Consumption and the Amodern Woman@ in China: a Conceptual Framework

ABSTRACT - With changing social expectations, rising living standards, and increasing Western influences in China, young Chinese women residing in urban areas have developed a new awareness of their femininity and the possibility of new identities marked more by consumption than by their employment and family roles. We review work in sociology, anthropology, consumer research, and cultural studies regarding the Amodern woman@ in China in order to understand (1) the multiplicity of the feminine ideals she is socialized to and (2) the role that consumption plays in her identity construction and the desires she seeks to fulfill. Our review shows that in an environment lacking a clear, unified feminine ideal to model themselves upon, Chinese women give new meanings to consumption objects and combine different consumption objects in an attempt to approximate conflicting ideals. Specifically, whereas the Chinese woman has global consumer tendencies and accepts global products, she is looking for a balance between local and global identities. Research implications are discussed.


Kineta Hung, Yiyan Li, and Russell W. Belk (2005) ,"Consumption and the Amodern Woman@ in China: a Conceptual Framework", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Yong-Uon Ha and Youjae Yi, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 349-353.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2005      Pages 349-353


Kineta Hung, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Yiyan Li, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah, U.S.A.


With changing social expectations, rising living standards, and increasing Western influences in China, young Chinese women residing in urban areas have developed a new awareness of their femininity and the possibility of new identities marked more by consumption than by their employment and family roles. We review work in sociology, anthropology, consumer research, and cultural studies regarding the "modern woman" in China in order to understand (1) the multiplicity of the feminine ideals she is socialized to and (2) the role that consumption plays in her identity construction and the desires she seeks to fulfill. Our review shows that in an environment lacking a clear, unified feminine ideal to model themselves upon, Chinese women give new meanings to consumption objects and combine different consumption objects in an attempt to approximate conflicting ideals. Specifically, whereas the Chinese woman has global consumer tendencies and accepts global products, she is looking for a balance between local and global identities. Research implications are discussed.


A number of recent research projects have explored the way consumers undergo cultural adaptations brought on by multiculturalism, immigration, and globalization (e.g., Belk 1992; Belk and Costa 1998; Ger and Belk 1996; Penaloza 1994; 2001; Thompson and Tambyah 1999). This line of research suggests that in a cultural environment characterized by rapid changes and fragmentation, consumers adapt by reconfiguring their self-identities as their social conceptions are shaped and reshaped by competing cultural forces (Firat and Venkatesh 1995). Central to the consumer’s acculturation process is the use of product symbols to mark their new identities through tastes (Abbas 2002; Bourdieu 1984), styles, and fashions (Murray 2002; Thompson and Haytko 1997)Ball key positional consumption decisions (James 2000).

It has been postulated that the globalization of production, capital, and the media would lead to the globalization of consumer culture (Levitt 1983; Quelch 2003). While some (e.g., Ritzer 2004) worry about the cultural loss that such globalization entails, others (e.g., Appadurai 1996) suggest that it instead provokes a reinvigoration of local culture. At the present time, Chinese society is a prime location in which negotiations between the global and the local are played out (Munshi 2001). These conflicts are not felt uniformly within the Chinese population however. Past research has shown that younger, better-educated, and more urban people in economically developing countries are more concerned with individual desires and more prone to the influences of globalizing mass media (Keillor, D’Amico, and Horton 2001; Sklair 1994).

Since the reintroduction of the market system in China in the late 1970’s, China has experienced unprecedented growth, increased influences from the Western world, and commercialization of its media, that have in turn cultivated consumerist values as well as a desire for self-actualization (Pan and Wei 1997) and the "good life" characterized by possessions, pleasure, and luxury (Belk and Pollay 1985). Instead of emphasizing production as the driver of the economy, domestic consumption becomes "an activity, a way of social life and as 'the work of the imagination’" (Munshi 2001, p.7) that could help realize a "relatively comfortable life" (xiaokang) (Davis 2000).

