Symbolic Consumption in China: the Color Television As a Life Statement

ABSTRACT - The People’s Republic of China is just emerging as a consumer market. As consumption opportunities develop for the Chinese, certain products are taking on enormous symbolic meaning within the Chinese culture. Consumer electronics is one of the product categories in which symbolism has become very important, especially color television sets. This research describes and analyzes the decision process used by consumers for buying color TVs, how the product is used within the home and its importance in modern Chinese life as a symbol of economic and political freedom.


Kathleen Brewer Doran (1997) ,"Symbolic Consumption in China: the Color Television As a Life Statement", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 128-131.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 128-131


Kathleen Brewer Doran, Babson College

[The author wishes to thank Babson College and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for their assistance in providing backing for this project.]


The People’s Republic of China is just emerging as a consumer market. As consumption opportunities develop for the Chinese, certain products are taking on enormous symbolic meaning within the Chinese culture. Consumer electronics is one of the product categories in which symbolism has become very important, especially color television sets. This research describes and analyzes the decision process used by consumers for buying color TVs, how the product is used within the home and its importance in modern Chinese life as a symbol of economic and political freedom.


The People’s Republic of China is just emerging as a consumer market. As consumption opportunities develop for the Chinese, certain products are being imbued with symbolic meaning within the Chinese culture. Consumer electronics is one of the product categories in which symbolism has become very important, especially for color television sets.

The purpose of the study was to develop a deep description and analysis of symbolic consumption of electronics in the People’s Republic of China. This research builds on a largely North American-based stream of research into symbolic consumption, symbolic interactionism and semiotics by introducing symbolic consumption in a dramatically different and under-researched culture.

While China’s expose to television has been brief by Western standards (about 10 years), penetration rates are very high, with estimates of about 80%. Partly because television introduction came so late, and partly because of the importance attributed to televisions in modern China, most of those sets are color and relatively large (18 inches and up). This phenomenon is more startling when viewed in combination with the generally low income levels in China. Urban income in China in 1993 was still only about 3,150RMB (less than US$400) per year, while rural income averaged only 1,200RMB annually. In Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s), developed in 1984 to gradually move from a planned to a market economy, and major coastal municipalities, incomes are much higher. For example, in the Shenzen SEZ, bordering Hong Kong, 1993 household income averaged about 27,900RMB. Guangzhou, also in the south, followed at 17,500RMB. In addition, there appears to be a thriving underground cash economy, which would tend to result in the under-reporting of incomes. Finally, China’s rapid growth rate, averaging about 12% annually in GDP over the past few years, is an indicator that consumption of items like televisions will continue to grow.


There is a significant body of research into the symbolic meaning of consumption (e.g. Solomon, 1983; Belk, 1985; 1988; McCracken, 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry, 1989; Hirschman and LaBarbera, 1989; Holbrook and Hirschman, 1993). This stream of research is a major contributor to the holistic understanding of consumer behavior. However, most of this research concentrates on consumption experiences in North America. This study extends the knowledge of symbolic consumption along cross cultural lines, by analyzing symbolic consumption in a group culturally distant from those usually studied. Those studies which have looked at cultures other than North America, such as Arnould’s (1989) study of preference formation in Niger and McGuinness, Campbell and Leontiades (1991) study of selling machinery in China do show significant differences in the consumption experience.

Moreover, interpretive studies of consumers and consumption events appear to help form a bridge toward developing better studies of multiple cultures. Only when a deeper understanding of culturally-driven behaviors has been developed can researchers begin to develop appropriate, culturally-sensitive or culture-free instruments. This topic is addressed by Adler, Campbell and Laurent (1989) with particular regard to China and the lack of existing basic information about behavior within China. The interpretive approach employed here is one which has met with some success.


The study utilizes interpretive research techniques as outlined in Strauss (1987), Hudson and Ozanne (1988), Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989), Strauss and Corbin (1990) and Arnould and Wallendorf (1994). Data on Chinese consumers and their behavior was developed through a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews. This method for data gathering was chosen because so little information exists on Chinese consumers. Fifteen individuals participated in 3 focus groups, while in-depth interviews were conducted with 30 different individuals. Follow-up interviews were conducted at a later time with an additional 10 participants. Interviews and focus groups were conducted in accordance with the criteria developed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Wallendorf and Belk (1989). Focus groups averaged two hours in length, while interviews ran from one hour to two and one half hours. Participants were identified using a snowball sample and covered a broad range of ages (23-81), occupations (doctors, professors, clerks, political workers, factory workers, etc.), income levels ranged from about 50 yuan (about $60) to 10,000 yuan (about $1200) per month. In addition, the sample included an approximately even mix of men and women.

