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Unlike youth subcultures in the West that celebrate individualism and subversion of the establishment, youth subcultures in contemporary China are drawn to ideas of collectivism and traditional culture

By Guo Chaokai , Ma Shuaisha , Zhang Weiran Updated Aug.1

Young cosplayers at an ACG expo at Happy Valley Theme Park, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, May 1, 2021

Hanfu enthusiasts wear traditional Han clothing at the former residence of Du Fu, the great poet of the Tang Dyansty (618-907), Zhengzhou, Henan Province, May 23, 2021

With the tech-savvy, trend-sensitive creatives of Generation Z at the helm, China’s cyberspace has been thoroughly reshaped by a rainbow of youth subcultures. Unlike previous generations whose social circles were generally formed offline through place of origin, school or occupation, China’s Gen Z (people born between 1995 and 2009) tends to find identity in subcultures where they build bonds with those who share the same interests. This happens almost exclusively online.  

According to the 47th Statistical Report on China’s Internet Development by the China Internet Network Information Center, by December 2020, the number of internet users in China had reached nearly one billion, 46 percent of whom were under 30.  

Youth subcultures are increasingly finding wider audiences and commercial success.  

The worlds of ACG (anime, comics and games) have existed on China’s cultural fringes since their introduction from Japan in the early 1990s. Over the past decade, these subcultures have not only grown but also found a place in mainstream pop culture.  

Video platform Bilibili is central to youth subcultures and their mainstream push. Largely featuring user-generated content, Bilibili was founded in 2010 with a focus on ACG subcultures. In a decade, the platform went from niche audiences to become the country’s largest online hub of youth culture, boasting 15 content sections and more than 7,000 communities. According to statistics from the Beijing-based mobile data analytics firm QuestMobile in 2020, Gen Z accounts for 81.4 percent of Bilibili’s 197 million active users. 

Gufeng, which means “ancient style,” is a unique Chinese youth subculture. It refers to a modern interpretation of ancient styles, including music, fashion, poetry and other arts. Gufeng music is especially popular among Chinese youth, involving original songs written in classical Chinese styles, mostly by amateur musicians. The genre has already caught the ears of the music industry and the public. Many gufeng songs found commercial success, such as “Ronin Pipa,” “Grain in Ear” and “Pipa Song.” In 2016, gufeng track “Big Fish” was the theme song of the animated feature Big Fish & Begonia.  

Another example is the hanfu movement, where Chinese teens and young adults revive the fashions of the majority Han ethnic group that date back to the Han Dynasty (202BCE–220CE). Starting in the 2000s, the subculture has entered the mainstream and the market is huge. According to the forecast by iiMedia Research, hanfu sales in 2021 are expected to reach 10 billion yuan (US$1.5b), with hanfu enthusiasts numbering 6.89 million.  

Sociologist Lian Si, 41, has focused his research on Chinese youth communities and youth culture for two decades. While deputy director of the China Youth & Children Research Center and a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, Lian coined terms based on his research that have since entered the general lexicon.  

In 2009, Lian published the book Ant Tribe, the title referring to the large populations of low-income or unemployed college graduates who inhabit the outskirts of China’s first-tier cities. Well-educated and industrious but underpaid, Lian likened the group to colonies of ants – an “ant tribe.”  

Lian and his team studied groups of young university teachers and scholars who struggle with poverty, low social status and high job pressure. They conducted surveys among 5,138 teachers under 40 in 135 higher education institutions in five Chinese cities. Lian dubbed the group “worker bees,” as they work hard but have very low status.  

In an interview with NewsChina, Lian said: “The relationship subcultures have with contemporary China’s mainstream is one of clash and compromise. But unlike the youth subcultures of the West that value individualism, rebellion and subversion, contemporary youth subcultures in China are increasingly displaying an inclination toward collectivism and a return to traditional values.”  

NewsChina: What do you think of the current landscape of youth subcultures in China? Do they share any characteristics?  

Lian Si: The landscape of youth subcultures in China is constantly becoming richer and more diverse as technology, the economy and society develop. On video-sharing platforms such as Bilibili, the diversity can be overwhelming, from the different fandoms of ACG, fiction, celebrities, film and TV, to more niche areas like Lovecraftian horror, steampunk, cyberpunk and games like Kantai Collection. Behind every popular subculture there is a community of youths who share the same interest.  