While the marketization process affects both men and women, the latter are especially affected because women constitute the main consumer segment for which the majority of products are advertised as well as the most common representation in advertising, including advertising for products and services not targeted at women (Hooper 1998; Johansson 2001). Indeed, the androgynous figure that epitomized Chinese women during the Cultural Revolution decade of 1966-76 has given way to a new widely commercialized form of femininity in China (Hooper 1998). Not since the calendar posters or yu fen pai of old Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Canton, have women in China been such a focal target for and popular emblem of consumerism. Our objective in writing this review article is to understand the relationship between Chinese women’s shifting identities and their consumption habits. We attempt to outline the recreated feminine ideal or ideals in consumerist China as well as the way Chinese women use consumption products and symbols to approximate the differing feminine ideals that may place conflicting demands on them. The findings of this review distinguish whether Chinese women are becoming part of the homogenized segment of global consumers (Sklair, 1994), are reacting against such globalization by emphasizing what is local and distinctly Chinese, or are striking a different balance among these conflicting demands.


Consistent with the Maoist slogan of "women holding up half the sky", Chinese women during the rvolutionary period of 1950’s to 1970’s were expected to be asexual, austere, and work and sacrifice for the bettering of the masses (Andrews and Shen 2002). The proper woman of the period, as illustrated in official magazines such as the China Reconstructs and China Pictorial, was a worker or peasant who wore plain, androgynous clothes with no adornmentation or jewelry, and who sacrificed her individuality, sexuality, family, and friendsBat least temporarilyBto "serve the poor and lower-middle peasants whole-heartedly" (Andrews and Shen 2002, p.142). These social expectations for women were a drastic departure from the traditional Chinese female ideal, where a woman would be obedient and would respect and maintain the patriarchal hierarchy within the kinship system (Croll 1995). Some scholars (e.g., Hall 1997; MacKinnon 1989) have argued that although the ideologically imposed state policy was successful in placing women in traditionally male-dominated occupations, it fell short of carrying out the promised "socialization of domestic labor" essential in promoting gender equality. Despite these shortcomings in reflecting the reality faced by women, the "masculinized woman" provided a clear, unified feminine ideal for Chinese women of the period to model themselves upon.


Although the androgynous feminine ideal impressed some Western visitors to China as being dignified and respectful of women (Barrett 1973), Chinese women on whom stringent requirements had been placed to preserve the austere image were quick to discard their baggy clothes when political pressure lifted (Hooper 1998). Meanwhile, the lifting of the constrained singular feminine image opened up other possibilities for Chinese women as well, and made them contemporary social/historical agents for brokering such forces as global consumer culture, mass media, and the Chinese state, all exerting pressures to re-define femininity and to construct the "modern Chinese woman".

We have identified four specific, conflicting, images of the "modern Chinese woman" that women in contemporary China are socialized to pursue: 1) the flower vase, 2) the urban sophisticate, 3) the cultured nurturer, and 4) the social climber. These idealized forms of femininity display not only features of a homogenized global consumer culture but also features reminiscent of traditional Chinese cultural values.


The "flower vase" image is glamorous, charming, and attractive based on a mix of traditional Chinese and Western ideals. She is bejeweled and she applies skin-care and skin-whitening products, beautifying and age-defying cosmetics, bust-enhancers, and new hairstyles to enhance her looks (Evans 2000; Farquhar 2002; Hooper 1998; Johansson 2002). The emphasis on a woman’s physical beauty marks a drastic departure from the recent past. To the extent that the androgynous ideal of the Cultural Revolution equated a woman to a man, the flower vase embraces and emphasizes gender differences. To the extent that women of the communist past looked upon the sacrificing individual (i.e., the androgynous ideal) as an image and reality to strive for, the flower vase wants to stand out from the crowd and dazzle everyone with her looks. These individual desires together with the bolstering of the fashion and modeling industries by the Chinese state suggest that the renewed interests in the female form have taken on national significance to mark China’s leap to modernity (Brownell 2001; Li 1998).

Women around the world have traditionally been a carrier of their nation’s traditions (Johansson 2001). Thus, whereas feminine beauty has gained renewed interest, the Chinese have given feminine beauty a range of meanings spanning from the Western consumerist ideals to the socialist and the traditional ideals. On the one hand, the Chinese purport that similar to the Western consumerist ideals, feminine beauty is passionate and enticing, and appearance and image are more important than character and collective morality. These images are shown in the more revealing Chinese calendar "pin-up girls" and advertisements featuring Caucasian models popular in the early 1990’s (Evans 2000; Hooper 1998; Johansson 2001) as well as the sex trade that included not only the impoverished but also educated and socially desirable young women (Evans 2000). On the other hand, the Chinese have constructed an image of feminine beauty that mixes the meanings of Western and traditional Chinese ideals. The Chinese models featured in recent issues of women’s magazines show a new confidence in the way they smile broadly and gaze directly into the camera, poses absent in earlier advertisements (Andrews and Shen 2002). Meanwhile, their clothes and their posesBthough suggestiveBare modest and imbued with "softness," a quality believed to be uniquely female in China (Croll 1995):

