On November 11, China celebrated Singles’ Day, a holiday that in the span of a few short years has become the most important day of the year for Chinese e-commerce. Sales on Alibaba, the leading retailer website at the center of the holiday, are the bellwether for its success.

Alibaba first adopted the Singles’ Day name for a sales promotion in 2009 to sell winter coats, but the company quickly realized its potential. By 2013, Alibaba was racking up e-commerce sales to the tune of just under $6 billion, and three years later the company had more than tripled sales to nearly $18 billion. A year after that, in 2017, sales at Alibaba soared a further 42 percent, to more than $25 billion, and this year the company smashed that record yet again, with an additional 22 percent of total sales, for a total of nearly $31 billion. Notably, this $31 billion figure represents only Alibaba’s share—probably about one half—of China’s total e-commerce spending on the holiday.

E-commerce consumer spending on peak days in the United States pales in comparison.

Cyber Monday and the following Black Friday each November are the two biggest e-commerce days of the year for the United States, the world’s second biggest e-commerce market. Typically, U.S. e-commerce retailers rack up $11­–12 billion in sales between these two days. Online sales for Amazon’s Prime Day each July, the third biggest day for U.S. e-commerce, were estimated to total just over $4 billion in 2018. That means that these three days of peak U.S. e-commerce spending combined are still easily dwarfed by Chinese spending on Singles’ Day, during which perhaps two times the total amount of e-commerce sales changed hands in a single day.

The Chinese holiday is dominated by young people. Mostly urban Chinese between eighteen and thirty years old generally account for more than 50 percent of the day’s e-commerce sales. This age group comprises less than 30 percent of the country’s total population, which means that these young people on Singles’ Day typically purchase on average nearly two and a half times as much per person as the rest of the population in China.

Alibaba’s CEO, Daniel Zhang (or Zhang Yong), underscored how important young people are to the company’s e-commerce prospects when he said, “People born in the 1990s have become the main consumption power.” He went on to say, “They lead a very different lifestyle, they are the generation born on the internet. They’re living on the mobile internet today—the way they select products or brands is very different from [older] generations.” A November 2017 McKinsey & Company report found that the generation of young Chinese people born during the 1990s, although they make up just over 15 percent of the country’s population and earn less than the average working-age Chinese, is projected to contribute more than a fifth of China’s total consumption growth between now and 2030.

Alibaba Did Not Invent Singles’ Day

One of the mistaken claims that have developed around Singles’ Day is that Alibaba invented the holiday in 2009, when in fact the custom actually predates Alibaba’s seizing of its commercial potential. I remember my students jokingly explaining the holiday to me in 2002 or 2003, during my first years in China. It was clear that this “holiday” (and the term “holiday” was always accompanied by quotation marks) was pretty widely observed, or at least acknowledged. And it was evident that for young, educated Chinese, it was a tongue-in-cheek send-up of traditional Chinese values.

As far as I can tell, Singles’ Day originated at the esteemed Nanjing University in the early 1990s before spreading widely as students passed the tradition on to former high-school classmates at other elite universities. In China, high-school friendships tend to be deeply enduring and often persist well past university and into middle age, so campus fads often spread quickly throughout the country.

The meaning of the holiday is quite clear. The numbers in the November 11 date (11/11) symbolize unmarried young people living in a once-traditionalist society in which marriage typically marked the perceived start of adulthood. Amid an era of newfound freedom on university campuses in the 1980s and early 1990s, Singles’ Day became a way for single males, and later single females, to wryly suggest that there is more to adult life than marriage. In this young generation’s eyes, being single wasn’t a failure that had to be addressed as quickly as possible, but perhaps an opportunity to be enjoyed, although tradition required that students maintained the joking pretense that being single was shameful, hence the need for (pretended) consolation.  

Over time, November 11 developed tongue-in-cheek rituals among elite university students throughout eastern China, including group photos, handmade cards, dinner with single friends, and gifts. Chinese young people would typically celebrate by spending money on themselves as a way to jokingly “assuage the burden of being single.” Indeed, by the time I arrived in China in 2002, Singles’ Day had become a fairly popular ritual for modern, urban Chinese youth, albeit a ritual with no historical or traditional basis of its own, unlike Christmas presents or Spring Festival red envelopes. It was a festival for the novel, flippant China of smartphones and instant mega-cities, a China without traditions—a country in which, after growing up through the deepest generation gap in history, young Chinese urbanites were keen to splurge on themselves.

But nothing today is more representative of the new China than the commercial transformation and exploitation of what had been a youth cultural phenomenon. Christmas, for example, has become a major holiday in China much more quickly than anyone expected, not because of its religious meaning, but rather because of its commercial potential; in many shops, Christmas trees appear in October and stay up until March or April. Last year, a podcast rap contest became a surprise hit among young Chinese, and within months the contest was flooded with advertising renminbi, as rap crews broke up in recrimination and feuds exploded.

