In this episode we interview Zhou Yi Jing, author of 'China Too Cool Vernacular Innovations and Aesthetic Discontinuity of China' and host of the podcast 'Framing Visual Culture,' about the 土味 Tu Wei aesthetic.

This format of this episode takes on a more personal conversation between Bizhou, Dexi and Yi Jing on the nuances of '土味 tu wei' (or 'too cool') following-up our article 'Meme My Valentine: Balenciaga And The Aesthetics Of Tu Wei'.

We discuss among other things, the nuances and weirdness of cross-cultural appropriation, what luxury advertising in China finds itself engaged with, and how the aesthetics of rural China straddle both a form of poverty voyeurism and lower-tier inspiration.

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Here is the transcript of the episode

Bizhou: Welcome to the second episode of Chimera, a podcast series by Inner Chapter. Today, we are talking about the aesthetics of ''土 tu' or '土味 tu wei', and I have here with me my colleague, Dexi, Hi, and Zhou Yi Jing in Singapore right now

Yi Jing: Hello, hi everyone, my name is Yi Jing. I also go by the name Yi Jing Fly. So my background is in fashion design and critical and visual studies. I wrote my thesis paper on the topic of "China Too Cool Vernacular Innovations and Aesthetic Discontinuity of China" and the 'too cool' aesthetic is really similar to the '土味 tu wei' that we're going to unpack today. Yeah. What about you Bizhou?

Bizhou: Hi everyone. My name is Bizhou and I'm also one of the strategists here at Inner Chapter. My background is  I grew up in China, Japan and the US, and I'm very much interested in cross cultural conversations and the reactions to the Balenciaga Qixi campaign and the discussions around '土味 tu wei' struck a chord with me because there was  a lot of different reactions from the different corners of the world.

So I think we should begin actually by talking about Qixi itself. Qixi is known as Valentine's day in China. Well, actually I would say one of the many Valentine's days that there are in China, so that's August 25th. For Valentine's day Balenciaga actually released four limited editions of their iconic hour glass bags on Tmall and these bags had graffiti'd words of  "你爱我 Ni ai wo (you love me)" "我爱你 Wo ai ni (I love you)" and there was varying reactions from Chinese consumers to the campaign. One of the loudest reactions was that they found the campaign to be unsophisticated and tacky, or very '土 tu'. And they found that to be quite insulting to the taste level of the luxury Chinese consumer. And some consumers even went as far as to say that it was not only insulting to them and their tastes, but also politically insulting to China.  

Most of the discourse that came out of it was just talking about that and they tried to group it together along with some of the other luxury houses and their controversies of the past. For example, Dolce & Gabbana is famous for every year, coming up with a campaign that is insulting to Chinese consumers. But I did feel that this one was very different than the luxury campaigns in the past. I think it was actually a lot more complicated and had a lot more layers to it.

I thought it would be important to take that apart not only as a campaign, but as an aesthetic to say, what is uncomfortable about it, to whom, and why. So maybe we can start by taking the aesthetics of the campaign apart. If we look at the images that came out of the campaign, what are all the pieces composed of and what is it referencing? We can talk about how we as individuals resonated with those images.

I grew up in Nanjing in the early nineties. A lot of the things that stood out to me, when I look at one of the images that had these LED waterfalls, that reminded me a lot of the LED calendars and the posters that were at my grandparent’s. And they would also be printed on some of the washbasins or cups and just very basic utilitarian, everyday household products and appliances. So that's something I picked up.

Yi Jing: I definitely see all the elements of nature resonating with me as well because I have quite a similar background with Bizhou in that I also grew up in China in the nineties and then I left for Singapore. So a lot of those things also stood out to me because at that time I was living with my grandparents in a lower tier city in a place that's half urbanizing, but still really rural, so those things are really ubiquitous.

I think one more thing that I noticed is the use of a lot of digital imagery, like all these fluttering butterflies and bling, and magenta, hot pink, stuff like that. And I think that comes quite a lot from the early 2000s Internet blogsphere. So I think in China in the early 2000s, when QQ and all that were really popular, a lot of people had these blogs with templates and I recall seeing the bling and not super contemporary in that sense.  They're still of the recent past but we kind of consider outdated because we've outgrown that kind of bling.

