Materialism in modern China

If you have spent much time in China’s major cities, you have no doubt seen a few hundred new luxury cars, up and coming urbanites clutching Louis Vuitton bags or sporting a new Rolex watch, and more than a few people talking loudly on their iPhones. This rampant materialism even seems to surpass what I saw in the US a few years back.

As I’ve mentioned before, when co-workers return from overseas trips, more often than not, I hear about what they bought rather than what they saw. One friend told me he had spent over $25,000 on watches during a brief trip to Taiwan. Another said she had bought 4 new designer bags on a trip to Hong Kong. This binge shopping is shrugged off when people discuss how much they “saved” by avoiding China’s high taxes on these products.

The Party has realized the value in promoting the pursuit of material goods, as it bolsters the economy and maintains the status quo. The other day, the People’s Daily approved the idea that gov’t officials shouldn’t spend more than 180,000RMB on a car, which is more than most Chinese farmers make in 30 years, as if this was a reasonable way to spend public funds (they were heralding the Gov’t’s responsible nature in lowering the limit from 200,000RMB).

This growth of materialism in China’s more affluent areas surprised me when I arrived in Chengdu from the countryside of Guangxi. I actually experienced culture shock the first time I visited one of the large foreign supermarkets (Metro). My Chinese co-worker laughed at me as I marveled at all of the choices while slowly wandering down each and every aisle. To her, I was another country bumpkin (she actually used 土包子 tubaozi) exploring China’s big cities for the first time.

In some ways I was.

When I was in Guangxi, I tried my best to live simply. Students were either given a little pocket money from their parents who made much less than $1,000/year, or worked part time jobs that paid about 2-3RMB/hour ($.25-.37 at the time). Nobody had much money to spend, so it was pointless to dream of things they could never afford.

We did the math in class one day, at 3RMB/hour it would take over a year of working 40 hour weeks to earn enough to buy an iPhone, making it an extremely luxurious item to my students. Yet they seemed proud of the fact that some Chinese were able to afford these goods now, even if they couldn’t. They accepted that some people had money to spend, but realized they probably never would.

In the present, they felt fortunate for the little they had. They wore additional fabric sleeves to protect their jackets and sweaters in the winter, they moved carefully through the rain for the sake of their shoes, and almost never left a scrap of food behind during a meal. I greatly admired their sense of thrift, and I think my grandparents, who grew up in the Great Depression, would too.

After a few months, spending more than 100RMB on anything became a “major purchase,” even though it was well within my budget. My wife and I both became extremely frugal, and our definitions of “need” and “want” became much clearer (My “itoos®” Mp3 player still works occasionally, so I don’t “need” an iPod ).

This absence of materialism in the Chinese countryside was one of the things I most frequently praised China for. Now, living in Nanjing, the never ending pursuit of material goods that I see around me is one of the things that bothers me most. Possibly because just as Guangxi made me thankful for what I had, Nanjing just makes me want more.

About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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54 Responses to Materialism in modern China

  1. You write: “Some in the Party have even considered materialism as a counter to religion”

    It’s the absence of religion in China that makes having nice things – no matter the price on it’s society – acceptable. Because most Chinese are non-religious, they cling to all sorts of material goods to give them a sense of worth. The lack of religion in this nation is also why unbridled corruption, human rights violations, greed, deceit, thievery, lies, and a host of other unimaginable acts are done everyday. Anything you can imagine happens in China and unfortunately, much of it is detrimental to the society and people. If even one of the commandments of western religion: “It’s better to give than to receive” was a part of the fabric in China’s society, most people would be much better off financially with the hope of having more.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Perhaps you should define “religion” so that we can make better sense of this post. In fact, there are many tens of millions of people practicing a myriad of religions in China. This fact aside, what exactly are you suggesting is missing? Is it the absence of belief? The absence of the practice of religion? The absence of large, centrally controlled denominations of religion x, y, or z? Do you really think that “Western” countries (with their religions of decidedly non-western origins) have anything to teach China about non-materialism? More to the point, I find perplexing the suggestion that Chinese culture (or cultures, to be more accurate) is short of the moral values or ethical principles necessary to bring about a more just society.