Interview protocols were developed through a series of 25 interviews of Chinese individuals currently living in North America. Where appropriate, data from these preliminary interviews are included here. Interviews were conducted either in English (primarily the North American interviews), or in Mandarin Chinese. Since the researcher was not fluent in Chinese, several interpreters were used. All interviews were either videotaped or audiotaped, and translation was checked by a second set of interpreters for accuracy. Participants were primarily from Beijing, but interviews were also conducted with participants from a total of 13 different municipalities and provinces. Interviews were primarily conducted at the researcher’s office, but a few were conducted in participants’ homes or workplaces.

Since the consumption environment was so important to the consumption behavior of the participants, a study of that environment was also undertaken, including advertising, store selection, store size, store staffing, and product availability. Visits to individuals’ homes were also undertaken to document the use of products within the home, as well as to assess general living circumstances. Data was gathered during four trips to China over a period of about one and a half years.

Since so little is known about the decision processes of Chinese consumers, or even what influences them, this type of descriptive research is important in building a body of research on which to base additional studies of both a qualitative and quantitative nature.


Living conditions in China are a key indicator in understanding the importance that televisions have in modern Chinese life. While living conditions in China vary dramatically from location to location, some observations can be made which help increase understanding of how living conditions may affect consumption behavior. In the People’s Republic of China, the communist regime of the last 50 years has created an environment where the work unit is paramount. Not only do individuals work with their colleagues, but the work unit also provides housing and off-duty socialization. Since housing is generally provided by the employer, rent is nearly always a nominal amount (often the equivalent of only US$1-2 per month). By the same token, for most people, housing is provided according to an established set of needs, and not based on what one can afford. As a result, Chinese savings rates can run as high as 60%, with the remainder falling into a monthly budget for food (50%), clothing (30%) and incidentals (20%). Television and other electronics purchases generally come out of savings. For most Chinese owning an automobile is not only impossible financially, but practically due to lack of parking and severe limitations on licenses for private cars. Consumer electronics, particularly television, therefore takes on importance as a way to display one’s wealth.

In general, Chinese homes are quite small. The stated goal of the Chinese government is to provide each family unit with 40 square meters (slightly more than 400 square feet) of living space. However, in 1995, average living space in China was 7.9 meters (83 square feet) per capita, or 23.7 meters (about 250 square feet) for a family of three. With such small homes, the television set becomes a focal point of the home.


Certain products have developed a symbolic consumption importance for Chinese consumers. While a number of product categories wereaccorded importance during the interviews, none achieved the level of significance that electronics did. The television, in particular, has reached even into rural China as a statement of life as it differs from traditional Chinese life. Since ownership of major items such as houses or cars is seldom viable, consumer electronics play an important symbolic role in establishing one’s financial image as well as projecting an aura of personal success. "[The television we choose] is how we are evaluated by others." (M,25) One particularly vivid illustration of this symbolic importance was the role the selection and purchase of a television made on a couple’s wedding plans and subsequent marital success. All of those questioned indicated that owning a color television was a prerequisite to marriage in urban (and many rural) areas of today’s consumption-oriented China. Saving for an appropriate make and model was an ordeal for most that helped set the wedding date. Many couples indicated they were willing to wait two years to be able to afford the best possible TV.

The image of the television selected was extremely important. One participant (M, 46) noted that his wife’s younger brother was planning to marry, and the participant had offered to help with the purchase of a television as a wedding present. However, when he suggested to his future brother-in-law that he buy a domestic make, the brother-in-law was scandalized. "Buying a Chinese TV will give my marriage a poor start," he said. "I must wait until I can buy a Japanese TV to project the right image to my friends."

Yet financial and personal success are not the only symbolic meanings for televisions in China today. The television, more than any other consumer item, represents freedom from the past and access to information. It is an educational tool as well as entertainment. It provides news programming to those who otherwise would have little access.

Size of the television selected was also important. While most Chinese live in very cramped surroundings, large television sets (21" and up) are more the norm than the exception. A very common comment was, "I want the largest television that will fit into my room." (F,34) It should be noted, however, that these considerations apply essentially to the primary TV in a given household. Older, smaller televisions were usually kept as a second set for the bedroom, where participants had more than one room.