Nature has bestowed different gifts upon men and women. Men are usually impatient. For instance, when getting on a bus they tend to elbow their way on, although they know everyone can have a seat. But women usually receive their gifts by lowering their heads. (cited by Croll 1995, pp. 154-55)

These qualities that call for restraint on the part of women are reinforced not only in the looks of the models but also in magazine articles regarding work-a-day behavior. For example, an article in Metropolis published in 1999 called "How Do You Deal with a Male Boss?" offered tips such as "it can be smart to pretend you are a bit dumb," and "use softness to overcome hardness." In another feature article on office skills, the author offered advice on "Appropriate Femininity in the Office" that included "feminine eyes" ("Eyes should be warm but not hot, soft but not flirtatious") and "body language" ("Don’t be too slow and relaxed when you walk, because this shows that you lack elegance or are weak. It also makes people think you are out of date. But if you walk too fast or in too masculine a way, you will lose the gentle beauty of a woman.") (cited by Andrews and Shen 2002, 156-57).


Cosmopolitan ideology allows people faced with rapid globalization to make sense of their experiences and to sustain an array of socioeconomic and cultural hierarchies (Abbas 2000; Hannerz 1990; Thompson and Tambyah 1999). It involves rejecting the strictly local in favor of multiplicity identities vested more in identifying with the global. The metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou/Shenzhen are the intersection between China and the affluent West as well as the intersection between affluent urbanites and impoverished rural emigrants. Thus, styles and tastes become important social indicators in these cities and beyond, allowing affluent urbanites to mark their identities and to distinguish themselves from those with less cultural capital than economic capital. Andrews and Shen (2002, pp. 149-150) describe this feminine ideal as it appears in lifestyle magazines:

"[She] wears, with great charm, the same stylish clothing seen in the windows and on the display racks of the most elegant Shanghai and Beijing boutiques. The home of the typical new woman is tastefully decorated and has built-in furniture that makes clever use of the space available in new high-rise urban apartments. Elegant bathrooms, well-designed kitchens, and cozy computer nooks are essential. Modernist chairs and tables accent the space, which is also well stocked with books and music. Leisure hours are passed in quiet comfort. The new woman takes an interest in art museums and the new galleries in Shanghai and Beijing. She is plugged in to the Internet, popular music, and film. She knows where to shop and how to shop, and the lifestyle magazines help other young women see how to catch up with her."

This description highlights the "good life" led by affluent urbanites who have access to products and brands newly arrived from the West or Japan that offer them a level of comfort and luxurious living beyond the reach of the general public but one that becomes the desire of all sectors of Chinese society. Indeed, the emphasis on newly-arrived commodities and designer products have given rise to "imagined cosmopolitanism" (Schein 2001) of the visible so that window-shopping and lifestyle magazine reading become forms of aspirational modern consumption that a broader range of Chinese women can participate in (Schein 2001). These processes have also fueled the culture of fake (Abbas 2002) and creolized products (Erbaugh 2000; Ger and Belk 1996), thus making the cultural experiences of the unreachable assessable to most urban Chinese.

It is this Chinese female ideal that is closest to those of the Yu Fen Pei and other ads of old treaty port Shanghai when women were shown golfing, wearing Western dresses, posing with airplanes, at horse races, and in other settings that conveyed their modernity by adopting global consumption patterns (Belk and Xin 2003; Xin and Belk 2003). However the controversy and backlash that such images precipitated in Shanghai during the first half of the Twentieth Century are thus far missing in Twenty-first Century China.


As we briefly mentioned earlier, the domestic role for women has never disappeared from the Chinese conception of womanhood, although the private, pleasurable, and nurturing aspects of a woman’s life disappeared from public discourse during the revolutionary years, when the bodyBmale or femaleBbecame part of the social order (Chen 2001). Meanwhile, qualities such as domesticity, nurturance, and softness that are believed to be uniquely female (Croll 1995) remain central to the way men view their marriage partners. The ideal wife according to a recent survey of urban males in China is indistinguishable from traditional feminine ideals of being "beautiful soft, kind, well-mannered, loyal, virtuous, skilled in domestic crafts (e.g., sewing, cooking and so forth) and can take care of children" (Croll 1995, p. 153). Surveys conducted among students and professionals supported these findings and show repeatedly that men preferred a wife who is "gentle and soft" (wenrou) and who puts her interests after their own (Evans 2000).

