REPORT
Nov 11, 2022
Xiaojing Huang on navigating Guochao in China

After rising to international recognition, Guochao captured the attention of global brands. But many campaigns have fallen flat due to a lack of deep understanding of the concept. Canvas8 spoke to Xiaojing Huang, a renowned design strategist and trend expert, about the nuances of Guochao.

Highlights
Data

Xiaojing Huang is a renowned design trend expert and strategy director of Yang Design, with clients including Boeing, BMW, Nissan, Hyundai, Huawei, and Unilever. Since 2013, she has been the chief editor of China Design Trends Report, an authoritative annual trend report for the Chinese market. Xiaojing is the winner of the Red Dot Design Award, IDEA and Design For Asia Silver Award, and Influential China Young by Linkedin. She is also a writer in China Home Trend Report, China Sub-culture Lifestyle Report, Aging Design Trends Report, and magazine design columns.

Avinash Akhal is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. He holds a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Manchester and formerly worked as a researcher at the Education Policy Institute. Outside of work, he is either crafting his boxing skills, listening to a podcast or losing money on the stock market.

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Scope

“The precedent in China right now is the renaissance of Chinese culture,” says Xiaojing Huang, trend expert and chief editor of China Design Trends Report, highlighting that in the post-2000s era, Guochao – a term which encapsulates the country’s historical values, traditions, and heritage with its modern progress – continues to shape everyday experiences of how people in China are connecting to a place. [1]

The term Guochao started to reach international headlines in 2018. The popularity of the renewed ‘Made in China’ movement challenged the dominance of Westernism and forced global brands to rethink their strategy in one of the world’s biggest markets. Guochao (国潮) translates to ‘national wave’ or ‘national trend’ and refers to the incorporation of Chinese elements, traditions, and culture into product design with a modern twist. [2]The trend isn’t limited to the fashion industry; many local and international brands across all sectors have attempted to incorporate Chinese elements into their designs, from perfume brands like Ballad of Mulan (花木兰) and Jiang-nan Garden (江南) to sports brands like Anta. [2][3]

The adoption of Guochao offers more than just aesthetics; for many people across China, it is a tool to express their national pride and identity. “The idea of Guochao is affected by the rising nationalism in China, which makes the collective identity of the Chinese people become its core value,” writes Zih-Sin ZENG, marketing and sales operator at nfinite. [4] People have flocked to brands like Li-Ning, who are seen as ambassadors for the movement. The market for Guochao itself is estimated to be around ¥35 billion. [5] But given its ties to social identity, several challenges have emerged around celebrating the country’s heritage, which has caused many brands to tread carefully in their campaigns and engagements.

Many brands have successfully navigated this space without stepping on cultural landmines, like designer Song Ta or fashion brand Fabric Porn. [6] But some brands, particularly international companies, have found themselves in sticky situations for not wholly understanding the nuances of the Guochao movement. For example, Adidas faced backlash after it attempted to get involved, and even renowned local brands like Warrior have been caught in the crossfire. [7][6] Canvas8 spoke to Xiaojing Huang, a trend expert and chief editor of China Design Trends Report, to learn more about the Guochao movement, where it came from, how it’s evolving, and how brands can get involved.

Origins of Guochao

Guochao may have entered the mainstream in the post-2000s era, but the concept existed long before, evolving and developing under the surface and being shaped by nationwide events. For instance, people who grew up in the post-60s era showed strong signs of patriotism and were generally proud of China. “It is natural [for Gen Xers] to be proud of China because they are educated to be so, and they are the royal supporters of our way,” says Huang. [1] Chinese Gen Xers spent their teens in the post-Mao era in a period of economic reforms and openness which boosted the country’s economy, raised living standards, and resulted in a growing sense of national pride. [8]

People from the post-80s era grew up when China had a voice on the international stage, and most households worldwide started to own ‘Made in China’ products. But inland, Chinese people associated the ‘Made in China’ term with cheap, copycat products that were inferior in quality. During this time, Chinese consumerism was something people wanted to avoid.