      • Andrew The says:

        “Do you really think that “Western” countries (with their religions of decidedly non-western origins) have anything to teach China about non-materialism?”
        An interesting point, but it seems to me you equivocate a bit on the term “Western.” If you mean “Western” in its geographic sense, then the statement would be correct but have little relevance. If you mean “Western” in the cultural sense, then it would be relevant but incorrect (or rather, anachronistic), as the origins of the religions (primarily Christianity, I would assume) predate the origins of “Western” culture as we currently know it and experience it; for certainly the Christian tradition has had enormous influence on Western civilization, nor may one easily imagine a Western civilization without its influence.

        With regard to the moral values of Chinese culture, I think I would affirm that traditional Chinese culture(s) certainly had the mores to produce a just society. Regarding modern Chinese culture, or what it seems to be becoming at least, I’m not so sure. There is much to value in traditional Chinese culture, but it seems to me some of those parts are getting left out (e.g., I don’t see young people getting up for elderly on the buses like I used to; I rarely see classes stand at the beginning of class out of respect for their teacher, whereas that was the norm when I first arrived in China; divorce rates are out of control; etc.). There is much to value in traditional Western culture, but it seems those parts are being ignored (e.g., Halloween is huge, and thanksgiving(s) are not. Christmas is a gaudy day of merchandising, and there’s not even lip service to “peace on earth, goodwill to men”; etc.).

        I’m sorry for sounding like a curmudgeon, but when I look around at what urban society here is becoming, I have this horrible fear that I’m seeing the /worst/ of the West and East, blended into an unwholesome whole.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful response, The Andrew. With respect to “Western,” I suppose I mean to point out all of what you say in your post. As you say, there is no single Western culture that holds up to any scrutiny. And you’ve also clarified the non-Western sources of Christianity and…everything else. I suppose that there are things that are held to Western by both zealots and detractors. When it comes to commenting on the Chinese scene, the same applies. At any rate, I think you’ve made my point accurately for me.

        Obviously I also agree with you on the value of “traditional” (yes, we both know why I put that word in scare quotes, so no need to elaborate) Chinese culture, which isn’t to say that such a culture is not filled with counter-currents, inconsistencies, and contradictions. I would also say that the Chinese revolutionary tradition, however corrupted by deeds and misdeeds of the past and present, is also a relevant and perhaps necessary part of the conversation, as is, no doubt, “Western” liberalism. All of this said, I would argue that extant justice/injustice in a society does not spring from values or morals etc.; rather, such conditions develop to a greater or lesser extent based on power and on political practice. Of course values, morals, ethics, traditions, etc. are at play. But my understanding is that they are resources drawn upon by individuals and groups as guide and/or justification. They are not roadmaps requiring people to do or not do certain things. Having said this, surely there are those who believe themselves to be guided by religious principles. This seems to be what California Kid is suggesting above.

        Taking your everyday examples, doesn’t my understanding make some sense? People doing and not doing these things are neither doomed to do so or not according to whatever values have been instilled in them by their parents, schools or society at large. Rather, they are acting within society under the influence of, among other things, their values, the material conditions they face, etc.

        As a side note, what we miss most of the time in these blogs and comments is any kind of self-analysis of our own position in society. For China outsiders (even those who have lived in China for many years), we cannot transcend our positions as precisely that, no matter how much we try to “live like locals,” as Tom describes in this post. We position ourselves as commentators, which is the ultimate violation of the truth of those things we describe. We tend to understand and/or judge the things we see before us without recognizing that the people we observe do not have access to this privileged standpoint. Put simply, people living their lives do not stand outside of themselves observing themselves and responding appropriately; they merely *do.* I would suggest that the horror and repulsion we justifiably feel is in part produced by our position with respect to the thing we observe. This is natural. The proof of this is our inability to see our home societies for what they are. In China we see injustice and point to lack of religion or values. At home, Canada for me, we see injustice and call it laziness, failure to take advantage of opportunity etc.

        Anyway, I’ve gone on for too long and I’m afraid I haven’t made some of these points very well. Suffice to say I’m far more optimistic about China than some!