In this kaleidoscope of pop phenomena, youth subcultures share prominent characteristics. Teens and young adults love to create their own symbols and language to distinguish their identities and sense of belonging. Also, they desire immersive experiences completely detached from reality, which allows them to release their anxieties and pressures and provides a brief escape from the stresses of real life.  

All in all, contemporary youth subcultures in China no longer manifest an attitude of resistance, but have turned to a manifestation of self – that is to say, they aim to know themselves, express their own identity and pursue their self-worth.  

Beneath these subcultures are shared values. Teens and young adults weave networks online where they chat, have fun, share secrets and build close bonds with strangers.  

NC: What are the forces at play bringing these subculture communities together?  

LS: Youngsters generally have lower standing in society and don’t have a say when it comes to economics, politics and mainstream culture. But they harbor a strong desire to assert and express themselves. So they form different circles based on common interests to make themselves heard and seen.  

Traditionally, groups used to form around family, community, school and occupation, but youth today tend to form bonds through common interests and shared values. Through forming online communities, young people demarcate their own sphere of influence and use distinct subcultural symbols to distinguish themselves from mainstream society.  

A subculture has a binding force on each individual in it. Some youth subcultures have very positive influences on members of their communities. Their creativity and abilities to learn and communicate are greatly enhanced. But it should be noted that some subcultures have a tendency to be insular. This extremism and lack of inclusiveness can intensify within certain subcultures.  

NC: Nowadays more youth subcultures are crossing over into the mainstream in unexpected ways. How are they expanding their influence?  

LS: On the one hand, social, economic and technological developments have boosted the dissemination of youth subcultures, while a more diverse and tolerant social environment provides room for subcultures to develop.  

On the other hand, youth subcultures in China are showing less resistance and increasingly approaching mainstream and traditional cultures. They manage to maintain their own identity while trying to merge into the mainstream. To a degree, they have been influenced by mainstream culture.  

In the meantime, the mainstream also draws inspiration and utilizes the symbols and language of youth subcultures, modifying their rigid and monotonous ways of expression to better relate to youngsters. The mainstream is increasingly borrowing from youth subcultures to deliver mainstream ideology.  

For instance, the 2021 China Central Television Spring Festival Gala included a performance from virtual pop star Luo Tianyi, a Chinese vocaloid [synthesized voice software] that is extremely popular among Chinese youth.  

Therefore, these crossovers are a result of interaction and mutual influence between the mainstream culture and youth subcultures.  

NC: Based on your long-term observations of the “ant tribe” and “worker bees,” why are young people obsessed with subcultures?  

LS: These two groups share a lot in common. Highly educated, they are more critical than other social groups. They attempt to address social inequalities through the power of knowledge. They are a pioneering force in social reforms, with the will to have their voices heard. They hope to improve their environment and realize their selfworth through active participation in society.  

From my observations of the “ant tribe,” “worker bees” and other communities, I’ve discovered that youth subcultures empowered contemporary Chinese youth to discover their own identities and express themselves in creative ways. The mobile internet not only allows them to produce waves of messages and information about themselves almost instantly, but also enables them to immediately find like-minded friends online, become part of a community and be accepted as “one of us.” In this way, their self-identities are reinforced.  

So we find that young people today usually identify according to what subculture they belong to. The circle becomes [as defining as] their ID card.  

NC: What effects have youth subcultures had on China’s mainstream culture?  

LS: China’s youth subcultures have influenced mainstream culture in language, form and mediums. Traditionally, mainstream culture in China uses a rigid, authoritative, propaganda style of language that is unidirectional, monotonous and lacks diverse mediums of communication.  

Subcultures play a significant role in boosting interaction, recognition and community among youngsters. Each field of interest demarcates a patch of real estate on the internet, drawing young people of the same interest to get together, regardless of class, gender, time or distance. 

In the era of the mobile internet, if mainstream culture wants the attention of Gen Z, it has to closely follow the trends of youth subcultures and learn how to reach young people in an effective and fun way. 

Kantai Collection (Fleet Collection) is a Japanese web browser game where one plays as an admiral commanding a fleet of ships. The game is popular with young Chinese gamers

Lian Si