The consumerist culture brought on by the economic reform recognizes and reinforces the gendered representation in the domestic sphere, where "The man would be the ship braving the wind and waves; the woman the peaceful harbour" (Hooper 1998). The visual images in magazines, billboards, and television advertising display women admiring household appliances such as refrigerators, blenders, and vacuum cleaners in leisurely, reclining poses (Hooper 1998). These images rival images of leisure-class women that appeared in magazines such as the Funu Zazhi (The Ladies Journal) a century earlier, who spent their days reading and painting in domestic comfort and tranquility (Andrews and Shen 2002). It should be recognized that in a society where "Women become as free as men to work outside the home while men remain free from work within it" (MacKinnon 1989, p.10) and where basic labor-saving devices are still lacking in many families, especially during the early years of the economic reform (Wang and Li 1982), women in China shoulder a heavy double burden and their days are characterized by constant weariness and a need for understanding. As one woman put it, "Rush in the morning, stand in line at noon, headache in te afternoon, angry in the evening" (Wolf 1985, p. 77). Thus, these visual representations of women reclining next to household appliances provide contemporary Chinese women with not only a fantasy into the modern world, where she is seen with "scientific" products (Gottschang 2001) but also a fantasy of an idealized middle-class housewifery identity that combines images of the traditional, the leisurely, and the modern.

Nevertheless, there is a disjuncture in the way the "cultured nurturer" is conjured in visual and written forms of popular/consumerist literature such as advertising and women’s magazines (Evans 2000). In contrast to the relaxed poses, the written narrative concerns doing things. It keeps the reader informed of the latest consumerist trends and provides advice about how to prepare interesting meals, what are the most effective ways of doing housework, and how best to utilize the latest labor-saving appliances (Hooper 1998). In other words, the written narrative provides the means for the reader to fulfill the social expectations to serve her family, to be the "safe harbor", in ways that are "modern".


The last feminine ideal we identified from our review is a woman who is talented, ambitious, and independent of spirit. An article published in the November 1999 issue of the Metropolis entitled "Thirty Traits of the Talented Woman" carried this description:

She is intelligent, sharp-witted, well-informed, knowledgeable, well-spoken, and has good taste; she is independent, self-respecting, and conscious of women’s equality; she is principled but gentle, with a good sense of humor, and easy to get along with. She is understanding, generous, and sensitive to the feelings of others, but not suspicious. She is a doerBstraightforward, efficient, and self-controlled. She is a bit of a rebel but not confrontational. While she may be attractive to men, her attraction is based on personality, not beauty. Her life is well-balanced; love is never her only concern (cited by Andrews and Shen 2002).

We call this feminine ideal the "Social Climber" instead of the "Talented" or the "Independent" because we reason that, whereas the latter descriptions could help identify this feminine ideal, the "Social Climber’s" most important role in Chinese consumerist culture is not her consumption mode (e.g., "Because [designer clothes] are high quality, they can actually save money because they last longer" Dadushi 1999) or her personality per se, but her role as a model of success to show other types of urban women how they could move up socially to afford what they desire, be it cosmetics for the "flower vase", a modern apartment for the "urban sophisticate", or household appliances for the "cultured nurturer".

Lifestyle magazines frequently ran stories on successful women who exemplify the "thirty traits" listed above. For example, the magazine Shishang (Cosmopolitan) has run stories featuring "strong women" (nn qiangren) such as: Liu Xiaohong, head of the legal department for the Greater China Region of the Asia-Pacific Division of Motorola (June 1999, 64-67); Li Yifei, deputy general manager of Viacom in China (June 1999, 62); and Zhao Yan, customer service manager for a major advertising agency (June 1999, 54); who as a group emphasize the importance of persistence and hard work in their path to success (cited by Andrews and Shen 2002). Thus, we are seeing once again, aside from the "flower vase", a Chinese woman’s focus on her inner qualities (i.e., softness, persistence) as opposed to outer qualities (i.e., good looks, talent). These qualities have also been attributed to the national culture of the Chinese people rather than gender-specific culture (vans 2000). Meanwhile, these role models suggest to readers of lifestyle magazines who are not yet "urban white collar" (dushi bailing) workers that they could strive to achieve this coveted position, while readers who are already in upscale office jobs could strive to move up from secretarial positions to managerial positions (Andrews and Shen 2002).