The tide began to change for the post-90s generation as the low-quality ‘Made in China’ products evolved into higher-quality ‘Designed in China’ products. “The ‘Made in China’ label no longer inherently means cheap, inferior, and unfashionable,” said Professor Zhou Zhendong, professor at the School of Journalism and Communication of Xiamen University. [9] The shift in mindset reflected China’s growing economic, cultural, and political influence on an international stage. “The post-90s grew up in a world where China is powerful. We entered the World Trade Organisation, we became ‘The World's Factory’, and we now have the best quality. China’s products are deemed to be the most premium products in some categories, like home appliances, mobile phones, and some children’s products,” says Huang. [1] It was during this era of initial prosperity that Guochao first began to be used to define cultural consciousness and local pride.

In the post-2000s era, Guochao took off and became a mainstream phenomenon due the country’s rising economic prosperity and a new era of global connectivity, with soft power initiatives such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and 2022 serving as opportunities to flex reach and power internationally. Cultural confidence, national pride, and patriotism elevated across much of China. [10] In fact, 70% of China’s post-90s generation are regular buyers of Chinese-made goods, a figure that rises to 80% among the post-2000s generation. [11] China’s Gen Zers were born into a period when China became an economic powerhouse, and they were exposed to globalisation from an early age and embraced Chinese culture, traditions, products, and, subsequently, Guochao. Groups like Chinese Cultural Consumers (CCCs) and Cultural Opinion Leaders (COLs) became pioneers of the Guochao movement and mainly consisted of young, influential people. [12][13]

Nike’s ‘Street Hawker’ sneakers are inspired by Chinese culture and street foodNike SB (2021)

Present-day Guochao

Some people believe that 2018 marked the beginning of Guochao. “The year 2018 is called the first year of Guochao,” says Ashley Dudarenok, China marketing expert. One event rapidly propelled Guochao to the main stage – the 2018 New York Fashion Week (NYFW). [12] During the 2018 NYFW, a streetwear company and prominent brand in the Guochao movement, Li-Ning, launched the Wu Dao collection. [13] The line took inspiration from Taoism, Chinese heritage, and other elements of Chinese culture in its design. The collection was widely spoken about across social media and significantly contributed to popularising the Guochao movement. But the rise in Guochao also reflects a moment of border reorder, where tensions on the international stage are sparking a deeper focus on homegrown products and local markets. [12][5] “China is becoming more important globally regarding economics, status, and quality of life. As a result, Chinese people feel like they’re becoming increasingly important, and that’s why they’re seeking their own identity,” says Huang. [1]

Guochao also has different forms of expression across regions. For example, people in urban areas are fond of consuming social media content produced by people in more rural areas, and subcultures like ‘Too Cool’ (tǔ kù, or 土酷) have emerged to capture the rural-urban dynamics. “Young people love to see videos from rural areas. They feel that it’s more authentic. We’re starting to see hip restaurants in China where the decoration feels like a 1970s Hong Kong Street. There’s usually a mix of the retro elements and subcultural flavours,” says Huang. [1] People like Zhang Tiegang, a mom from the rural countryside in China, reached viral fame due to her covers of popular American Hip Hop songs.

Looking within regions, people across China embrace Guochao in their way. For instance, Tmall’s ‘Map of guacharo’ and short film captures the variety of designs and expressions of the concept. Chinese illustrators came together for the campaign to showcase regional uniqueness and the Chineseness that connects everything. Around 66% of people in first-tier cities prefer domestic brands, but this figure rises to 80% of China’s tier-three or lower-tier regions. Although this may reflect an improvement in product quality, it also fulfils an emotional need for national pride. [11] Given the relationship between Guochao and identity, many brands have attempted to replicate and incorporate Guochao-style designs into their branding, and in some cases, it has backfired. For example, Balenciaga came under fire for its ill-thought-out Valentine’s day campaign. [14] Dove x Forbidden City’s 2020 Lunar New Year gift box and Rio’s ‘insect repellent-flavoured’ cocktail was criticised for their lack of originality and authenticity. [11] Chinese Gen Yers, like @杨子江, have flocked to social media to express their concerns about brands that are superficially using Guochao. [6] As a result, many Gen Yers hold negative perceptions of Gouchao and believe brands are using it to capitalise on patriotic sentiment.

