On weibo, the expression “Sha Ma Te” has become very frequent. It’s a translitteration of the English word ‘Smart’, meaning ‘stylish’. But because the cultural and intellectual elite hold a monopoly on discourse and values, from “Sha Ma Te” being the Chinese translation of “smart”, the word has come to mean the opposite. Now on weibo, the word “Sha Ma Te” has more or less become nothing but a derogatory term, referring to some sort of ugly clowns. In people’s eyes, that’s what the “Sha Ma Te” are like: young people from the 90s, generally rural areas or the urban fringe, with weird hairstyles, weird clothes, heavy makeup, and a strange attitude.
But in fact, this is a very interesting phenomenon of youth subculture. These young “Sha Ma Te”, together with the “Blow-dry style” which was popular last year, constitute a group worthy of attention in today’s China: the children of the new migrant workers. From a sociological point of view, how they integrate into the city, and how the city accepts them (at the moment, by laughing at them), how they modernise their own person (they do so now by wearing striking semi-modern clothes), this all has to do with China’s future social situation. From a cultural point of view, they also give a lot to think about. In particular, a comparison with the “fresh young thing” movement clearly shows the cultural segmentation and discrimination behind the diversification of Chinese culture.
The origin and cultural characteristics of the “Sha Ma Te“
The groups now labeled as “Sha Ma Te” are, for the most part, members of the post-90s generation coming from rural areas, who completed middle school or vocational school. In terms of identity and cultural values, they have relatively clear features. In terms of cultural choices and tastes, whatever syrupy songs circulate on the net will be their favourite. In terms of outside appearance, they wear cheap clothes, they use made-in-China fake phones, and they use them to take photos of themselves which they upload on QQ – but apart from that, many of their online photos are shot in photo studios and booths, with the background often a sky-blue curtain, or they take sticker photographs in these machines you find on commercial streets. In terms of their living conditions, immediately after finishing school, they left their family, and moved to small or middle-sized towns in their area, or moved to the suburbs of large cities, where they live in low-rent apartments or basements, sharing with many roommates. In terms of occupation, their main areas of work are as barber shop assistants, security guards, waiters, or in factories such as Foxconn, but this does not rule out them also working in grey and black areas. The point is, when many of their parents are employed in the dirty work of the construction industry, this is not the case for them, and they would find it very difficult to bear such intense manual labour. Their social circles are also composed of people of the same age from their home-town. Of course, it also extends into the online world, including dancing competition online, QQ videos, etc, where they meet other people like them who share the same interests. And they spend their leisure time at internet cafes, night-clubs, and road-side food-stalls.
This is approximately what the journey to the 2010s “Sha Ma Te” looks like, from their origin: the urban post-90s generation adopted the youth culture of the “brain-dead non-mainstream” Western punk, heavy metal and others, or in other words, the Sha Ma Te are members of the post-90s generation who received the influence of urban sub-cultures from the years 2000-201 (these have already become ‘Fresh young things’ or ‘little Lolitas’, or they’ve become metrosexual, effeminate men, Korean boy-band style), and this non-mainstream culture is an inheritance from European and American youth subculture.
But when it comes to the “Sha Ma Te”, this youth culture is no longer a rebellion against the mainstream, and even less is it this, like overseas, a kind of unconventional and ostentatiously rebellious heavy metal style (with a sense of exaggeration, hysteria, or mania) or gothic style (whose characteristics are darkness, gloom, barbarism, death as literary and artistic themes, and more specifically the fear of darkness, the sadness of death, forbidden love, and the beauty that comes from suffering), and it shows no ‘parricide’ desire towards mainstream culture. Therefore, we can say that the “Sha Ma Te” bear little resemblance with youth subcultures overseas. On the contrary, their figure is that of a failed effort to join the mainstream. The “Sha Ma Te” strive to develop an image of urban citizen as they see it in their minds, and then try to imitate that image, and form a trend in similar groups. They continually try to come close to urban culture, to become part of it: as in a kind of live role-playing game (cosplay), they strive to imitate the Japanese aesthetic codes of alternative urban youths, with images from animes, pierced ears, dyed hair, sexual ambiguity, and affected depression, or the beautiful and lyrical practices popular among young artists (fresh young things).
