By Jesse Adler and Jing Xuanlin
English article co-researched and written by Jesse Adler and Jing Xuanlin. Chinese translation below by Jing Xuanlin.
NANJING, China — While enrolled in a language school in southern China this past summer, I encountered a new kind of Mandarin slang. On an otherwise typical midsummer day, after having just been out shopping, I walked into class wearing a newly purchased pair of sunglasses and a T-shirt with a graphic vaguely reminiscent of the Louis Vuitton logo. Immediately, my teacher commented that I looked exactly like a shè huì rén, or “society person.” What was that supposed to mean, I wondered? Thus began my investigation into the trending Chinese subculture known as the shè huì rén.
The origin of the term shè huì rén can be traced to the term hēi shè huì, or “black society,” which refers to China’s secretive criminal underworld. Membership within the hēi shè huì often entails heavy involvement in drug trade, extreme violence and a rigorous initiation process. In contrast with hēi shè huì, the shè huì rén culture is largely based on the online activities of Chinese millennials. There is no formal organizational structure. The culture mostly revolves around ironic and self-deprecatory humor, visual memes and fashion.
Beginning in late 2017, videos featuring Chinese millennials wearing gold chains, sunglasses and full-body tattoos began going viral on popular social media sites. In comment sections and on message boards, users were quick to classify this group as shè huì rén. There is an irony here: While the phrase “society person” may hint at someone living up to society’s expectations, many shè huì rén come from the lower classes of Chinese society. They have relatively poor educational backgrounds and lack stable work lives. Furthermore, while they may put on airs of living a gangster lifestyle, shè huì rén have no real association with China’s criminal underworld.
One factor that may have contributed to the emergence of shè huì rén culture is rising income inequality in China. Looking at the country’s Gini coefficient, according to the International Monetary Fund, China’s income inequality has increased more in the past decade than any other country. On top of high income inequality, young Chinese are experiencing a decline in social mobility. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies study shows that while 70% of the college-aged population in Shanghai are pursuing postsecondary education, just 19% of residents in the Guangxi autonomous region are doing so. With increased demand for highly-skilled labor in China, those who lack college degrees will likely face difficulties in bridging the income gap. This economic reality may cause some young people to seek out an alternative form of social recognition and identity, which is where the shè huì rén culture offers its appeal.
Essential to shè huì rén identity is the appropriation of a British cartoon character called Peppa Pig. Despite Peppa Pig’s cute and friendly appearance, the cartoon has become symbolic of shè huì rén culture and, more broadly, of anti-establishment sentiment across Chinese youth culture. It is increasingly common to see shè huì rén with Peppa Pig tattoos or apparel hanging out and riding motorcycles together, or chain-smoking and drinking cheap alcohol. By identifying with an innocent and “cute” icon such as Peppa Pig while at the same time mimicking elements of gangster culture, the shè huì rén have established themselves as a subversive force within Chinese society, unique in their sense of humor and their rejection of mainstream societal expectations and values.
Interestingly, the fashion associated with shè huì rén has grown in mainstream popularity, as many ordinary students, office workers and even celebrities have embraced Peppa-Pig-branded clothing and accessories. Perhaps, by donning a Peppa Pig T-shirt or wristwatch, anyone can believe for a moment that they are a shè huì rén themselves, especially when posting photos on social media platforms and receiving praise for adopting a shè huì rén style. Corporations have caught on to the trend. The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is currently producing a full-length Peppa Pig motion picture. Meanwhile, in Beijing and Shanghai, Peppa Pig theme parks are scheduled to open in 2019 — just in time for the Chinese year of the pig. However, even as the shè huì rén culture and lifestyle gains popular momentum, it is also receiving criticism and pushback. For instance, the Global Times, a state-owned Chinese newspaper with links to the ruling Communist Party, accused shè huì rén of being nothing more than “unruly slackers roaming around, and the antithesis of the young generation the Party tries to cultivate.”
Like all fads, Peppa Pig and the shè huì rén moniker will fade from popularity. But what will become of the people that make up the core of the shè huì rén culture? They are of the millennial generation born in the mid-1990s. They come from the lower tiers of Chinese society and lack both education and job prospects. While they enjoy widespread cultural appeal today, there will be a time when the attention dissipates, as the mainstream generation settles into their busy lives and forgets about their shè huì rén contemporaries. Moreover, the culture has already drawn some ire from the Communist Party, perhaps foreshadowing even more troubles in its future. For now, though, stock up on the Peppa Pig merchandise while supplies last!