their clothing properly,” unlike the widespread image of “punky” and “rebellious” post-90s kids.
[Friday 5 is the product of my work at Edelman Digital (China). Link here for the full Friday 5 archive. If you'd like to be added to the bilingual (English & Chinese) Friday 5 email distribution list, please send me an email at: adam DOT schokora AT edelman DOT com.]