Today, China is enjoying a period of growth towards more experiential and service-driven spending.
The country is encouraging domestic, homegrown brands to spread around the world; and is exercising leadership on key economic issues: at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Xi Jinping advocated against protectionism, reaffirming the established adage that “no one wins in a trade war.”
Next, we see the nation taking an introspective view on what it means to grow as an evolving and mature civilization, connecting with the “China Dream”: an idea that goes far beyond economic or material achievements, towards reestablishing the China cultural trend with a spirit of rejuvenation, vitality, and dignified self-confidence.
Understanding these traditional beliefs is key for the present-day Chinese. As these ideologies have evolved over the past centuries, the link among the Chinese people has remained strong and refreshed itself to meet the demands of the current times.
Specifically highlighted was an important nod towards national pride; the celebration of heritage, ideology, and philosophy were placed alongside the importance of rediscovering one’s roots and cultivating individual character; the preservation of literary arts and traditional craftsmanship was reaffirmed as a top priority.
These cultural reverberations are spreading across the nation.
From a resurgence of traditional poetry to an appreciation of the culinary arts, manifestations of this emphasis on traditional Chinese culture are tangible and increasing, in the popular space through the reach of mainstream media.
In popular programming, a well-known way to expand the reach of China’s traditions, we see younger people from around the country who have grown up in places and times far removed from their cultural roots, hungry to explore these cultural values on a broader scale.
In intellectual games and competitions, we see a “Chinese Renaissance” that permeates multiple aspects of life, encouraging people every day to select their favorite piece of literary work and share it with an audience of hundreds and millions. What used to be a form of recreational content is being expanded upon and extrapolated to include new ways that people in China can test their cultural knowledge against one another.
In the culinary arts, we see shows old and new pointing towards the vast diversity among Chinese dishes and the new focus on health, quality, and sourcing. And in the bourgeoning lifestyles, we see a more thorough appreciation for the profound ideals of healthier living.
Ultimately, an understanding of this cultural knowledge enables us a look at what the future of design in China might be. In this piece, we will lay out three mediums that show a revitalization of traditional Chinese beliefs, and how China cultural trend is embraced by popular culture.
Indeed, this resurgence of traditional values has shown up in the most unexpected of places – mainstream media.
In China, “The China Poetry Competition” is perhaps one of the most profound examples. To viewers and participants, it communicates a strong emotional connection to the art of the spoken word, and Chinese poetry in particular – confirmed by China Daily as “one of the most popular reality shows in China.”
CCTV, the predominant state-broadcast channel viewed by hundreds of millions across the country, is its audience base, reflecting a reach greater than other communication channels. To what can we attribute such a surge in popularity?
Intertwined with the resurgence of traditional values, the show has successfully reached a younger followership: In January, 16 year-old Shanghai student Wu Yishu won the national prize out of 100 people from across the country. “Such a [composed] attitude is very unusual for her age,” praised the show’s director, as Wu’s principle said her success inspired him to “be more aware of the heritage of culture in education work.”
The mindfulness and depth of literature that is brought to the fore through shows like “The China Poetry Competition”, and the new generation of role models like Wu Yishu, points to how China’s Cultural Renaissance is boosting national confidence.
This focus on national literature extends beyond China. “Letters Live”, a live celebration of the “enduring power of literary correspondence”, hosts speakers that read letters aloud from notable icons such as David Bowie, Che Guevara, and Mohandas Ghandi. Emphasizing the important of traditional communication styles, letters are read aloud at grand venues by mystery guest speakers – ranging from Ian McKellen to Benedict Cumberbatch.
One of the most notable things about Chinese cuisine is its vast diversity in origin and taste.
“A Bite of China”, aired five years ago, brought together culinary tastes and cuisines from around 60 different locations within China; behind each dish, there is a story that matches the ingredients to the finished product, shown in a series of 2 series of 7 episodes each.
When it aired in 2012, “A Bite of China” became something of a national sensation, bringing together dozens of different dishes from around the country – it was even shared around the world. At the core of the documentary is a reverence for Chinese food, its abundant forms, and its many flavors.
From the Matsutake Mushroom in the southern regions of Yunnan province, to the Jinhua ham with 1,000+ years of history and a retail price of over $1200 USD, to the Chongqing Hot Pot dishes that summon all dinner guests together: the dishes are varied and unique. The 都市屋顶种菜, or “garden rooftop vegetables”, paints the picture of lush and abundant naturality.
In the five years since, this continues to be realized through modern shows. Chen Li, a consultant for the documentary, was one of the first guests on The FoodTalk – a Ted-like show where speakers from rice farmers to Michelin-starred chefs share their culinary beliefs. Perspectives such as environmental conscientiousness, being true to the ecological system, and adhering to strong distribution channels are all put forward to the audience and around the web.
Global food trends have also been peppered with healthy topics recently. Ayurveda, a traditional Indian mind-body-health system, has grown in popularity worldwide, and restaurants using simple ingredients such as ginger and ghee to balance flavors have even hit the streets of New York City. New vegan cuisine is introducing plant-based meat in dishes from tacos, to burgers, to stir-fry.
Emphasis on healthy living goes beyond just talk shows, and into the very fiber of popular media watching. In 向往的生活, three characters tend to a farm with a set of simple but profound ideals, based on responsibility, self-sufficiency, and warm hospitality. Around China, hundreds of millions tuned in, hearing their aspirations spoken true.
This sentiment is a reflection of what Chinese people hold dear. The recently published “2016 Work Life Status Report” surveyed 209.6 million around the country. From the results, over two-thirds of the people surveyed wish to move away from the monotony of the city life and to a place of agriculture, a place of more natural roots, and a place where subtle beauty is both appreciated and respected.
This is also present beyond popular culture. The demand for organic food in the China market has risen dramatically, with China becoming one of the four largest consumers in the global organic retail market. Healthier sourcing and supplying is not just a consumer behavior, but an economic demand, and a clear purchasing distinction for many Chinese consumers.
In a global landscape, this propensity for nature is palpable. Elemental hospitality is one example: in the Null Stern Hotel, guests can book an open-air double room in the Swiss Alps, with service maintained by a private butler. Retail is experiencing a similar shift, with offline stores – especially stores from technology brands – incorporating customers’ desires for a friendlier, more natural setting.
With such an emphasis placed on China’s traditional cultural values, the question to designers becomes: how can this cultural renaissance be materialized?
As practitioners of identity and experience design, we are interpreters of traditional values, weaving modern-day research practices with a global-oriented mindset to uncover authenticity. We create content that paves the way for new brand experiences and behaviors, shaping the landscapes of contemporary, modern cultures to come.
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