Soft Power and China’s Cutting-Edge Subcultures

by Karisma Wilson on April 4th, 2017   1551 views

Project Pengyou intern, Karisma shares a few of the fascinating subcultures to delve into in the Middle Kingdom.


A shot of Beijing’s futuristic, cutting-edge architecture.

Recently, we saw an article in Foreign Policy bemoaning China’s weak soft power in the rest of the world.

However, what many people don’t consider is the scale of cultural trends in China. Although the US is considered a soft power giant because of its international reach and large fan followings of musical, fashion, and other trends, in China a domestic following alone can be significantly larger than a US superstar’s. Nor were many current international trends created in a vacuum—interestingly enough, many things that have become cultural icons can actually trace their origins to China.

It takes some time and effort to get connected in the complicated systems of underground Chinese culture, but once you do you will find there is truly something for everyone to enjoy here. The country is actually opening up to the world as other global powers embrace isolationist themes, and it shows in the way that people adopt international trends and add their own flavor to create something entirely new. Being based in Beijing, we see new and interesting things happening all the time, so we wanted to highlight a few things about Chinese culture we thought were pretty cutting-edge:

The Arts

Living briefly in Beijing I’ve observed a huge, emerging art scene. A popular attraction is the 798 arts district, which displays modern art, fashion, and sculpture in repurposed commune housing. You can also find many local musicians playing live, acoustic music any given night on the famous Houhai bar street, and scattered throughout the labyrinthian network of old hutongs are hosts of young artists creating unique designs, and throwing together small galleries in the heart of the city.

In fact, the Gulou district (near the old Drumtower), is crawling with affectionately dubbed “hutong hipsters” and it’s hard to walk more than a few steps without running across something new and interesting.

The Sounds


China softpower music

Rapper Fat Shady preforms in Kunming, China.

There is also a huge underground music scene that highlights local metal, alternative, indie, and EDM musicians, sometimes even blending them in with traditional Chinese instruments and themes. China’s music scene consists of discreet music collectives that promote their music through traditional Chinese channels such as WeChat, Xiaomi, and Weibo. They throw events, concerts, raves, and rap battles at various locations throughout the city. It’s just a matter of knowing where to find them.

In the hip-hop music scene, Chinese rappers remind us of a bygone era when artists were writing songs that expressed sentiments other than rebellion, drugs, and sexual explicitness often found in American rap. They find unique ways to inspire with their songs about the frustrations or menial nature of work. These messages seem to be moving away from the tired trends, and are sure to generate interest as a global search for refreshing artists with new lyrics begins.

The Looks

Fashion in China is also growing quickly, and in some very interesting directions as China embraces environmental conservation efforts. Green fashion has become extremely popular, with many showcasing their style through reusable bags and bottles and repurposed fabrics. There is a stress to create individualized identity within the world of second hand shopping, and retro and vintage are on the rise.

china soft power fashion

Notable Fashion Blogger Tina Leung sports a wonderfully eclectic style

There is also a lot of freedom of expression with clothing in China, and many fun, daring, and playful looks can be seen on the streets.


Chen Man’s stunning photography

Closely tied to the fashion are expressions of gender and sexuality, feminism, and even ageism. This fast-paced industry is evolving at a rapid rate alongside Chinese society, and in it you catch glimpses of some of the growing pains that are reflected through this art and photography.







The Laughs

china soft power comedy

Jesse Appell performing at the US-China Comedy Center in Beijing, China

There are also many admirable, foreign-led efforts to dive into China’s fascinating culture. Individuals to look out for include comedian Jesse Appell, who began on a Fulbright fellowship to research Chinese comedy. He spent years studying Chinese language, and specifically the traditional comedic art form – xiangsheng. By working with both Chinese and foreign players, he helps to bring laughter to a variety of audiences through bilingual improv, videos, and performances. His work aims to bridge East and West through shared humor while highlighting some of the most quirky and charming parts of China and Chinese culture.

The Gadgets

It’s also a little known fact that while most global technology is made or assembled in China, most of the creation of these devices is credited here as well. China actually seems to be surpassing most of the world in its tech innovation. From hover boards to cellphone shavers to synced up air purifiers, rice cookers, and even vacuum cleaners, the convenience of Chinese tech world in undeniable.

china softpower gadgets

A robot cafe in Ningbo, China

China is a country that many elements of other cultures can be traced to, and it’s easy to find familiar threads within the ancient middle kingdom – often with a twist. As China accepts more foreign influence, its own culture is inevitably spreading out. We believe the perceived lack of soft power or attractive cultural influences outside of China is really more of lack of information and understanding. To the person who is willing to look past surface eccentricities and dig a little deeper, China is a hidden gem maintaining a thriving fashion, music, technology, and business powerhouse.

What subcultures or interesting trends have you found in China? Leave a comment and let us know!


*Full disclosure: The US-China Comedy Center is housed at the Project Pengyou courtyard.


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