Another interesting element to the television-as-symbol is the role it plays in gift-giving for overseas Chinese. When an overseas Chinese returns to visit family in the PRC, they are expected to bring a television set as a gift to the family. This often creates consternation on the part of the overseas Chinese, who generally remember a pre-television era China, and are surprised by television’s importance and the specificity of the request (which often includes brand and size). Moreover, they are understandably daunted by the prospect of getting a large television to China in their luggage. Importation of consumer electronics has become such a problem that the Chinese government strictly regulates the process through customs inspections and declarations for all overseas Chinese entering the PRC.

Urban versus Rural Consumption

Television has achieved a surprisingly high rate of penetration in China, both in urban and rural areas. Estimates suggest that overall television penetration is upwards of 80%, with urban penetration approaching 98% of homes. Most of this growth has occurred within the last 10 years. This phenomenon was noted by several respondents, "Where once the television was considered a luxury, now it a necessity." (M,57) There are, however, relatively few differences in television consumption between urban and rural individuals. The one strong difference is in brand choice. In both cases, brand selection is usually driven by national origin: urban Chinese prefer Japanese televisions by a wide margin, while rural Chinese prefer to express their patriotis by buying Chinese. "There are more brands now to choose from, but I still prefer Chinese brands because they are easier to repair and it is more patriotic." (F, 28, Shandong Province)

On the other hand, urban Chinese tend to be more concerned with perceived quality than patriotism. "Price is not so important...but it is very important that it comes from Japan...that shows good quality. I have a 25" Toshiba C it has a nice look and my friends are impressed." (F, 31, Beijing)

There is, however, a sense that consumerism may be overtaking patriotism, particularly for those who have migrated to urban areas from the countryside. One man (29), formerly from Jianxi Province, but recently relocated to Beijing, noted that he had an 18" color model which had been made in Shanghai. He went on, though, to note, "I want a new one, because it’s a bit old. It won’t be the should be a "hot" brand C Japanese C and a nice appearance. It must be bigger and have good functions, like Karaoke."

How Televisions Are Used

Television sets, perhaps because they are a newer addition to every day life in China as compared to the West, are used quite differently than in North America. First, programming is not available all day. Rather, programming is provided by several government-run networks for a few hours in the morning and evening. In some areas of southern China, Hong Kong’s StarTV is also available. Cable is not available, although there are plans for the launch of China’s first four cable stations in late 1996 (China News Digest,12/95). Commercials are given slots between programming, and many participants tuned in to view commercials (often about 15 in a 5 minute time slot), much like normal programming. Nearly all respondents watched news and cultural or entertainment events. Special serial programs were a favorite: during the interviews, most participants were watching a 100 part series recreating one of the traditional Chinese "great books," The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a favorite for more than 400 years. Alternative programming, such as sports, Chinese soap operas, movies, children’s programming and educational programming (the most popular of which was Business English) is also available and watched by somewhat smaller audiences. The television is rarely kept on in the background; rather, shows are chosen from the TV Guide in the paper, and watched by all family members.

A large color television set is usually the focal point of a Chinese family’s main room. Often when not in use, the set is protected with a cover and unplugged. Because Chinese homes are so small, and the televisions are relatively large; proportionally, TVs consume a large amount of space. The set is often, though not always, accompanied by a VCR and Karaoke equipment. In fact, these two associated pieces point to three other major uses for televisions: for viewing prerecorded movies (often black market American movies), for viewing home-made videos of the family taken with camcorders, and as an integral component of a Karaoke system. Karaoke is immensely popular throughout China, not only in bars and restaurants, but also at home.

Decision Processes

Both because of the collective nature of Chinese culture, and the symbolic importance of the purchase, participants relied heavily on their reference groups for assistance. Most often, an engaged couple, who were saving for their television, would go around to friends’ and family’s homes to view the sets for themselves. This tactic seemed to function both on a marketing level and a social one. While the couple was "shopping" they were also creating an image with friends of a serious, dedicated couple.

However, while there was certainly a dependence on personal sources of information, some participants did admit to being influenced by advertising, "My impression of Japanese electronics hs been shaped since my childhood by Sony ads...they have been here and very strong since China first opened to outsiders." (M, 25) Electronics producers were, in fact, among the largest advertisers on television or in newspapers during the course of the study.