Dexi: Yeah I feel like I can really relate to that. My background is I grew up in western China and when I first saw this, especially the waterfall and all that, I think it's really commonly seen when I was growing up but by the time I was a teenager, those kinds of elements are kind of '土 tu' to me. So when I go to a parent's friend’s house and see all those, I would identify that family as a little bit '土 tu'. Another thing, it's very much reminding me of QQ, and another thing is the frame of the photo, the visual is a bit like when we have those ‘大头贴 da tou tie (photo sticker booth / pirikura)’ stations and you go in there and you can have various backgrounds and it's virtual but you are very realistically presented, so it also has that kind of visual effect I think. That's very striking to me. And also, if you look at those balloons in heart shapes, I think if you're in China, even in Beijing, you sometimes still can see it in the decoration of a store. So it's still there, even as living memory of us growing up in the 90s. But what's also standing out to me are the two figures in there. I'm not sure if it's modern, but that is something new or distant to the background visual.

Bizhou: Yeah, the pose. Actually out of the four images that came out of the campaign, the one that I instantly had a recognition for is the one where she's leaning against this rock because I think a lot of us have these portraits when we were a little leaning against a real or fake rock.

Yi Jing: Dexi pointed out a really good point about the "大头贴 da tou tie", those machines. Yeah the poses really recall a lot of the studio photography that were popular in the 90s & 80s when we were growing up. And it's also something that we look back at now and feel a bit cringy because back then we were kids and we were made to  dress-up in these sometimes fantastical costumes. But in the Balenciaga campaign, the coats that the models are wearing, are from Balenciaga and in a way they're stylish, I guess. What do you guys think?

Dexi: I think that's the strange part to me. From a very fashion outsider, I can recognize from the hairdo and also their figures, they are all models. And I can recognize that's fashion, but at the same time I feel like it's not very new or it's an interpretation from someone who's not in that sphere, if I can say that. So I find it, in the moment, but at the same time, very out of the moment. I don't know how you guys feel about it?

Bizhou: One of the things that stood out to me was also the "look" of the models. When I first looked at the images, their look is quite contemporary to me, their "长相 zhang xiang (appearance)" and for me, these would be models that a foreign brand would consciously choose, but they were not necessarily the classic beauty that our parents, or even, maybe our friends would say "Oh, that's really representative of Chinese beauty", so to speak. For example, the female model, she's wearing very little makeup, and she's kind of casually styled compared to some of the other images that come out of luxury houses.

Yi Jing: I definitely agree with the contemporary aspect of it, especially that shaved head. I feel like it's been a comeback for quite a few years, especially amongst the younger creative crowd of males. I see that hairdo very often.

Dexi: But it gives me the feeling that the contemporary or modern look is chosen to be situated in the visual. When I saw it, I feel a little bit strange about it and was trying to get away from this conversation because I think there's multiple layers in it, which makes it very hard to articulate, but also very interesting.

Bizhou: When we first saw these, Dexi & I, we began by saying, what do we call this aesthetic? Should we call it '土味 tu wei'? Is it more than just '土味 tu wei' in referencing other subcultures? So maybe we can dig into that a little bit and see where does the '土味 tu wei' aesthetic comes from. Yi Jing I think you're an expert in this, so I'll let you start.

Yi Jing: Where do I start? So because of my background in fashion I started noticing older people in Chinatown, because at the time I was in the US. Or even in China, now there's this obsession with aunty styles and uncle styles, just because they're so nonchalant they don't really care about how people look at them. So they kind of just slap things on and layer a lot of things that don't really make sense but might be really utilitarian to them and just go out. And I think young people are seeing that and thinking that's pretty cool. Trying to dig deeper into this 'older people aesthetics' for the lack of a better word led me to this term called 'too cool' which is really similar to '土味 tu wei' except it has the 'cool' part. So really, I mean, what's the difference, like the '土 tu' is still there.

