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Beauty And Its Perceptions: A Deep Dive Into China’s Current Social Media Landscape
Today’s social media scene makes it difficult, especially for young people, to remember what life was like prior to the continuous influx of opinions on the internet. Social media often showcases people’s best sides, shaping our understanding of beauty. We scroll through images, ads and article daily, intaking a saturated pool of visual stimulations, It is this way in the US, and so is it in China.
Originally published on US-China Today on August 9, 2020. Written by Apple Jin.
The Social Media Scene in China
China’s internet firewall blocks the majority of foreign social networks including US giants such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. China uses WeChat and microblogging platforms (Sina Weibo is the largest). With 1 billion and 430 million users monthly respectively, these two applications dominate the Chinese social media scene. However, the firewall can be challenged, with many Chinese internet users accessing foreign platforms through a VPN, virtual private network software.
With combined access to mainly Instagram, WeChat and Weibo, young Chinese people have a unique online culture, drawing elements and inspiration from a global source. Chinese influencer culture as well as beauty standards thus have continued to evolve rapidly.
Influencers create visual and textual content across many platforms, with the common goal to engage their audience; nowadays, they shape most if not all of today’s virtual and real-life trends. A much-anticipated movie or album release may be preceded by waves of online influencer promotion, while many young people also look to influencers for fashion and lifestyle inspiration. Influencers, especially those with larger follower bases, are then well paid to endorse products.
Emily Chee and Zoey ZYi are two examples of Chinese influencers with substantial numbers of followers. Emily is a model and an actress based in Shanghai, China. She is mainly active on Instagram and Weibo, sharing her work and photos from her daily life. To Emily, social media is a portal to receive and communicate information, and through her Internet presence, her main goal is to communicate a message.
Zoey is a rising senior in high school, also based in Shanghai. She is a lifestyle blogger and vlogger who earns some income (Zoey did not disclose a specific number) from her content. Roughly two years ago, she uploaded a few vlogs like some of the upperclassmen she knew at school, and one of her videos, a one-day vlog, blew up, receiving 300,000 views. She finds inspiration from popular YouTube vloggers like Summer McKeen and Ellie Thumann. Depending on the circumstances, she will most likely discontinue her content once she goes to college, because vlogging takes up “too much of her time.”
Chinese Influencer Culture
KOLs curate media attention and essentially guide Internet users’ decision making. This mode of instantaneous delivery of information has swayed 72 percent of Chinese companies to continue dedicating a majority of their attention to online marketing. A catchy title, bold graphics and the familiar face of an online personality are more than enough to gain traction from the Chinese public and persuade them to buy certain products/services.
Online content creators, however, don’t always have the privilege of a positive environment. Zoey shares that negative comments drove her to deleting one of her first vlogs. “A lot of people like to dig into content creators’ personal lives,” she says, which sometimes can be irritating: “We’re not obligated to share every aspect of our lives.”
Nowadays, many content creators end up halting their online presence because of the hate they receive from netizens. Many of them, like Zoey, simply want to share meaningful aspects of their lives to connect with their followers, but end up feeling attacked by the lack of privacy and respect from their audience.
For an example, Zoey brings up Austin Li (李佳琪), a popular Chinese beauty blogger. After being seen smoking a cigarette, Austin received vicious attacks towards his character from many forms of online media. “It isn’t illegal and neither is it a crime for an adult to smoke in public,” Zoey comments, “but many public accounts continue to condemn his behavior.” Content creators in China constantly face similar sensitivity from the public. This issue illustrates the dilemmas public figures often face: while they benefit from popularity, their personal space is often violated by inspections of their private lives.
Differences Between Social Media Platforms
Launched by media company Sina Corporation in 2009, Weibo is similar to Twitter. Within a limit of 170 characters, Weibo users express information and opinions in the most succinct manner possible. Verified accounts such as news outlets, organizations and celebrities often have a substantial follower base, while posts from ordinary people sometimes go viral.
Emily says her fanbase on Weibo drastically differs from that of Instagram. While her Instagram account mostly contains Chinese-American fans, Chinese study-abroad students or friends of friends, her Weibo following is more public. “Weibo seems more commercial [than Instagram], and the statistics can be of little value,” she says.
Popularity on Weibo can be manipulated through monetary means. Similar to Instagram, you can pay to have your posts promoted. Furthermore, Weibo places numerous regulations: in terms of traffic, if an account does not have much existing value, users have a hard time gaining recognition without paying. Weibo is subject to censorship and a user can offend people who will then attack them. “Fen Qing” (愤青), translated to “Angry Young Men,” are prevalent on Weibo. These polarized internet users portray an irrational, illogical, stubborn, jingoistic and often violent image, and are often disliked by the public.
