China’s New Crop of Hedonists Indulge Themselves, Whether Or Not They Can Afford It

Ma Nuo, a contestant on a Jiangsu dating show, became infamous in 2010 for declaring that she would “rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle”. Outraged netizens took her comments as fresh evidence that China’s new rich had sacrificed inner fulfillment for the fleeting pleasures of material wealth.

But, in fact, many upwardly mobile Chinese fall somewhere in the middle, chasing personal fulfillment and consumer gratification with equal abandon.

The so-called xiaozi (小资) are a distinctly Chinese urban tribe that occupies a space somewhere between the yuppies and hipsters familiar to Westerners. A short list of xiaozi accoutrements includes coffee, Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, French cuisine, the Houhai neighborhood in Beijing, European films, Apple computers, the city of Shanghai and adidas – though a real xiaozi would never admit to their addictions so bluntly.

Sipping latte in a Chaoyang Starbucks, Beijing native Wei Yuan explains the xiaozi ideal to me as it applied to her 33-year-old friend: “Her life is so xiaozi. She’s single, her house is full of art and she travels abroad to buy foreign things.”

At the next table, a group of three men in their 30s gathered around an iPad for a meeting, but each tapped furiously on their own iPhone 4s. Wei told me her friend worked in public relations – a very xiaozi profession. “Sometimes she says, ‘No, I’m not a xiaozi,’ but it’s precisely her lifestyle, I think.”

What makes these xiaozi different from China’s rising middle class?

According to Helen Wang, who interviewed members of both groups for her book The Chinese Dream, many Chinese “associate the middle class with houses and cars, and xiaozi with candlelight dinners and a glass of wine.”

Xiaozi, it seems, like to spend money on high-sensation experiences like travel and fine meals. They may also indulge their penchant for sleek consumer gadgets and well-crafted fashion accessories.

One person told me that the typical xiaozi salary is anywhere from 5,000 yuan ($794, 612 euros) to 20,000 yuan a month, but that living the xiaozi life is more about attitude than earning power.

In a society where memories of scarcity are none too distant, xiaozi live for the present. Many Chinese people see home ownership as the mark of an eligible bachelor, but xiaozi regard such notions with disdain. As real estate prices skyrocket, they prefer to rent and spend any extra cash on escapes to Yunnan province or foreign-language novels and DVDs.

Such choices may be individually fulfilling, but the “live it up” mentality of the xiaozi provoke concern from older relatives worried about the next generation’s financial future.

“Young people think they’re living in the moment,” says Zhuang Shi, a lifestyle editor in Beijing, “but in older people’s point of view, they are wasting their time and life, because if they’re living in the moment, it means they have no plan for the future.”

Most people I spoke with thought that xiaozi had a negative connotation, but some embrace the term.

“Especially in Beijing, maybe 60 percent of people like being called this,” says Li Ran, a Beijing native who studies economics at Seoul National University. “To be called xiaozi means they have money, but you know, over time so many people used that word in a bad way.”

He turned to his friend, “Actually, she is xiaozi.” The young woman next to him flinched. She was wearing a bright red, puffy coat and blushed as Li spoke approvingly of her white Honda.

Asked what xiaozi meant to her, she says in English, “Enjoy life!”

The term xiaozi came into its current meaning in the 1990s as China’s growing economy permitted new heights of consumer indulgence.

Its origins, however, go back to the days of staunch Communism: xiaozi originally meant “petty bourgeoisie”, a term occupying a specific space in the Marxist theory of class.

The petty bourgeoisie were city dwellers who may have been government functionaries, owners of small businesses, or intellectuals.

Stuck somewhere in between the true capitalist oppressors and the workers, farmers and soldiers who formed the core of the revolution, their status shifted during the early decades of Chinese communism.

“The petty bourgeois writers and artists constitute an important force …” said Mao Zedong in 1942 at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art.

“There are many shortcomings in both their thinking and their works, but, comparatively speaking, they are inclined toward the revolution and are close to the working people.”

Xiaozi today probably have different inclinations. “I think you should leave what Mao said behind,” says Shi, who usually goes by Aviva Shey, her English name. “I think what you want to know about xiaozi is very different from what he meant.”

True, Mao’s ideas about class were based on the way people earned their living, not on taste or lifestyle. But isn’t there some kind of important connection here?

“Well, I choose not to see it,” she tells me. Watching well-heeled shoppers queue for designer cupcakes in the shadow of a massive new Comme des Garcons store in Beijing, it is hard to imagine that a scant 40 years ago, a basic commodity like shampoo might have been denounced as a decadent bourgeois splurge.

And yet, during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) , any hint that someone gained spiritual or emotional fulfillment from material possessions was suspect.

Today’s discussion in China about xiaozi and their supposed flaws reminds me of nothing more than the debates about “hipsters” that circulated in New York City when I lived there. My former neighborhood was called the unofficial capital of hipster America.

It is a place where even the hardware store lends its window to installations by conceptual video artists. Residents are widely mocked for the high price tag of their “countercultural” lifestyle.

Is xiaozi translatable? “Hipster” does not quite work; xiaozi are not particularly countercultural (except that they often pursue an interest in things that are considered “un-Chinese”). “Yuppie”, though dated, seems to be the most accurate English equivalent, but there is an important difference: the typical yuppie can afford the expensive things he buys, while xiaozi are criticized for spending beyond their means.

In the end, it seems the concept of xiaozi is specific to China and we will have to leave it at that.

I ask Shi if she thought she was xiaozi. “I’m not so blind as to chase material things – balance is key,” she says.

Then, quickly, I, like last season’s hottest restaurant, lost her interest. She was off to other things, “Do you have enough material yet? I have to go wash my hair now.”

This article was published in China Daily in May 2012.