So as we know, '土 tu' is the Chinese character for earth, but it also is kind of derogatory. People use it to say that it's outdated, it's not cool. And then with the 'too cool' aesthetic, or the '土味 tu wei' aesthetic, I think the original or I'll call it the first layer where it came from is actually the older generation who don't think about, I mean, they think that is beautiful, but they're not doing it ironically. So a lot of those things come out of the means or the tools that they have to make this graphics, or they want things that are novel and not just minimal, but how do I show people that I have the coolest, newest thing. So it's just usually very over the top and we still see that these days when going to some relatives house where they still put this columns or a lot of Rococo and Baroque designs around. So it's just very over the top and a lot of lace, I don't know what's with people's obsession with lace!

For my own background and for a lot of Chinese people who went overseas to study, we all know the whole minimalist, Apple aesthetic is very popular. This is obviously in antithesis to that and a lot of Chinese people and the younger generations start thinking back about what's something from my own history and background that I can draw upon for my own design inspiration. And part of that '土 tu', that outdated feeling, came about as something that they can tap into. But when younger people adopt this '土 tu' style, I think it's more ironic but also embracing that.

Bizhou: You just touched upon something I want to follow up with a little bit. I think you talked about the aesthetics of '土 tu.' One is kind of an unintentional 'tu' and then one is more of an intentional '土 tu', right? So when you become aware of it and you can employ it as an aesthetic, especially when we give it a name, it becomes intentional. Where do you think was that transition point where it became something that say our uncles unconsciously bought and decorated their homes with versus something that his son uses as an aesthetic to design club flyers, for example.

Yi Jing: Right. One of the things that we can look to is with WeChat and how everyone is on WeChat. Now we have our relatives and people that maybe we didn't get as much of a chance to interact with, especially on a visual aesthetic level. So once people's grandparents started using WeChat, they also started making sticker sets that are more representative of the things that they want to see. And so were born the '中老年表情包 zhong lao nian biao qing bao' we call 'elderly sticker sets', that is very similar to the Balenciaga campaign, which has a lot of this word art aesthetic, really flattened, shiny and a lot of bevels and the general mood is very uplifting. They're really happy and they're always wishing you something good - '祝你身体健康 zhu ni shen ti jian kang (I wish you good health!)' or like '早安你好 zao an ni hao (Good morning to you!).' I think that was probably when younger people were exposed to that. Maybe at first people would think that this looks so '土 tu', but it also becomes very interesting.

Bizhou: When you talk about that, it makes me think all the stickers are full of '正能量 zhen neng liang (Positive energy)', they're just so full of pure positivity. And I wonder, when young people have a chance to go abroad, to go outside of that aesthetic, when you're exposed to minimalism, go to Scandinavia, for example, maybe it gives you also a new perspective to say, "Oh, that environment that I grew up within, maybe that was '土 tu'." So maybe it becomes intentional when you've actually left that environment to be able to look at it from the outside in.

Yi Jing: Right. So one really interesting thing that the person by the name of 养鸭 Yang Ya who said that he was the one who came up with the term 'too cool' and in his interview he said that he came from a regional city definitely not the tier one cities like Shanghai and Beijing. And he said that when he was living there, the fashionable people in town were wearing this so called very '土 tu' things like a '小洋裙 xiao yang qun (Western styled skirts)' and flowery things that they thought were very fashionable. And at that time maybe he thought that was fashionable. And then he went to a big city, he went to Beijing, and there he was exposed to all this international stuff, Western styles, all these different things. And it made him think, are those things I saw back in my hometown really '土 tu' or really bad, what's wrong with just embracing those, because that was part of my identity as well. So I think there was the so called the birth of this ironic embracing mentality of the '土 tu wei' and 'too cool' that young people tend to adopt these days.

Dexi: Following on that point that reminded me of my first observation of how fashionable young Chinese people who are wearing those '土味 tu wei' clothes and posting '土味 tu wei' WeChat moments are those people who are very active in Beijing and Shanghai in a creative or cultural crowd.