“[On Weibo], you’re risking a lot,” Emily comments.
On the other hand, WeChat is similar to Facebook’s Chinese counterpart. Users can create private chats and group chats, post personal updates within their group of friends, and receive public content from “official accounts.” Businesses use these accounts to self-promote and content-creators can publish their work for their fanbase. Zoey writes prose and posts about her daily thoughts on her “official account.”
Xiaohongshu (小红书), also known as RED, is another emerging social media app. Its metamorphosis deviates from all other popular platforms in China. Originally intended to take on the form of simple blogs that allow anyone to share their quality purchases from around the world, RED has now become a space saturated with emerging influencers and a marketplace for many sought-after products from the posts. According to Emily, RED benefits most from FMCG, or fast-moving consumer goods.
What Catches Users’ Eyes?
Catchy titles, bold graphics and familiar faces. “Wang Hong” (网红) and “Wang Hong Da Ka” (网红打卡) are the two most popular terms in social media advertisement in China. Interestingly, there is no English equivalent. Their closest translations include “Internet celebrity,” and “take influencer-esque snaps.” Titles, especially, of online advertisements will include these phrases to promote their product, event, or business.
To Zoey, these phrases “began as symbols of popularity and aesthetic but have started to have a negative connotation.” Emily agrees and thinks this is all a “capitalist effort”: although most people don’t understand what these phrases entail physically and visually (if they have much meaning to begin with at all), they will blindly follow whatever the phrase promotes.
Another newer term is “Ins风,” (风 pronounced as “feng”) which translates to “Instagram style.” This is a vague term that describes an Internet aesthetic for clothing, accessories, color combinations, store fronts.
“Ins风” centers on a clean, refreshing, fashionable, and minimalistic style, Zoey explains. Specifically, it oftne includes greenery, English words, marble print, etc. This indeed seems consistent with the Instagram aesthetics we are familiar with, from brand promotion to elements of influencer posts.
According to Zoey, if anything has “Ins风” in its description, the product or whatever subject being promoted will have heightened value, and will most likely be “not as cheap.”
Emily believes this term, too, is part of the general Internet culture, that is immediately accepted by the majority. “It’s kind of like a catchy song,” she explains. This play on Instagram culture is foreign yet made easily attainable by Chinese social media users, thus gaining traction on many platforms. The bottom line? Influencers love to use this term to attract network traffic.
On Rising Standards
A decade ago, we appreciated small, blurry pictures of food and hazily filtered selfies on Instagram here in the US, and on Weibo and WeChat in China. Today, we would most likely scroll through those without paying much attention, because we are more attracted to beautifully edited pictures that give us more aesthetic pleasure.
In China, many may recall that in 2017, Casio sold significantly overpriced “selfie cameras” for $900 that “enhanced” users’ physique with manipulating filters. Selfies generated from this camera were regarded as “beautiful” then but are now seen as artificial. We see fewer and fewer filters that dramatically alter our features, yet we still look for a certain “aesthetic.”
As a model and actress whom many look up to, Emily forecasts a positive future regarding the overwhelming conformity to beauty standards. “I think nowadays, more and more young Chinese people have started to develop a personal understanding of ‘beauty’,” she says. She believes there is a growing trend of a unique appreciation for aesthetics.
Looking into the Future
Social media culture undergoes change daily. We take in more information than we can sometimes process in the form of photographs, words, videos and hybrids of multiple elements. We filter opinions and express our own at the same time. Key opinion leaders or not, our simplified goal is to be heard and noticed.
Influential social media users like Emily and Zoey have their own original understanding of the platforms they utilize and the audience they target. In our smaller friend circles, we do the same. Many of us post photographs we hope conveys something about ourselves. We curate our feeds. Are we sharing? Are we trying to influence how others see us?
Chinese influencer culture and ever-evolving beauty standards find inspiration from American social media. Repeated catchphrases draw consumer traffic and compel users to present themselves in a loosely outlined manner, although the phenomenon is difficult t explain.
Emily and Zoey agree on some levels that Chinese influencer culture stands in an unstable environment that can be toxic and easily forgotten. Although we cannot predict the exact future, it is fair to anticipate change. Perhaps KOLs will see drastic increases in income, or perhaps one day, this newfound industry will cease to exist.
One thing is for sure: internet users with large followings will continue to shape the way we perceive visual content. What we recognize as “pretty” and “attractive” will always continue to evolve.
The USC U.S.-China Institute hosted a panel discussion to look at the biases and discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans, the resistance to it, the role America’s relationships with Asia play in shaping perceptions, and trends in Asian American political participation.
Please join the USC U.S.-China Institute for an online panel discussion on the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast and Central Asia.