    • Q.E.D. says:

      I believe that material goods, justly earned, are a mark of production, which is a virtue necessary to sustain human life. I all consider having the self-esteem and vision to work for ones own long term material prosperity – as a vehicle to ones own happiness an even higher value. There is no value than self-esteem, which is the confidence to rely on ones own mind (perception of reality), and its only the independent thinkers who’re able to produce the material goods which sustain and enable human life. If an architect makes a fortune designing wonderful buildings for other people, the things he purchases with his money are symbols of his hard work. On the other hand, if no one cared about material goods, there would be no building contracts for the architect and no devices to buy. Is that what you consider preferable?

      If you search through all of your religious texts you’ll find nothing but the opposite of pride (self-esteem) advocated (humility, sacrifice, renouncing desire, duty, etc). Religion holds humans back from achieving their potential as rational beings and certainly is not necessary for a meaningful and rich life of honesty, intimacy, and dedication to truth.

      • Tom says:

        This is an interesting thought, “Religion holds humans back from achieving their potential as rational beings,” given your earlier example of the architect. If you visit any of Europe’s incredible cathedrals, I think you will cede that religion also has the capability of inspiring people to build incredible works, even if it doesn’t lead to material wealth.

        Also, critics are quick to point to the ways religion held back science (e.g. Galileo) but fail to give credit for the role it played in creating the modern university system, and the way it influenced early scientific discoveries in the Arab world.

        Religion isn’t “necessary” to achieve a rich and meaningful life, but for thousands of years, and for millions of people, it has offered an option.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Q.E.D., I think autocorrect has obscured your message at a couple of points, but I have several questions.

        1. Do you mean that production is a virtue?
        2. “There is no value than self-esteem” Do you mean no value OTHER than self-esteem? What does this mean? That there *ought to be* no value other than self-esteem? Isn’t self-esteem a psychological…condition rather than a value?
        3. “only the independent thinkers who’re able to produce” Do you mean create rather than produce? Many factory workers produce things. Do iPods sustain and enable human life?
        4. Architect designs wonderful buildings for other people and purchases things with the money. How to explain those architects that design terrible (e.g. ugly, poor quality, etc.) things that harm people and communities but are still are able to buy many nice things. What do those goods symbolize?
        5. Are pride and self-esteem opposites? As to the rest of the paragraph, I needs some clarification, because the first and second sentences are flat out contradictory.

      • mrchopstik says:

        A rather Objectivist point of view. I’m sure that Ayn Rand would be proud. :-)

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        What’s next? A treatise on Hayekian principles?

  2. Wetcoaster says:

    …because theocracies are never corrupt or materialistic. No country with religion has ever violated human rights.

    • Joel says:

      Human beings violate human rights, and they are either enabled or hindered by the reigning ideologies of the day. Not all ideologies are created equal in this regard. Having a reigning ideology that enables or even encourages vice (materialism, corruption, etc.) and disregard for human rights, and having to pursue vice and perpetuate abuse in spite of one’s reigning ideology are two very different situations. (Having one that provides the intellectual underpinnings of science and human rights so that science and human rights are able to be produced is yet another thing altogether.)

      Also, you write of “religion” as it is a single thing. It’s not. That category is a gross over-simplification and grouping of multiple, categorically different phenomenon. I don’t believe it actually exists, except in people’s minds. But if you insist on using that ideologically biased category, then let’s go ahead and quantify and compare human rights abuses in “religious” and officially unreligious countries. And while we’re at it, let’s compare their respective positive contributions as well. And let’s give countries “with religion” a handicap: we’ll total their unnatural deaths for the last 2000 years, and compare that to “unreligious” countries’ 20th century totals.

      I’m not defending “religion” (I don’t believe there is such a thing). But I’m tired of seeing this kind of simplistic propaganda not getting called out.

      • Joel says:

        ha – “phenomena.”

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        To tell the truth, Joel, my own understanding of ideology is different from what you’ve written here. If I’m reading you right, your conception is a neutral one, i.e., ideologies are multiple and competing. I prefer a negative conception, i.e., ideologies are those bodies of thought that bring about, maintain, or extend relations of domination, exploitation, exclusion, etc. The problem with the neutral conception is that it makes it hard to choose between right and wrong based on reality, yes, the often unpopular reality. Which leads to a second point about the negative conception that is very helpful. Using this conception we are able to distinguish between what is done (e.g., regulation that favours corporate colonization of public goods) and how it is justified or masked (in my e.g., calls for deregulation). So, we have the desired goal (e.g., a private corporate monopoly over water distribution) and the justifying ideology (efficiency through the market). Trying to apply the distinction to the discussion of China, we might look at reality (privatization of benefits of public services – see rent-seeking of public school headmasters) and ideology (“decentralization” in favour of “local control”).