Bizhou and I, we were discussing 五条人 Wu Tiao Ren, they were from Guangdong, but also in that underground music scene and their visuals are a little bit 'too cool' but with maybe some other elements in it. I was just thinking 新裤子 New Pants, even in the early 2000s some of their visuals and their album '龙虎人丹 Long Hu Ren Dan', they are using those very '土 tu' and earthly elements such as gym clothes that people wear in their middle school. And they are cutting those really, funny short hair and they are wearing slippers in a very typical rural Chinese street.

That's part of the origin of '土味 tu wei' where those very educated and culturally-led young people , when they are exposed to international culture and their city is becoming super modernized and they felt a discomfort or they have this question about, what happened with my own culture? What happened with my background? Why am I feeling so uncomfortable? I think that's the beginning of this creation of '土味 tu wei', because people need to find a place to place their identity or try to rationalize, what is happening around them in their world, where they should be positioning themselves, and where is their voice. And then other young people, they start to follow this trend, whether it's mimicry or it's out of pure creation.

Yeah. I have a question for Yi Jing, I wonder, how do you think of those people who are creating those '土味 tu wei' videos on 快手 Kuaishou or  抖音 Douyin? Those people who may be living in 东北 Dongbei (North-Eastern China), not fashionable young people. So how do you think of their content creation in relation to the '土味 tu wei' aesthetics?

Yi Jing: Right. I always wonder if they are aware of how people think about them as '土 tu.' I feel like when city dwellers look at these videos of skits or people live-streaming the things they do in the countryside, they say that these people are '土 tu' but it's an endearing term, they find it kind of cute. I've seen some of these videos before and I find them very entertaining just because some of the scenes are quite familiar to me, but at the same time, I don't live there anymore. But they also have this manner of speaking as trying really hard. You know they're trying really hard to act, but it also feels a bit cringy. And I wonder if they put up an act to purposely act badly or maybe people like that and they're just continuing with that because it's funny. I really wonder how they see themselves, especially the younger generation, whether they think that they are 'tu' or if they think they are 'tu', is it something that they embrace?

Bizhou: Yeah, I think the question of 快手Kuaishou and the '土 tu' aesthetic is something that Dexi & I had extensive conversations about. You mentioned that sometimes the word '土 tu' can be used in an endearing sense. I don't have an answer to it, but I've wondered, like, is it endearing or is it derogatory?

Because of course, when we call ourselves '土 tu' or somebody says that they're a little bit '土 tu', it could be endearing or could be just self-conscious in a way. However, to me, there's also an element of judgment and a classist tone to it. And I think we can say that the word '土 tu' in Chinese means earth but I think another way to say is that it just means dirt, right? And at least when I was growing up, and I think a lot of people feel the same that, you know, '土 tu' is not something that is aspirational. I think that's safe to say. It is essentially the direct opposite of '洋气 yang qi' which is more Western or basically another word for sophisticated. So you want to be '洋气 yang qi', you don't want to be '土 tu', or at least maybe you can call yourselves '土 tu', but you don't really want someone else to call you '土 tu.' I think that's where the question arises of, is it endearing or derogatory? And I personally probably veer more on the side of derogatory.

Dexi: I think my view change a little bit in a process of thinking. It goes back to what Yi Jing said about affirmative irony. If people are less confident about their self they will never be able to be ironic about their situation or about their taste as '土 tu.' But when I watched those videos on Weibo, videos posted by '土味挖掘机 tu wei wa jue ji', I feel like those young people living in '十八线小城市 shi ba xian xiao cheng shi (directly translated as '18th tier city', meaning very low-tier city)',  they are making fun of those '土 tu' things happening in their life and they are being ironic about it. So it gives me the feeling they are actually okay about it. I was wondering whether we are in a stage where all the people are better off than before. And now that the population of China live on 快手 Kuaishou, they can make fun of the 'tu' and that means they are okay, they are much better than before.

Bizhou: Going off of what Dexi was just saying, I do see people defending 快手 Kuaishou, as a platform that let's say, if we compare that to a 小红书 Xiao Hong Shu, which is dominated by larger, more wealthier cities and showing-off lifestyle.  I see a lot of people defending Kuaishou as one of those platforms that are giving a voice or a platform for those who would otherwise be more marginalized or invisible within Chinese society so I think that's what you meant when you say, if they are cool with it themselves, then maybe it is okay. Where I struggle with it is that, I agree with you that a lot of people go on there because it is by choice they're are on there to show their lives to an audience that otherwise wouldn't have a first-hand perspective .

