• Beatrice Tamagno

Tired of consumerism: meet the minimalist Chinese youth

Taobao, Double Eleven, 520, endless shopping malls, luxury brands craze, commercial live streaming… shopping is inseparable from the Chinese online and offline reality. But out of the spotlight, in a quieter corner of the web, more and more Chinese youths seek a life that is not consumption-oriented.


Minimalist groups thrive on Chinese online platforms such as Douban, where hundreds of thousands share their minimalist lifestyle and discuss strategies to reduce consumption.


The biggest groups count over 300,000 members and hundreds of posts per day. Users share their journeys of cutting expenses and seek help from others, asking questions such as “Do I really need to buy AirPods?” and “How many cups of milk tea should I buy in a month?”

But what does it mean to be a minimalist for Chinese youths?



From Epicurus to Marie Kondo: A life that ‘sparks joy’

While minimalism or ‘simple living’ has long been part of many religious teachings, a more secular version can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus. When reflecting on happiness, Epicurus concluded that pleasures are part of the good life, but we should avoid over-consumption and being controlled by unnecessary pleasures.1


Japanese minimalist guru Marie Kondo. Provided by Wikimedia.

And never have unnecessary pleasures dominated our existence as in the last few decades. Not only a damage to our moral fiber, over-consumption has proved to be a threat to the planet and many around the world have taken action. From advice on how to organize our belongings in a way that ‘sparks joy’ or how to purge them down to under a hundred essential items, the minimalism gospel has thrived on the internet.2


While in China some worry about the environment, the main concern seems to be minimizing consumption to relieve the pressure of an extremely competitive society.



Minimalism on Douban

Minimalist and low-consumption groups can be found on social media by typing in keywords like ‘low-consumption’ (低消费di xiaofei), ‘minimalist’ (极简 jijian), ‘reducing consumption’ (消费降级xiaofei jiangji).


Hailing from the eastern province of Zhejiang, Sue, 29, is a software designer who recently got curious about minimalist groups on Douban. “I joined because I want to find a balance between my inner self and the material world,” Sue tells ChinaNauts.


Online platforms such as Douban provide minimalism newbies like Sue with an important tool to discover and reflect upon low-consumption. “I think online communication has intensified during the pandemic, and I look forward to exchange ideas and be inspired by others’ points of view,” she says, adding “I quickly found out many people have similar opinions as mine, I really feel like I am not alone in this.”


Cai Xi's minimalist wardrobe. Courtesy of Cai Xi.

But online platforms also provide a source of exchange and inspiration for veteran followers of minimalism. Cai Xi, 26, a public employee from Jilin province, joined Douban groups around two years ago. “I first discovered minimalism after watching the Japanese TV series I Have Nothing in My House, I really liked the female lead and the ‘empty feeling’ of her house. I feel like living in a cluttered environment distracted me,” Cai tells ChinaNauts.


Cai Xi's desk. Courtesy of Cai Xi.

And Cai really did strip down her surroundings to the essential. With few clothes and minimal furniture, Cai’s apartment embodies her broader attitude towards consumption. “When it comes to consumption, I only buy the strict necessary. I feel like my desire towards material good is very low, for example I don’t often buy luxury items and beauty products,” she states.


Tired of the mainstream discourse focused on physical appearance and influencers’ display of wealth through consumption, minimalists unite on Douban hoping to find likeminded individuals. “I really like the friendly atmosphere on Douban. I am very busy with my job, so after I get off, I rarely engage in offline interactions, but here I can find a lot of likeminded people to communicate with,” Cai tells ChinaNauts.


Cai Xi's essential yet fashionable outfits. Courtesy of Cai Xi.


Surviving involution

While many stress how low consumption has helped them navigate financial struggles, a deeper search for meaning and a refusal of society’s standards for success emerges from their personal stories.


Reducing consumption means acting upon one’s own reliance on material things such as fashionable clothes and fancy apartments to prove one’s worth. And in a society that promotes a rather uniform idea of success, minimalism extends to all realms of life, from career to personal relationships.


Sue, for example, applies the principles of minimalism to her social life as well as her consumption patterns. “The outside world makes me very tired. I used to be very concerned about what people think of me, to the point it would affect my mood and mentality, but now I feel so much better. I feel like many people are just trying to be perfect and gain everyone’s approval,” she states.


When asked about the attitude of friends and relatives towards their minimalist outlooks on life, Cai and Sue confirm it is only a minority of their acquaintances who empathize with their life choices. “I think people in all countries care about their appearance, just to different extents. New generations in China are very focused on themselves,” states Sue.

“My parent’s generation may not be familiar with minimalism, but they approve of my choice to keep expenses low,” she says.

The ultimate rebellion against the status quo is perhaps that of choosing life in the countryside as opposed to extremely competitive Chinese first-tier cities. Groups dedicated to sharing life experiences out of Chinese metropolis are also prospering on Douban, showing this ‘school of thought’ might be developing faster than we think.


Despite that the trend seems to be growing, disciples of minimalism remain a minority in Chinese society. But if we look further than marketing reports, shut down the noisy commercial stream of advertised posts on Weibo, and step away from mainstream narratives of ‘the Chinese consumerist youth’ a much more diverse reality unfolds.



 

References / To go further

  1. Allen Neuringer and Walter Englert, “Epicurus and BF Skinner: In search of the good life,” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 107, no. 1 (2017): 21-33, https://doi.org/10.1002/jeab.230.

  2. Jia Tolentino, “The Pitfalls and the Potential of the New Minimalism,” The New Yorker, January 27, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/03/the-pitfalls-and-the-potential-of-the-new-minimalism.