        I’m not sure how appropriate this response is to this particular discussion on this topic. I’ll leave it to you and the others to decide that. Hopefully Meryl doesn’t give me a failing grade!

  3. xl says:

    @ California Kid, I strongly disagree. I really don’t think that materialism and religion have such a clear cut relationship. If anything, people tend to cherry-pick through their religion to fit their personal priorities (I’ve seen Christians alternate between Baptist or Methodist churches on the same street based on which preacher’s message they liked more.)
    I think China’s materialism is more tied to human psychology. China for the past century has been quite a poor country with most of its people deprived of basic needs. My parents grew up in the 60s and 70s without electricity or indoor pumping in their homes. Even when I was little, we still had to use liang-piao (food ration tickets). To go from that recent history of material deprivation to the present day sensory overload, it’s like setting a starving person loose in an all-you-can-eat buffet but not telling him how long the food will be there. How can you expect him to show restraint or moderation?
    In the West, people have been materially fulfilled for so long that it’s understandable why they’d be baffled or disdainful of the gaucherie of Chinese people hyperventilating over LV handbags and stockpiling designer watches like they’re at Costco. This isn’t to say Westerners aren’t materialistic (hello, Kardashians?) but they’re simply on a higher playing ground: being able to own an iPhone, a car, designer clothes, and various “bling” doesn’t make you special because anyone can go buy it, anywhere. China just hasn’t reached that level where ordinary people have the means and access to those things, so being seen in designer labels carries a much more significant social prestige. Owning a Western brand shows that 1)you can afford it, 2) you can afford traveling to Beijing/Shanghai/HK or abroad to buy it, or 3)you’re connected to someone abroad who bought it for you.
    Furthermore, China’s social/economic/political society is very unstable, subject to the whimsies of the government and their ever-changing policies. What this means is that people don’t know what to save for or plan for, so it makes a lot of sense that people are relying on tangible items for comfort and security. I think if/when the wealth gap narrows and most people can afford/have access to basic luxuries, then the glaring materialism of China today will gradually dissipate.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I agree with much of what you’ve said, xl. The only part I would add to is your final paragraph. If China does reach a level where there is, say, a reasonable minimum income level, there will still likely be a high level of inequality. In a future society where most people can buy reasonably good quality products, what will emerge is a slightly less obvious consumerism in which consumption-based distinctions between people will be slightly less obvious.

      • xl says:

        Yeah, that’s pretty much like the way the US already is. Not counting rappers and Lady Gaga, the physical difference between someone making $75k and $1million is small. The real difference in income is presented primarily through social influence/ network/ opportunities and zip code.
        However, not to undermine my earlier point, I wonder if materialism (esp emphasis on name-brands) has anything to do with Asian culture. Chinese tourists abroad may be buying 5 LV purses for their friends&family, but I’ve definitely noticed a significant percentage of Asian-Americans (especially Korean) place a similar non-subtle emphasis on being seen with designer labels.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Oops. Just realized that my last sentence is a tad repetitious. I meant to say, “In a future society where most people can buy reasonably good quality products, what will emerge is a consumerism in which consumption-based distinctions between people will be slightly less obvious.”

    • @xl – I totally agree with your comment. I wasn’t trying to bash the Chinese people in my comment but to expose the fact that the people at the top (PRC) are not people who pray for a better country or have any belief in a god nor do many of the Chinese citizens. This is not a bad thing nor a good thing, just a fact. I am very aware that westerners are also caught up in materialism which is where the Chinese got the fever from, so to speak. Any culture would react the same after not having much for so long. What’s happening here in China is not an anomaly of any sort, just something new to observe.