However, the truth is that only a very, very, very small percentage of those people who are the primary content makers of 快手 Kuaishou truly make it out. I think a lot of people talk about the fact that it is possible for a farmer to start live-streaming and then within a year you have 50 million followers or whatever, and then you become a millionaire. And that's a great "pull yourself by the bootstraps" kind of story that I think everybody loves to hear, but I would really like to know how many people actually make it out of there. So how many people get to go from being a farmer who is wearing a forfeit Balenciaga with letters all spelled wrong and weird prints and then within a year become, somebody who could be able to afford a real Balenciaga. And I think my struggle with it is that I think there's just a voyeurism to it. I think it's kind of like poverty voyeurism for the masses who get to go to sleep every night in a Shanghai or Beijing to find something interesting or feel like they are relating to lives they really never have to experience first-hand.

Yi Jing: You make a very pertinent point and you used the word 'choice' just now and even though these people living in rural China feel that they chose to be in front of the camera and to showcase your life or to act in hope for internet fame but I think that younger people in bigger cities who are actively adopting '土味 tu wei' and probably this is the problem with Balenciaga as well, for a luxury brand to be adopting '土味 tu wei' is that the people who can afford the luxurious lifestyle or city life, have the choice, of dressing in a '土 tu' manner, but they also have the choice of not, and they have the choice of watching those 快手 Kuaishou videos and then still going back to their comfortable bed and sleep. Whereas these people filming the videos even though they feel like, Oh, I have autonomy I am choosing to pursue this stardom life, but do they really? And they can't get out of that. I think there's power dynamics there and probably why people were so angry with the Balenciaga ad campaign as well.

Bizhou: In your thesis, I remember you mentioned the '土味 tu wei' aesthetic also relies on the fact that you can fondly look back upon a memory because you're over it.  And I think what you're talking about is essentially if you are the farmer, you don't have that luxury of distance. So is it a choice? I'm not really sure.  And actually, I was joking with Dexi the other day that if I were to be highly critical of it, that I don't even know if it's 'tu cool' that maybe it's actually like '苦酷 ku cool', making coolness out of somebody's misery essentially.

Yi Jing:  I feel at least with the term 'too cool' because it was coined by a local Chinese person, it becomes more acceptable. Whereas, if let's say it was a foreigner in China who experienced these things and he's like, okay, I'm going to call this 'too cool', I don't think it will be accepted in the same way. So, as you say, there's this distance, which is why I think younger people tend to like it better because even for us, our experience with nostalgia of the nineties was just growing up and we see with a bit of rose-tinted glasses. We didn't really go through much of poverty. I don't know about you guys, but I think I didn't really, so I think it's much easier for younger people in China who didn't really experience the poverty to look back on the cultural productions of the 90s and 80s and think oh that's so cute and that's so nostalgic, and that's something that I want to bring back again. Whereas people that are in rural cities, they have the phone, they can go on the internet. If they see that a Balenciaga luxury brand ad campaign, they will think, "what the heck, I could make this, why are you doing this?"

Bizhou:  I think one of the reasons that 'too cool' came about now, as opposed to earlier is that, we finally have 20, 30 years distance between the last time that as a nation, it went through some more traumatic times and so finally you can in 2020, fondly look upon the 90s. Whereas let's say my parents growing up didn't necessarily have the same outlook on the seventies or eighties.

Dexi: So as you guys say that, I was wondering if maybe 'too cool' aesthetics also became something empowering, something that's more similar to a cultural currency? Like people who have passed poverty are able to look back and use as part of this statement to say "Where am I now, how do I claim my identity?"  I think there's tension as well in this notion and I feel like that's one of the reasons the action that Balenciaga is doing is making people uncomfortable.

Yi Jing: Well when I first saw this, I thought it was quite funny, but also, it might be a reflection that I actually am one of the privileged people who have a choice and not feel like I see myself in that thing. I see where the humor is coming from.