Most televisions were bought in large department stores. The vast majority of respondents felt that this was too important a purchase to be trusted to street vendors or even specialty stores. Selection in department stores was impressive. A count by the researcher of different models available on the floor of major Beijing department stores averaged about 60. However, discussions with sales people indicated that about 80% of television sales came from only about 5 models. This benchmark was confirmed in the television ownership of participants and in the homes visited. The most popular model was a 21" Sony. The most desirable models were 25" or 29" Sony’s or Panasonic’s. The evoked set of most buyers appears to be restricted by recommendations from friends and family as well as a strong need to project a particular self-image.

Perhaps consistently with the importance of the television purchase, and the reflection on self-image, price was rarely a factor in choosing a TV. Price is irrelevant compared to quality (Japanese TVs are several times the price of the best Chinese TVs, for example), except within model. But since there are rarely sales, and most department stores are priced similarly, often price is not a part of buying equation.

The Meaning of Television Ownership

Television ownership is a much more meaningful state for the participants in China than for most North Americans. The television one owns is very much a representation of one’s own self-worth. For most, the television had become almost as much a part of getting married as saying their vows. One engaged man (24), who was saving for his TV so he could get married, noted that he wanted a 25" or 29" Japanese model. He was willing to save for up to two years (a commonly quoted time frame) before revising his sights downward. Price was not nearly as important as projecting "a good image" to others. He was concerned about getting off to a good start. Several respondents noted that the purchase of the appropriate television set was more important than having furniture when considering marriage.

Yet television is an important social statement for all ages. At one point during the study, the researcher visited the home of an 80 year old widower in Beijing. While he knew of the study, he said since he was such an old man that possessions were not important to him. He asked questions about what the researcher had found thus far. When the researcher mentioned the symbolic nature of televisions, he started to smile. He led the researcher into his home where a large rectangular object was in a prominent position, under a deep red velvet dust cover. "You are right," he said, and unveiled his 29" Sony Trinitron. "I get great enjoyment from this, although otherwise, I live quite simply, but this [the TV] is important."

A television also represents freedom from oppression and the wealth and promise of the "new" China. Throughout China, hanging off small balconies on high-rises, on top of traditional one-floor houses where coal is still burned in braziers for heat, there are personal satellite dishes. While additional sales of these personal dishes were outlawed a few years ago, there are still a significant number. These satellite dishes, combined with their home TV sets, represent the ability to reach the outside world, a significant achievement in a nation which has restricted entry throughout most of its long history. The television, much like the telephone (which unlike television, has only a 3% penetration nationally), represents links with a modern, global economy.

Finally, while the Chinese love to dine out, most entertaining is done at home. Since homes are small, gathering in front of the TV has become a popular form f recreation. In fact, the television is well-suited to entertaining in cramped Chinese apartments, where many other activities would take up too much space. Yet a large part of the television’s appeal as an entertainment device stems from two areas: Karaoke and the Chinese fascination with the formerly forbidden west. Karaoke is tremendously popular in China, both in restaurants and at home; the TV is an integral part of the Karaoke system. When friends tire of singing, the television then provides a link to the west. As such, the television represents an escape from the crowding, noise and dirt of everyday life in most of China.


The television has emerged as perhaps the most symbolic purchase an individual or couple makes in modern China. Part of the reason for this phenomenon lies in the fact that the Chinese public is still restricted in the number of products categories available to them. Purchases which might be considered more symbolic in the West, such as cars or houses, are seldom possibilities in China. Therefore, a television and accompanying purchases, such as a VCR and Karaoke system, are often the most expensive purchase Chinese make. Yet the TV’s importance cannot be explained solely with financial logic. The television is also a symbol of economic and political freedom.

Finally, in addition to what the study shows regarding the symbolic importance of televisions in modern China, it is important to note that the findings in this study are consistent with past research in other areas. In particular, many of the activities described here have also been found in research into reference group influence (e.g. Bearden and Etzel, 1982; Brown and Reingen, 1987; Childers and Rao, 1992). In addition, the importance of televisions being of Japanese origin for many Chinese consumers is consistent with other studies of country-of-origin effects (see Erickson, Johansson and Chao, 1984; Johansson, 1989). Moreover, the differences in rural and urban consumption patterns noted here are also consistent with similar existing studies in other cultures (see Bearden and Etzel, 1992; Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel, 1989).


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Kathleen Brewer Doran, Babson College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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