  4. Lorin Yochim says:

    I see what you mean, xl. Reading my own post again, I realize I didn’t make the point well. What I mean to say is that consumption-based distinctions are made in a more subtle or perhaps even a more complex manner as consumerism becomes the dominant orientation of the society as a whole. Perhaps it’s not that non-Asian segments of American society aren’t using consumer goods to make social distinctions (who would make such a foolish claim?), but that the availability of many more consumerist sub-cultures allows people to distinguish themselves by not only what they choose to consume but also what they choose not to consume. On the other hand, maybe in our haste to condemn those LV bag buying tourists we’re missing the point. Aren’t we simply objecting to a kind of vulgarity in these consumer acts? To do so isn’t really to object to materialism/consumerism per se, but rather to consumption of a certain kind. It’s sort of like saying, “tut tut! You shouldn’t be so obvious about your aspirations to be a connoisseur of fine wine. After all, craft beer is where it’s at!”

  5. MAC says:

    Tom, I believe you’re confusing two types of “materialism”- 唯物主義- the kind that the CCP prefers to religion- and 物質主義- the religion of the LV-coveting hordes.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for that point, I realized that the original sentence was left open to both meanings, and hope this revised one better shows my thoughts.
      I think in name the CCP promotes 唯物主義 but in reality their interest lies in 物質主義. A close study of 唯物主義 could suggest that the Party has actually abandoned most of these principles, and are now the ones oppressing the masses.

  6. SteveLaudig says:

    certain apes in every culture love sparklies. Bling is ‘evidence’ rather than ‘crime’. These bling apes are confused about existence but they provide a marvelous, if at times repellent, circus. There is nothing more laughable than a crashed Lamborghini or a bling ape in outrage over having purchased a ‘fake’ VuitVersaRol something. They are unfree and unloved as things don’t love you back. but one shouldn’t preach.

  7. caisara@inbox.com says:

    Xl, I’m not sure it has to do with poverty so much as face. The only places you see displays of wealth in America similar to China’s are LA and the fashion district of NY, and the reason why is because they’re in the entertainment industry where appearance counts as much as it does in China — and for similar reasons. I think this is also why you see a similar emphasis on brand names in Korea and Japan. The problem is further entrenched by the fact that Chinese people think what they see about America on tv is real.

    I suggest you read The Millionaire Next Door by T. Stanley. In America, the majority of millionaires do not flaunt their wealth. They’re like Warren Buffet — not Kim Kardasion. That is, they own three bedroom houses in Omaha (not mansions in LA), buy old Fords (not new BMWs), they buy handbags on sale at Target (not Louis Vuitton). Why? Because, outside the entertainment industry, people just don’t care very much about appearance. Real Americans care about competence.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      caisara@inbox.com: I agree with you. I think that it is more about mianzi than poverty. I think that Tom already recommended the book you suggest and I intend to read it. However, as an old Brit, I already subscribe to rejecting displays of conspicuous wealth. I know that poverty in UK cannot be equated with poverty in China. My Chinese teacher has a mother my age living in Chengdu who well remembers the hunger of living through The Great Leap Forward. But I was aged 8 before rationing of food in Britain finally ceased (in mid 1950′s) because Britain was pretty well bankrupt after World War 2. In UK it was “Make do and mend” culture (which Tom so admires in China) as we did not have the food and consumer goods available post war in USA. Many Brits have a real distaste for “showing off” with materialism and I don’t just mean “old gits” like me. Also, UK like China, is largely a secular society and religion plays no active part in most people’s lives here, although British society still endorses Christian values. However, one big difference between China and UK is the education system, which here encourages self reflection and individuality. My Chinese teacher’s 13 year old daughter has blossomed in her Scottish school in less than 2 years here. She has become feisty and challenging. The school system in Chengdu is just a bad dream now and because she is better able to express herself on a daily basis, her self esteem has risen. A person with good self esteem may enjoy a few luxury items but they can live without them.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I think you’re barking up the right tree by bringing in mianzi. Still, I’m really surprised that we are not discussing “flaunting” in light of what I would suggest is a far more common phenomenon in China: the concealment of wealth. Of course it’s true that there is an awful lot of conspicuous consumption in China. But it’s equally true that this is not the dominant orientation in Chinese society. Flashing “wealth” about rests rather uneasily alongside the practice of not letting others know what you have. If we are not aware of this, perhaps it’s because our eyes are too much drawn to shiny things.

