It was quite a surprise when I began my Chinese teaching career in 2005. Of course there were numerous students wearing the ubiquitous T-shirt and jeans and sneakers, though nothing was ever frumpy or frayed. Chinese people as a general rule prefer tighter clothing than Westerners, so T-shirts and jeans were never loose or baggy. But I was very surprised to see what looked like a fashion parade streaming in and out of classrooms.
Chinese campuses are filled with guys with explosive anime-influenced hairstyles, dangling earrings, and emo/punk/metrosexual clothes. You rarely see someone full-out punk or goth, but there are subdued versions everywhere one looks.
I must admit that as a young single guy in 2005, the female students were quite a sight to behold. On any given day, at least 25% of female students in China will be wearing heels, and when the weather warms up, there are miniskirts, hot pants, and super-high-cut shorts in abundance, and these aren’t just the open, Westernized students. Everyone’s dressed like this. Translucent dresses, mesh shirts, bizarre stockings, go go boots are also spotted from time to time. Girls’ hairstyles are very well-maintained and well-suited for their faces or fashions. You will rarely see girls carrying backpacks as well. They almost always carry purses or handbags. About a third of the students look like they’re going out for a night on the town, but in reality they’re just going to math class.
This is a long-standing tradition in Chinese culture: appearance is very important. Food should not only taste good, it should look good. Characters should be written with grace and precision. People, especially girls, should try to look as beautiful as they can. Unlike the West, if a girl shows up to class looking all made up, people will look at her scornfully: “Who are you trying to impress?” Likewise if a guy subscribes to a particular fashion style, he will be labeled and judged. Of course, jealousy and gossip exists in China, but if a pretty girl walks around campus looking pretty, people will simply say, “There goes a pretty girl,” and think nothing else of it. I suppose fashionable students escape condescension because there are so many fashionable students, that it’s actually the norm rather than the exception. In China, it’s hard to distinguish oneself because the society is so damn crowded, so people are looking to stand out in any way that they can. And for the girls, there’s the added pressure to find Mr. Right while their hotness is at its peak, though fortunately Chinese girls’ hotness lasts a long time ;-). The student fashion industry is massive in China, as it is in most Asian countries, and it all boils down to cultural perceptions and attitudes.
*Disclaimer: I teach at an expensive private university, so the students I teach have a bit more family money than students from other schools, but I’ve also taught in rural-area schools and the fashionable instances are less numerous but still quite abundant. And honestly, I appreciate this mentality. It’s shallow to think that appearance is everything but being in China keeps me motivated to keep myself well-groomed. I was a bit of a hippie/punk back in the States, and while I still sport the goatee and tattoos, I keep my clothes and shoes in good shape. Looking good helps people maintain a positive image about themselves and about the world around them, as long as it doesn’t morph into contempt for the “ugly people.” Chinese people are masters of makeup and fashion and even the plainest Jane can look pretty nice with a few minutes of work, and I’ve come to realize how non-exclusive beauty really is. Western people are so obsessed with looking good because it’s harder for them to achieve this. In China, everyone can and often does look good, and while this shouldn’t be one’s purpose in life, it doesn’t hurt either.