Although these stories have focused on "strong women" in the commercial sector, athletes and fashion models who train hard and are determined enough to win have also been constructed as alternative role models of success to Chinese consumers (Brownell 2001). The path to fame for peasant elite athletes is reflected in a rhyme: "One year later rustic, two years later foreign, three years later won’t acknowledge Dad and Mom" (yinian tu, ernian yang, sannian buren die he niang) (Brownell 2001, p.129).


We set out to understand the multiplicity of feminine ideals contemporary Chinese women are socialized to and the role consumption plays in Chinese women’s identity construction and their fulfillment of desires. Our review suggests that as the broker for the multiple forces exerting differential and often conflicting influences on her, a Chinese woman who is younger, better educated, and more urban places strong importance on identifying herself as "modern," "feminine", and in opposition to the androgynous ideals of the revolutionary era. But we also identified four prototypical modern/feminine ideals labeled as the "flower vase", "urban sophisticate", "cultured nurturer", and "social climber," that offer competing versions of alternative Chinese femininities.

Whereas beauty, sophistication, talent, and nurturance are characteristics desired by women in many cultures, the meanings these images also carry reflect the social/historical milieu of China. The "flower vase", for example, suggests that "being beautiful" in China implies having not only the facial appearance and body form that emphasizes a woman’s sexual features (aided by cosmetics, bust-enhancers, and the right clothes), but it also embodies an "inner" quality of softness and chastity that makes a beautiful Chinese woman more restrained and subdued than her Western counterpart.

Our analysis of the "cultured nurturer" and the "social climber" shows a clear separation between a woman’s domestic and career roles in the consumerist literature, although these conflicting roles have caused considerable anguish in a woman’s daily lives. Andrews and Shen (2002) note that a "social climber’s" most applauded achievement is her ability to juggle the double burden of home and work. Given these conflicting social expectations, one woman exclaimed that she was "Very confused! How can you not be confused?" when asked how the modern woman might feel in China today (Croll 1995, p. 175).

Amidst the confusion, there is evidence that "being modern" is an ideal most desired by Chinese women, especially those who embrace products that have recently arrived in urban China and that are perceived as "scientific" (e.g., cosmetics, household appliances, new recipes and ways of preparing a meal). Meanwhile, there is also evidence that Chinese women desire "being feminine". However, the acceptance of things feminine is not as straight-forward as accepting things that are modern. On the one hand, Chinese women accept Western forms of femininity characterized by independence and self-sufficiency (e.g., the "cultured sophisticate" and the "social climber"). On the other hand, they reject overt displays of sexuality and instead infuse things feminine with inner characteristics and collective morality, stressing softness, chastity, determination, and hard workBa combination of values that is not characteristic of Western consumerist culture. Thus, it appears that Chinese women are trying to break the lnk between modernity and Westernization by infusing modernity with Chineseness, such as collective morality and determination (Croll 1995). Given the fusion between things modern and things Chinese that appears to be essential in the Chinese women’s construction of their ideal self, it is important for future research to examine to the extent to which Chinese women use each of these desired roles to make sense of themselves and the global consumerist culture that now surrounds them. Specifically, do these conflicting ideals represent entirely different segments of Chinese women? Alternatively, do the same women adopt portions of these conflicting ideals in order to allow them to assume different identities in different contexts? There is some evidence that consumers in Western consumer culture defining themselves in this manner using multiple product signs (de Grazia 1996; Scanlon 2000; Sparke1995). Future research is needed to see how Chinese women handle these dilemmas.

Political, economic, commercial, and social worlds have changed so dramatically in China during the past two and a half decades that Chinese women must literally reinvent themselves. Those born within this period will emerge into a Chinese society different from the one their parents have experienced. Both generations have an array of gender and lifestyle options not seen in Chinese cities since World War II. And they are bombarded by an unprecedented array of media images, advertisements, and products from around the world. Just as Deng emphasized that China would become a market economy with Chinese characteristics, it is clear that the cultural legacy of China means that Chinese women will develop a modern femininity with distinctly Chinese characteristics. If a combination lifestyle such as a "cultured nurturer" and an "urban sophisticate" seems unlikely, it is perhaps because the Chinese fusion of these characteristics is still emerging.


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Kineta Hung, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Yiyan Li, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Russell W. Belk, University of Utah, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2005

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