      Also, much of the “flaunting of wealth” we observe is not a demonstration of wealth so much as a desire to be seen as wealthy. As to Warren Buffet, he is “flaunting” precisely that thing that will gain him the most esteem in the milieu he identifies with. Good on him; we are all thus motivated.

      • mrchopstik says:

        Does “flaunting” include the persistent questions about how much money you earn? In my own (limited) experience, this is pervasive among those who both conspicuously “flaunt” and those who do not. I would go on but, ooooh, look, a shiny…

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I believe so, mrchopstik, but I have to get back to my shiny flatscreen tv.

  8. When I started to read Westerners’ comments about China’s city life a few months ago, it has been several times when I read the same comment, that is, “China corrupted me”. It might because of materialism, prostitution (or one night stand), or other stuff that are widespread in today’s China. As a Chinese, in fact, I’m kinda surprised that there are still people in the countryside who are not dragged into the spiral of materialism, since supposedly rural population is also strongly affected by the urbanization of counties and cities. After coming to the U.S. and seeing America’s situation two years ago, I’m not surprised that Americans and other Westerners who experienced relatively high living standard will also be corrupted by China. The level of materialism in China is much much higher than that in the U.S. In fact, this roar of materialism and the maybe related lost of morality in China is a hot issue in China’s internet, I think.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Good points, L.O. Still, perhaps you’ve mistaken what you see as a lower level of materialism in the U.S. (from here on, substitute Canada for U.S. as you see fit) for what is actually a far higher penetration of materialism (consumerism would be a better word, think). One of the things missing from the religion/values discussion here is the fact that much religious practice in the U.S. has become an act of pure consumption. Dissatisfied with shiny plastic goods, they turn to the consumption of a myriad of alternatively packaged religious goods. Alternatively, they turn to Apple products, not as goods in themselves, but as a pseudo-religious objects for which the recently deceased techno-creator is thanked and praised. But, alas, perhaps I argue against myself at this point.

      • Joel says:

        That’s an important observation, I think. Americans are expert consumers, and they typically, as their default mode, approach most aspects of life (relationships, ideas, products) as consumers, including church. That goes a long way to understanding Americans (and Canadians, but Americans do it better), thought as a blanket statement it only goes so far. The strongest and most insightful critics of “religious consumerism” are, of course, American Christians who take their Christianity seriously and are trying to subordinate their Americanness to their Christianness.

        Materialism and consumerism are topics in which it’s really easy to lambast Chinese and American cultures.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        An important addition to my argument, Joel. I agree about the critics. Excess, of course, always generates a surplus of criticism as this comments section demonstrates.

  9. Joel says:

    I think it’s interesting that Tom posts about materialism in China when the Christmas season is officially beginning (at American Thanksgiving), but I don’t mean that he shouldn’t, or that he doesn’t have a legitimate point. While I personally deliver scathing comments about Western materialism every year around Christmastime, and see many parallels between China and our own countries (last time was comparing Santa and the Chinese God of Wealth), I think it’d be a mistake to ignore the significant differences in the way materialism plays out in various cultural contexts, as if it were all 差不多。 Materialism is huge in many of our countries, but China does do it “with Chinese characteristics” that are worth noting, I think.

    • Tom says:

      Thank you Joel, this is an important clarification. It’s not necessarily important to debate whether China is more materialistic or less materialistic than the US/UK/Canada, instead what is interesting is how rapid this shift has come in the face of years of communist propaganda. That the repression of materialism, seems in many ways to cause it to flourish in disturbing ways at later date.
      Perhaps it would be more useful to look at post-soviet Russia, and observe that even though the Orthodox church has returned, the pursuit of material goods seems similar to what is happening in Shanghai (but I have an extremely limited understanding of Russia, and will turn it back over to you guys).

      • Joel says:

        Right. If one person’s sitting splashing in the mud, and another is rolling in it, they’re not the same but it’s silly to argue over who’s dirtier. The rise of materialism in China is really interesting in its own right, regardless of the West. I think there’s a lot to be learned about human nature in that story.