Also wonder if the consumers in China expect too much of Western luxury brands to dictate how Western media should think about China or they see what western luxury brands do in China as an indication of Chinese success. Like if a luxury brand shows a Chinese model dress in a very elegant manner, then it shows that we have made it. Whereas this looks like they think that Chinese people are still very 'tu', which most people would not agree with. I also wonder if it's more about the mentality of the people looking at this and how they still hold these luxury brands in a position of power.

Bizhou: I think I can see both sides of that argument. I do agree with you that you shouldn't care what a luxury brand says about you, right. So I also thought is it because that the consumers are not yet secure or confident enough in their status as a luxury consumer? Are they not ready yet to embrace ironic cultural appropriation essentially? So then it makes me question, so who's actually unsophisticated? Is it the aesthetic or is it the people critiquing them because they're not viewing it within visual culture. That's one way I can look at it.

The second part of it is, I think there was a little bit of me that found it to be insulting in a way. I don't know if it's because just a personal perspective, when I grew up in Nanjing and then when my family immigrated to Japan, I have experienced what it's like to worry about whether you can come off as '土 tu.'  Back then the difference was, if you go from, from Nanjing to Tokyo, people are going to look at you and think you're '土 tu' so that is something I have, um, been concerned with. So  for me, it wasn't the fact that  the campaign was '土 tu' or not, it was just more like, I could relate to  some of the questions we talked about before of who gets to talk about it, do you get to talk about it if you've never had to grapple with it , and you can just employ it as an aesthetic entirely. So that's why I think I've taken a little bit more critical approach to it is that, this is something I have personally grappled with early on in my life.

Yi Jing: I mean, I've had similar experiences because as much as Singapore is majority Chinese, but Singaporean-Chinese do discriminate against non-Singaporean-Chinese, those from China or Malaysia or whatever. I remember when I was in elementary school, there was another girl who also recently came from China and then she had like the red dot on her forehead. Her mom used red lipstick and put a red dot in between her eyebrows. And I've had that before, when I was a kid, it was supposed to be something beautiful you know, like we were told that, if you put this red dot, then you're a beautiful girl, beautiful boy and then you can go to school. And she was ridiculed in school and she was crying. She was asking me "why don't other people get it?" and it did make me not want to embrace that side of me, especially as a young kid.

Bizhou: Yeah I definitely have memories of showing up first day in school in Japan. And of course my mom dressed me up in very, very bright colors because she thought that's how I would come off as friendly but it's just terrifying to Japanese kids who are fans of muted colors, for sure.

Yi Jing:  Dexi, did you study in China entirely?

Dexi: I did my almost entire education in China. I went to university in Shanghai and then I went to UK to do masters.

Yi Jing: Yeah, because the bulk of your time you were in China, more in touch with what has been happening in China, do you feel like you look at this whole '土 tu' thing differently?

Dexi: When I first saw the campaign coming out, I think my initial feeling was, it was very close to the insulting scenario that happened before with other luxury brands. But I'm taking a step back.  I feel like a lot of people do feel they are being insulted, but I think in my experience and I also discussed this with my friends, they are like, "let's not take this as such a big deal because it is not." I think more people at my age see Balenciaga as a brand that didn't really understand Chinese, see it as a misunderstanding rather than us being made fun of. I think now people are saying like "Oh, it's, they don't get to know us because Chinese culture and all the things that are happening so fast and it's really hard to grasp the changes and the details”. Especially In the aesthetics of '土味 tu wei', the social changes and the rural urban-divide is being embedded in that  so I think in my experiences people are getting more okay with it.