The November 11 holiday has been no exception. Until 2009, Singles’ Day was a popular, low-key event celebrated mainly among well-educated urban college students. It was barely known outside a group of major universities largely located along China’s eastern seaboard. The holiday became a viral sensation in 2009, when Alibaba, that other symbol of China’s bubble economy, seized on the holiday as a marketing gimmick and made November 11 a national event of major proportions.

But Alibaba Did Reinvent Singles’ Day

Singles’ Day has morphed from a once-obscure holiday into a massive pop culture spectacle commemorated each year by a day-long live television broadcast that reaches between 100 and 150 million viewers. The holiday is promoted not just online but also in restaurants, in karaoke parlors, at cigarette stands, at Starbucks, and in most major shopping malls. In 2017, flashy digital showmanship was front and center in an hours-long Singles’ Day television program designed to appeal to young Chinese urbanites; the proceedings featured A-list celebrities like David Beckham, Kobe Bryant, and Scarlett Johansson, as well as a Mandopop boy band that serenaded viewers with an aptly named song called “I’ll Teach You to Buy.”

The 2018 rendition last week was even more spectacular. Shanghai hosted a massive gala to kick off the online spending spree, complete with celebrity appearances by model Miranda Kerr and footballer Lionel Messi along with performances by Mariah Carey and Cirque du Soleil. The countdown to midnight was drowned out by the nonstop frenzied screams of teenagers aimed at Jackson Yee, a member of the popular Chinese boy band TFBoys (No, I don’t know who they are either.)

Armed with smartphones and virtual reality headsets, Singles’ Day shoppers at the gala could play augmented reality games and peruse digital shopping aisles. The televised Singles’ Day extravaganza was designed to mirror China’s annual CCTV New Year’s Gala, known as “the world’s most-watched TV program.” An on-stage LED billboard helped ensure that the commercial side of the holiday was front and center, as the screen recorded in real time a tally of the evening’s gross sales figures, a not-so-subtle attempt to transform spending into a video game. Shoppers cheered loudly as over one billion transactions were tallied in twenty-four hours. In this digital world of online shopping, bigger and louder is assumed to be better.

China’s Urban Youth Culture

In many ways, Singles’ Day represents a typical aspect of China’s emerging urban youth culture, albeit one of the less admirable ones. Starting in late 2015, Josh Feola and I wrote several articles for the New York Observer. These articles tried to describe the emergence of a vibrant Chinese urban youth culture that many observers have largely overlooked or dismissed as mere copying of the West, only because this new culture refuses to fit neatly into any of the hoary stereotypes within which foreigners and older Chinese often feel Chinese culture must fit. (One of these articles that we co-wrote proposed that Singles’ Day can be thought of as an example of how Chinese youth culture is adapting to the country’s enormous social transformation.)

This new culture has emerged from truly extraordinary circumstances, on the back of one of the most dramatic social transformations in world history, following the cultural deracination of the Cultural Revolution, which was itself followed by the almost wholesale destruction both of traditional Chinese lifestyles and of the stable village life of rural China in which these lifestyles developed. Because of this, it was almost inevitable that any culture that emerged, made all the sharper by the deepest generation gap in modern history, would be extremely fluid, radically new, and still profoundly Chinese precisely because of its very Chinese circumstances. In spite of this fact, or perhaps because of it, this newfound youth culture seems to have taken little from mainstream Chinese culture. Here is how we explained this dynamic in our first article, which received a surprising amount of attention:

China has changed so dramatically in the past three decades that it is not just foreigners who stumble over stereotypes. China’s urban youth culture, led by members of Beijing’s brilliant new-music scene, has evolved out of uniquely Chinese conditions. But because it sidesteps all the China stereotypes, it is easy for grumpy elders, wary officials, and well-meaning Westerners to dismiss this new culture as foreign.

The conditions that have transformed China are well known: income up 18 times, soaring inequality, dozens of the world’s largest cities springing up overnight, crowding together hundreds of millions of former farmers. But other, less obvious conditions have mattered just as much. With parents who came of age in a society wracked by the Cultural Revolution, the “little emperors” who grew up in one-child China face a generation gap somewhat like that of their American baby-boomer counterparts.

While perhaps less confrontational, this generation gap is even wider. Where their parents set conformity and security as the main priorities for their children, these seemed irrelevant to many young Chinese coming of age in a money-obsessed society. During the 1990s, like young Americans trouping to Greenwich Village nearly four decades earlier, the more adventurous among them congregated in Beijing and other newly-cosmopolitan cities, fed up with mainstream Chinese culture and uncertain of their own ambitions, but determined to figure them out.

China’s Misunderstood Cultural Explosion

Amid this confusion and the lack of cultural signposts except for garish Western lifestyle magazines, the sudden advent of the internet, which everyone in China seemingly got plugged in to between 2001 and 2004, overwhelmed the cultural emptiness that many people felt, especially young people who were usually the first in their families to live in big cities and attend university. Additionally, the internet suddenly made nearly a century of forbidden art and music freely available.