      • As a person who experienced both cultures (just as you guys did), one difference between the U.S. and China’s materialism is the utility of the product that people perceive. In the U.S. when people rush to buy something they usually think that product is useful to them. But in China when people rush to buy something, especially the luxury goods, they normally think, if they don’t have it, it’s a shame to them. Why it’s a shame? Because people around them have it, and if they don’t have it, it’s an embarrassment. If we ask another question: Why it’s an embarrassment? The reason might be that it shows that they are poor; it shows that they can’t afford it. So it’s a shame; it’s an embarrassment. For example, iPhone is such a product in China that people buy it not because they really need all the functions of iPhone, but because it’s an expensive cellphone. You can change the product to Chanel handbags or Cartier jewelries in the example, it is the same logic. Of course, some Americans also buy expensive things because those show their social status and wealth. But I think it’s still very different in China. I tend to say that the rush to luxury goods is more widespread and embodies in a more disturbing form in China than in the U.S., even though I fully aware that’s just my intuition but a statistical fact.

      • Tom says:

        This is a really interesting point. Of my Chinese friends with iPhones, I don’t see many of them doing more than surfing the web or taking photos of themselves. It might be a very slight difference, but an interesting one none the less.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        “In the U.S. when people rush to buy something they usually think that product is useful to them. ”

        I think you have something in the concept of shame, L.O., but with your sentence above, we have to make a distinction or work with a broader conception of “use value.” In order to tease out the distinction, we could ask “useful to them in what ways”? What we see in the advanced capitalist countries is not less distinction through consumption but, in fact, a highly advanced state of active social differentiation based on the consumption of everything from donuts to cell phones to cars. Do people go to Starbucks instead of Tim Horton’s simply because the coffee is better there? Is McDonald’s going “uptown” simply to highlight the use value of their coffee as a way to get caffeine to the bloodstream? If there is something different about China in this regard, it is not that people are more concerned to appear rich, but that the lack of price differentiation among high quality goods available in the market mitigates against people making the kind of fine class/status distinctions seen in the U.S. I’d also speculate that revolutionary or egalitarian thought is still far more powerful in China than in the U.S.

      • Lorin, your point about the “highly advanced state of active social differentiation based on the consumption ” is very interesting and probably correct. It is quite true that in China many people with mid-to-low income rush to buy the luxury goods with their disproportionally low salaries. Of course, they have to use little money everyday and save up their salaries for months in order to do that. You are also probably correct that this might be the result of the revolutionary or egalitarian thought, since they are truly strong forces embodies in Chinese’s minds, consciously or unconsciously. But there might be other reasons as well. In fact, East Asia is marked by this type of behavior as a whole. For examples, Japan is the largest luxury market in the world for many years (followed by the U.S. and China); and one-fourth of the women in Seoul, South Korea have done plastic surgeries to certain degree (according to one NYT story). People’s pride or vanity may be just too high in this area of the world. Or maybe I’m just too hard on my own country, just like many Americans tend to have more harsh and cynical opinions on the U.S.

  10. Lorin Yochim says:

    No disagreement on your speculations, although we ought to remember that industrial scale plastic surgery originates in the U.S., which should remind us of the role of capital and markets in creating the kind of desires you’re talking about. I guess we could speculate that there is some kind of elective affinity that results in the mad dash to plastic surgery or luxury goods in East Asia. I’m very hesitant, however, to say that there is some innate vanity at play. Also, your point about being hard on your own country is a good one. As a non-Chinese, however, I’m extremely hesitant to use that very Chinese self-criticism to ground my own observations, as many commenters here do. Self-criticism and criticism of others are two different things, I’d say. The latter ought, at the very least, to follow far behind the former.

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  12. @Lorin Yochim,

    To tell the truth, Joel, my own understanding of ideology is different from what you’ve written here. If I’m reading you right, your conception is a neutral one, i.e., ideologies are multiple and competing. I prefer a negative conception, i.e., ideologies are those bodies of thought that bring about, maintain, or extend relations of domination, exploitation, exclusion, etc.

    I wasn’t using the term in any tightly-defined, formal sense; “prevailing ideas” or “worldview” or “meta-narrative” would be interchangeable… mostly because I’m still searching for a satisfactory term that doesn’t imply the “religion” category, which I see as very poor categorization (though I still use it in certain contexts just for convenience). Rather than take a stand (neutral or negative), I’d just say that ideas and groups of ideas are usually a mixed bag, but some are more a more positive or negative mix than others.