Yi Jing: I wanted to bring in this example of the "999 ganmao ling". It is this flu medicine that's basically a household name in China. I think everyone knows it. I don't know if people even think about it much. It's just a household medicine, you know, you get it from the pharmacy and that's it. People don't really discuss what kind of aesthetics they have, but in 2018, they had an ad campaign that was quite '土味 tu wei' and 'too cool' as well. And it was quite satirical and it was really funny. Even though there were a lot of questions, like why, what is happening, why are they suddenly doing fashion and what's with this very '土 tu' aesthetic. But I think Chinese people accept it more because that brand is a household name, what they're selling is very mass market, the medicine is cheap enough for everyone. And they also think of it as something that has been through the evolution of the urbanization of China. So people tend to think of this brand as having gone through difficult times and therefore can look back and kind of make fun of itself. Whereas Balenciaga to the average Chinese person, you are a foreign brand and then you're a luxury brand, so how can you be selling something so expensive and then using such a cheap form?  People can't see that as affirmative irony, it's just irony and making fun.

Bizhou:  Because when we break down the aesthetics of '土 tu ' one of the fundamental, consistent things that it uses is found objects that are ubiquitous in the everyday lives of the working class or of very much rural lives. And so it takes these classic motifs, for example, when Dexi earlier mentioned 五条人 Wu Tiao Ren, one of their ads they actually just took a plastic bag that you would get from any grocery store and they just printed 五条人 Wu Tiao Ren on them. I completely agree with you that when it's a product like 999 that have been with you as part of your entire life, and found in the homes of every person in China, when they do it, it's self-referential, that's very different than a luxury brand that's been around for a hundred years, but not in the homes of Chinese consumers, essentially taking those very same, everyday found products, and all referencing that, but putting the price to be like, a thousand or 2000 times more expensive.

Dexi: And I also think why people like the aesthetics of '土味 tu wei' stuff is because when they look at the fun objects from before, even a plastic bag or a calendar in their houses, what they think of is that innocent time in a past. I think in that context, '土 tu' means being innocent, being pure, everything so slow, and people are very honest with each other. I think in the context of young people '土 tu', that means being real, being authentic, whereas modern life or luxury symbols are more associated with being '假 jia (fake)', not being real.

Bizhou: Yeah. Well, I think the last question that I actually want to ask is the topic of cultural appropriation and I'm just wondering, who is actually appropriating who in this. What's the dynamic of cultural appropriation here?

I think we touched upon it a little bit to say what's unique about this campaign is that often when we talk about cultural appropriation, we're kind of talking about it from this binary, global to local dynamic.  But in this case there are so many more layers to that - there's a global element, there's a national element, there's a local element and then maybe it bounces back.

Yi Jing: So I think there is one layer of appropriation - the younger, creative, Chinese people who are living in big cities appropriating whether it's their former self or people in regional cities. and then there's also the Balenciaga as a foreign brand trying to be local, but again, what is local in China, I think a lot of cities in China have a very strong regional identity, like you say, there are many layers here.

Bizhou: Yeah, I think I was going to add one more layer before the first layer you mentioned, which is that probably at the very beginning, it was people living in rural areas,  copying, or appropriating the aspirational looks, that they saw in top tier cities and then that look was first ridiculed by those people that actually live in the wealthier cities. And then they started actually appropriating those aesthetics ironically, and then it goes on ...

Yi Jing: Yes, absolutely because I started my thesis talking about this whole idea of made in China and one of the big critique of ‘made in China’ is that they're knockoffs and they’re poor rip-offs and they’re poor copies. Definitely, the original want to create something aspirational, but neither have the tools or the knowledge to create it so it looks a bit like a poor rip-off and then people start embracing that less than perfect and kind of endearing part of the knock-off.

Bizhou: Dexi do you have anything to add?

Dexi: The only one last layer to add is when it first began, people make fun of the people living in the real villages, and then the people make fun of people living in '县城 xian cheng  (county-level town)' and then it's the '城乡结合部 cheng xiang jie he bu (rural areas on the fringes of cities)'. So in the process, there's been societal changing elements happening, so I think that's my last add on.

Bizhou: We have enough to talk about for many, many podcasts to come, so I think we're going to wrap up our conversations today. Thank you so much for joining us, Yi Jing.

Yi Jing: Thank you for inviting me. It was so fun.

Zhou Yi Jing, author of 'China Too Cool Vernacular Innovations and Aesthetic Discontinuity of China' and host of the podcast 'Framing Visual Culture'.

Our article 'Meme My Valentine: Balenciaga And The Aesthetics Of Tu Wei'.