But to fit into this culture, you need capital investment, And for them, this is no doubt an extravagant luxury; given their economic capacity, there is no way for them to reach the lifestyle that they imagine. Therefore, hyperbolic figures, cheap clothing, fake mobile phones, and low-resolution cameras from internet cafes can only make up the image they’re now giving to others. They consider themselves fashionable, but in the eyes of many urban people, they are terrifying, exaggerated, forced, rural, like a man from the country wearing a low quality western style suit with sneakers, they’re just another version of the rural style, they’re a 21st century version of the ‘mud on your feet’. As a consequence, in this consumer society, they’ve come to represent the mad ugliness of consumerism, and like sister Furong, brother Xili, Xifeng, etc, they “prove the existence of God”.
The distinction between the “Sha Ma Te” and the “Fresh Young Things”
In utter contrast to the “Sha Ma Te” is the “Fresh Young Things” vogue, which has been continually popular in the last years. These two trends represent polar opposite forms of youth culture. They’re at both ends of a spectrum, with no overlap, the difference between these two is not that between hippies and yuppies, to use the current popular expression, but the gap between an ‘ugly dwarf’ country bumpkin and a ‘Snow White’ goddess. This is a distance you cannot bridge, no matter how many kidneys you sell. It fully relates to the social stratification determined by taste and choice of entertainment which the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu analysed in “Distinction”.
The ‘fresh young things’ are young women who received or are receiving a college education. In terms of cultural forms, the main characteristics of their style is: in terms of clothes, an obsession with pastel colour combinations, cotton shoes, white linen shirt and a long cotton skirt, glasses with no lenses, sportswear; the brands they love are H&M, UniqQlo, 专卖店的耐克阿迪等，“武器”装备笔记本电脑、LOMO相机照、单反、Iphone（苹果）手机，然后照出且经过PS的唯美的、逆光的、暖色调的各种照片，喜好在校内网或者微博上报到地点、发状态、发美食照片，上星巴克、喝依云矿泉水、抱布娃娃，养宠物狗，or manifest an overt liking for pets and children; they like travelling to Gulangyu, Lijiang, Wuzhen, Hong-Kong, Macao and Taiwan, and overseas – and in particular, Korea, Japan and Europe are their holy land; Murakami, Anne Baby, Cheer Chen, Chai Jing, and Liu Yu are their cultural icons. They despise the vulgar Sha Ma Te, they’re not entirely cynical birds, but sometimes chirp or whine, and they might show some interest in current affairs, but their final point is always some ‘so what are Chinese people like?’, ‘what is our society like?’, or similar wishy-washy questions, with nothing under the surface. Most of the time, they just stay within their own narrow circles, ‘your own good life is your own sunshine’, ‘ only furtive signs of life’, ‘silent love, silent joy’ have become their golden words of wisdom. They’ve all shifted from the ‘non-mainstream’ over the last few years, and constitute the reserve army of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘petite bourgeoisie’.
The “Sha Ma Te” and the “Fresh young things” are coexisting cultural phenomenons, but their discursive power is entirely different, which resulted in diametrically opposite social views on them. For instance, cultural critic professor Zhang Ning, expressing his attitude and opinion about the Fresh Young Things in an unsolicited testimonial, says ‘the fresh young things movement constitutes a remarkable change in generational appreciation of aesthetics, with a return to the classical taste of the East excluded by the Western enlightenment.’ But officials will typically have a completely different attitude to the Sha Ma Te, condemning them, while the Fresh Young Things receive no interference, or even support: this reflects an ambiguous or even unfair attitude.
If trends like the ‘rising sun’ (旭日阳刚) rising on the internet can often attract sympathy and be welcome as expressions of a ‘grassroots culture’, the Sha Ma Te in contrast are just a ‘weed culture’, nobody watches it grow, and no one takes care of it after it’s grown. Not only is it not respected and valued, but it may even be threatened and removed, like the short movie that recently got famous on the internet, ‘Siping Youth’, and was taken down. ‘Siping Youth’ is a web-film shot by a group of young actors from Siping City’s People Theatre in their spare time. It’s full of northern dialect, foul speech and rudeness. After it became popular online, the attitude of the officials (from the Siping Culture, Press and Publications Bureau) was very clear: they considered that the film ‘seriously affected the image of Siping City’, and demanded the dismissal of all the actors from the City Theatre, as well as deleting the video from the internet. Although objectively speaking, the movie is vulgar, it has had no serious consequence so far. And yet, if it received a welcome online, it’s not that it received serious attention, but on the contrary, people are just making fun of it, like they do with the Sha Ma Te, and if they try to challenge mainstream culture through exaggeration, this cast of actors is still seen by everyone as a group of rural Sha Ma Te. So we can see from this example that country bumpkins have a hard time striking back.