How will ‘Guochao’ evolve in response to society’s personal preferences?@fabric _qorn | Instagram (2019)

Beyond ‘Guochao fatigue’

The future of Guochao looks more nuanced and personal as people look to blend Guochao with their individual tastes. Rather than fluctuating with national sentiment, it will likely evolve in response to society’s needs for serenity, simplicity, and personal preferences. After many months of China’s Zero-COVID-19 policy, lockdowns, and the overall adversities of the pandemic, people are exhausted and are focusing their attention on the smaller details in life instead of on macro-level developments. “People in China are depressed in 2022 because most of the time, they’re in lockdown in their homes and communities,” says Huang. “People don’t want to hear from the national press, and from a macro perspective, they are tired of that. People want to focus on smaller aspects of life, like finding poetry and happiness in daily things, like flowers, plants, or camping inside the city.” [1]

Similar to national news headlines, people are becoming tired of the Guochao phenomenon in its current form, known as ‘Guochao fatigue’. [6] And the search for satisfaction in the small moments means that people are moulding Guochao with their personal preferences and local subcultures. Guochao is gradually mixing with aesthetics from movements like sci-fi punk, the Lolitta style, Hanfu, and JK Uniforms. Due to high demand, the latter three fashion trends have accumulated a market value of approximately ¥10 billion. Each subculture evokes unique feelings and emotions tailored to different individual experiences. [15]

Technology will also play a crucial role in the advancement of Guochao. The spread and adoption of Guochao wouldn’t have been possible without people talking, sharing, and discussing Guochao across Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat. “People in China could only follow the 2018 NYFW because of the internet,” says Huang. Unlike Western societies, people from China show a great appreciation for technology and the benefits it brings to society. “In China and Asia, technology is more important than in the West. People in the western world appear to be getting tired of technology, but this isn’t the case for Asian people. We like to imagine how technology improved our lives, and that’s why we embrace it,” says Huang. [1]

Chinese people gravitate to brands that emphasise natural and local surroundingsLi Ning (2022)

Insights and opportunities

Poetic moments

Like most of the world, Chinese people are exhausted and drained from the pandemic. Around 28% of Chinese people reported heightened anxieties and lower energy levels due to the pandemic. [16] Instead of focusing on national media developments, people are learning to find meaning and satisfaction from small moments throughout the day. “As with anywhere in the world, we’ve dragged through this pandemic for nearly two years, and we observe pandemic fatigue everywhere. That would surely also be affecting Chinese people,” said Professor Chunhuei Chi, the director of Oregon State University’s centre for global health. [17] As people search for meaning and happiness in the smaller details of life after being worn out by continuous national events and uncertainty, they’ll likely gravitate to brands that emphasise natural and local surroundings. For instance, Chinese distilleries infuse local botanicals and spices in their gin, while Triple Leaf Tea utilises local ingredients in their tea recipes.

Embracing localism

Given the importance of Guochao in people’s lives, authenticity and a deep cultural understanding of Guochao are critical for global brands looking to execute successful campaigns in China. With 43% of Chinese Gen Zers saying they ‘love authenticity and hate hypocrisy’ when it comes to marketing, brands planning on navigating the Guochao landscape can add layers of depth to campaigns by utilising Chinese resources, working with local artists, or elevating the voices of influential figures in the Guochao space. [18] For instance, Nike successfully launched its SB Dunk Low ‘Street Hawker’ sneakers, taking inspiration from Chinese culture and street food. The collection was entirely designed by Jason Deng, an artist from Guangzhou. Aldi also took a localised approach to its shop floor plan, moving away from the Western warehouse approach.

Subculture segmentation

People across China are taking parts of the Guochao movement and combining it with their preferences, tastes, and styles as the trend evolves to become more nuanced and personal. “I can see that Guochao will combine with other trends. For example, Hanfu, Lolitta style, JK Uniform, and Sci-fi Punk,” says Huang. [1] Given China’s favour for technology and emerging subcultures within digital spaces, there is scope for brands to delve deeper into specific subcultures to speak directly to niche groups within the Chinese population. In late 2022, the neo-Chinese style made waves in China, with the domestic media series ‘Sisters Who Make Waves’ and celebrities like Song Zu’er, Victoria Song, and Gong Jun all featuring the new style. [19]