    So essentially what each of us meant by ideology was quite different. But your comments about taking a negative view of ideology remind me of a intercultural studies issue between those who see culture as neutral and those who see it as inherently negative (i.e. enabling vice more than virtue, etc. I’m not much personally invested in that debate, but my leanings have shifted slightly over time.)

    Hopefully Meryl doesn’t give me a failing grade!

    Grades in comments (to me, anyway) always just meant “Like” or “ding”. Everyone’s evaluating what’s said anyway — might as well own up to it. :)

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      顶!Thanks for the tip on the debate around culture in intercultural studies. I’m not familiar with that. Another interesting take on “culture” (from Sociology) comes from Margaret Archer in her book Culture and Agency.

  13. Pingback: “Materialism in modern China” | The China Hotline

  14. “He who knows when enough is enough, always has enough” Lao Tsu
    So, when is enough, enough? I started to read this post hoping to have some insight into the goings on in China today, other than the usual media depictions of the nouveau riche of Shanghai. And, as interesting as the discussion was, I felt like I was observing the old parable of the six blind men and the elephant. I seem to have fallen into some contemporary university discussion, which has avoided any mention of traditional Chinese religious or spiritual practice.
    We have to keep in mind that China’s “official religion”, which is some mutant variant of dialectic materialism is kept in place by state violence and brutal repression. Particularly in the case of Falun Gong, which is a variant of chi gong which entails elements of Buddhism and Taoism.
    At one time there were an estimated 100 million practitioners, ranging from factory workers and peasant to members of the Party.
    The government crack-down has been continuing with reports of wide scale organ harvesting, torture, and so forth. Now, I supposed one could say that this is an ideological war, since, after talking to a former Red Guard, Chairman Mao had a particular aversion to Taoism, and it was taught in the schools that because of a Taoist emperor, China was overrun and occupied. Since, ultimately, the ideology of capitalism and communist are based on certain western notions of material progress that are not really much different. All this hair splitting over the advantages of Brit individualism or the reasons why Chinese seek status through their possessions as opposed to Westerners seems to be part of the narcissistic mindset that is a product of a society which is out of touch with both “heaven and earth”, in the Taoist sense.
    In the village I grew up in, the rich Wasps, not that much poorer than the Warren Buffets, all shopped at Goodwill. And I saw local millionaires, who became billionaires after the Reagan/Bush ascension, scrounging at the local landfill for scrap lumber. They disdained conspicuous consumption, not because they were less materialistic, but because they were busily adding to their piles,
    Getting back to the original thread, I think that it might be helpful if people acquainted themselves with Chinese spiritual practices, and keep in mind that, as was shown here in the police crackdown of the Occupy Movement, that in both China and the US and much of the world right now, the status quo, whether going by the name of neo-liberalism or communism, is maintaining itself through brutal violence aimed against the millions, maybe billions, who simply want to live in peace and harmony with their fellow humans, and the earth. So, let me humbly end with another quote from Lao Tsu-
    “I confess that there is nothing to teach: no religion, no science, no body of information which will lead your mind back to the Tao. Today I speak in this fashion, tomorrow in another, but always the Integral Way is beyond words and beyond mind. Simply be aware of the oneness of things. ”
    ________________________________________

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Here, here, doug winspear. Perhaps you could discuss the significance of religious practice rather than just hinting at it. If you poke around the blog you’ll find that laowai, for the most part, tend to believe that there is next to no religious practice and belief, perhaps because they don’t find a revival tent in the park, or maybe because they see temples as tourist attractions. Also, you seem to be hinting at a Weberian analysis. More please. As to the disdain conspicuous consumption, I believe that I tried to make the point above that Chinese, in fact, by and large eschew the kind of showiness that posters here find distasteful and are, furthermore, among the best savers/accumulators in the world at the moment. Finally, while I totally agree with your assessment of status quo/protest/violence in the world at large, you’ll find yourself for the most part pissing into the wind in these parts. Most here see China as unique in everything that happens there.

  15. Pingback: Chinese Etiquette, Behavior, & Habits: Is the Chinese population becoming increasingly materialistic? - Quora

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