So now, on weibo, profiles followed by many people like @ShaMaTeStrongguy (@杀马特强子), @LiuJiShou (@留几手), @ShaMaTe-RedDragon (@杀马特龙少等红人) are crafting their image as “Sha Ma Te”, they season their weibo messages with Dongbei dialect, XX-town in DongBei, Zhumadian in Henan, such and such outer village in Beijing municipality are the invented locations of these accounts (and in fact, these places are actually where many migrant workers come from, or reside). But from their words and actions, it is very clear that they’re not really Sha Ma Te, but pure products of the cultural and intellectual elite. They just borrow or use this language maliciously, in order to mock and ridicule them, as a form of online carnival. In the end, all their words are ironic, and therefore, in terms of cultural dignity, they completely belittle this group, strengthening public prejudice towards then, and increasing their isolation.
“Shamate” and poverty culture
After the reform and opening, and increased social mobility, the so-called “blind flow” (NDT: migrations from rural to urban areas) finally stood up to its name. The first generation of migrant workers who moved to the city looking for a better life began to learn what city people were like, and wore people they purchased on the night market stalls (and these are often outdated, city people think of them as out of style), they picked up a laptop bag, and put a mobile phone on their waist. But society did not allow them to really settle in the city. Twenty years passed in a flash, and their descendants from the countryside came down in turn, and also came to the city. But fate played some sort of reincarnation joke, and the new generation, learning the ways of city people again, became these neither-country-no-city “Sha Ma Te”. Strictly speaking, the “Sha Ma Te” are no longer from the country, and this identity is only just imprinted on their residence permits: the gates of the city are wide open to them. But after the gates, there is still a thick layer of isolating material between them and the city proper.
In this sense, the “Sha Ma Te” constitute the “third state” of Chinese society: in the eyes of their farming fathers, they’ve already become bizarrely and gorgeously dressed city people, they’re no longer simple, hard-working country people. But in the eyes of city people, their bones forever retain the smell of the country, and no matter how hard they try to cover it, their body still reveals its original spirit. In a sociological sense, they’ become a ‘third state’ with no hometown and no future, outside of the distinctive rural-urban binary pattern characteristic of China. And culturally, they are faced with the following dilemma, that people from the country see them as strange, and people from the city mock them sarcastically.
At the same time, in a context of monopoly on the right to speak, many stories from villages and small or medium cities can’t make it to the media of major cities, but even trivial matters from the big city become news. Newspapers, magazines, film and television keep presenting the image of luxury brands or of the ‘Fresh young things’, promoting the expansion of urban consumerism. And in this blinding light, the Sha Ma Te as a group are left in the shade, only when Foxconn gives them some air time do they, temporarily, become a topic of concern. They live in a gray area, or a zone of black humour. From a cultural perspective, their lives are quarantined, they are the symbols of low-quality, confusion and danger. Of course, objectively speaking, what is reflected of the “Sha Ma Te” culture has some rough, neither this nor that elements. But if you look deeper into it, this is not a case of ‘the three vulgarities’ (vulgar-lowly, vulgar-common and vulgar-seductive) (低 俗 庸 俗 媚 俗). This is the result of the current social status quo: with limited educational background, poor income, a cruel living environment and limited development opportunities for the future, they are not able or even aware of the possibility to improve themselves culturally. This is the result of the semi-urbanisation and incomplete modernisation of individuals and groups, and so their culture has taken the shape of a culture of semi-finished products, it is not only a culture that is materially poor, but an abnormal “culture of poverty”.
For that reason, the ‘fresh young things’ who enjoy a comfortable life, enjoy the favor of their parents, bathe in the culture of university education, and can consume as they wish, should not look down with cold eyes on the “Sha Ma Te”, and display unmasked contempt for them. What they need is more attention, not ridicule; more sympathy, not contempt; more tolerance, not exclusion. Because, while you’re still eating on the back of your parents, they must already rely on their own labour, reluctantly, and live a tough life in a foreign land. But in fact, they’re just fresh young things, and through unimaginable hardships, they’re making efforts to become real city people…
Published in the 4th issue of “Southern Wind” 2013 as “Sha Ma Te, a phenomenon we must understand”.
(Published in abridged version, this is the entire text)