Understanding the Unique World of Chinese Selfies

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Selfies are now part of global digital behaviour. However, in China, selfies take on a unique significance. Read on, to discover the cultural reasons why?

On the weekend, I was walking around Shanghai, as I normally do, and was shocked by the ‘selfie avalanche’ I encountered.  I did not have enough fingers to count the instances of selfie taking I saw – at the cafe, on the street, outside that particular place – I could go on.  But I will not go on, I will try and explain why the selfie has become such a prominent part of China’s digital life.

It all started when they were kids

Due to the one-child policy (now discontinued),  most millennials grew up at at time when, put simply – there was an explosion in consumer cameras, and an inverse drop in the amount of children that could be photographed – namely one, the only child.

The childhoods of local millennials were ‘captured’ through a constant series of family photos and studio bookings to capture key moments in their lives.  The lived as their ‘family’s celebrity’, every moment was deemed ‘photographic’ – this built an particular media habit that accompanied them into their adult lives.

Also, as only children went through teenage-hood, there was a huge trend in China around, what were known, as ‘big head stickers’.   Images – pre-selfies – that were taken at arcades, individually or with friends.

Just as local millennials were entering adulthood, along came mobile phones to save the day.   Just as they were entering a ‘trough’ of attention, they were given a optimal device to ensure their photographic fame lived on – even better, they were in control of this process now.

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Big head stickers – 大头贴 – the predecessor of the Chinese selfie

Marvellous Me, if not, a Me that is unrecognisable

One of the unique aspects that differentiates Chinese selfies from elsewhere, is the immense level of poetic license that is allowed.   Selfies really realistic in China.   Using Meitu and other apps, netizens create an optimized (paler, thinner, perfect complexion) version of themselves.

The point of whether it realistically depicts the person it is – is, in China, an utter irrelevance.  I have listened with, almost disbelief, as locals discuss how they could have better eliminated their flaws through better technique or application of e-brushing tools.

From a cultural context this makes sense, many things in China are driven by the logic that inspiration comes from a perfect form or essence of something – this philosophical point was structured by Confucianism, and taken to extreme levels in recent decades.   A selfie, quite simply, is a technological solution to creating and participating in the ‘pursuit of cultural perfection’ – as once again, you are in control.

The selfie – the ultimate form of face

Often described as ‘giving face’, their is key notion within Chinese culture, that you need to convey respect and importance to others, failure to do this appropriately, result in ‘losing’ or “not giving’ face – a cultural taboo.

In the perplexing cultural world of ‘face’, mobile phones have been a magic solution.  How do you give face to someone?  Easy – take a selfie with them.  Sounds simplistic.  But a quick image search on Chinese social media, and the reality will become stupefyingly clear – selfies are the contemporary way to ‘give face’.

Proof tourism – just selfie yourself

One of the key aspects of new experience in China that give them meaning, is the ability to share them.  This is part ‘missing you’, part ‘check me out’, and major part ‘I have kept up with the Joneses’.   The selfie has become the ultimate weapon in ‘proof tourism’, an essential part of proving your ‘upwardly mobileness’ in a rapidly-changing China.

Once again, it trumps a official shot taken by the tour groups – a selfie put you in control, so you are far better associating it with your own success and progress – still an essential message in China.

While selfies are part of global digital culture, there are fundamental
historic and cultural reasons why they take on a unique form here in China.
At SMART@Resonance – we always examine culture, as a way to unearth genuine insight. 

About Author

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing leading-edge research, strategy and naming for brands in China using bespoke methodologies. Jerry also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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