In that same article, we described this exhilarating way of hearing music and approaching culture, especially elements of culture that a person has read and whispered about but never actually heard before. This way of absorbing culture, in fact, is so exhilarating that it may explain at least in part why over the next decade Beijing—and to a lesser extent other cities like Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, and Xian—developed among the most exciting new underground and experimental music scenes in the world. As we wrote then:

In the first two years of the century, young China got online, and the musical floodgates suddenly opened. Chinese musicians and fans now had access to everything, and a whole new attitude to music developed among them. They tore ecstatically through a century of musical ideas, grabbing at anything that intrigued them with no thought of genre and no worry about context. Perhaps because this is such a rich way to experience music, from then on musical tastes developed at breakneck speeds.

Our conclusion was that the forces driving the evolution of Chinese art and culture—the country’s astonishing social and economic transformation, the breakneck pace of urbanization, and the blink-of-an-eye transition from a nearly completely closed society to one addicted to the internet—had never been seen before in history, at least not to the same extent. In retrospect, this confluence of profound change inevitably would produce a culture and art about which any preconception was pointless:

But for those who think they already know the forms Chinese culture must take, it is easy to miss what they are doing. Chinese culture is being re-invented, but only the artists themselves can decide what it means to make Chinese art. The stereotypes will have to change.

E-commerce as Part of This New Youth Culture

The social transformation that was unleashed upon the unsuspecting, and often unprepared, offspring of China’s one child policy wasn’t easy to live through. The negative side of this social instability perhaps shows up in the tremendous, debilitating lack of confidence among many young Chinese people, even those at elite schools; for many of the country’s university students, deep-seated anxiety and high levels of depression are astonishingly widespread.

But there is a positive side to this dizzying social transformation, namely the explosion of new culture emanating from China—not just on the music scene but also in literature (especially science fiction), painting and comic-book art, along with fashion and other aspects of youth culture. Chinese cultural institutions have been working ponderously to create cultural soft power and spend enormous amounts of resources trying to give Chinese culture a magnetic appeal, with almost laughable results. Ironically, it turns out that right under the noses of such cultural institutions, and completely invisible to them, young Chinese artists are negotiating their complicated and confusing world with a cultural elan whose exuberance probably will be remembered and admired for hundreds of years. 

Until recently, Beijing may have been one of the most exciting places in the world for new culture (although, sadly, official pressure has made the environment much colder in recent years). But it may take several years or even decades for most people to recognize the cultural explosion of the past decade, largely because much of this new culture refuses to fit into predetermined stereotypes.1

The reasons for the ubiquitous presence and (simultaneously) the invisibility of China’s emerging youth culture aren’t hard to see:

  • Many young Chinese kids grow up in huge, chaotic cities, their senses constantly assaulted by traffic jams, screeching subway cars, a proliferation of smartphones, and ill-tempered high-school teachers. Then patronizing and well-meaning foreigners often want Chinese musicians to be what they deem to be authentic, mainly by playing a so-called traditional instrument, like an erhu, or by pretending to be a Mongolian nomad, or by spouting Buddhist truisms, or by otherwise looking and sounding more “Oriental.” Such foreigners commonly dismiss young artists with electronic instruments as merely copying the West.
  • Reporters searching for angry Chinese punks who rant furiously at the government are sometimes offended that Chinese musicians are no more likely to be obsessed with political confrontation than artists in the United States or Europe, and so these journalists write them off as fake or cowardly.
  • Chinese government officials who were certain that good Chinese artists would want to praise the advances the country has made under Communist leadership tend to dismiss unimpressed young artists as trivial and unpatriotic.
  • Older Chinese people, like their 1960s counterparts in the United States and United Kingdom, often dismiss these new styles of music as trying too hard to be strange simply for the sake of being strange.

In other words, the culture that is emerging out of young, urban China is vibrant, exciting, chaotic, and perhaps among the most interesting in the world. But this culture is also sometimes hard to see because many people tend to approach it with too fixed an idea of what they supposedly know proper Chinese culture to be. We should, however, recognize that Chinese culture is not culture that reaffirms Western Orientalist stereotypes, no matter how sophisticated and historically grounded these preconceptions are. Chinese culture is simply whatever Chinese artists decide Chinese culture is, and given the sheer extent of the transformation under which young Chinese have grown up, this usually means something we never expected.

Commodifying Rejection

Of course, the point is not that Singles’ Day is about high art, but rather that the holiday has emerged from the same rag-and-bone shop as everything else that has emerged from the tremendous transformations afflicting Chinese society, especially urban, educated youth. This reality manifests itself not only as high culture but also as e-commerce, terrible public manners, and an obsession with money and obviously expensive consumer goods. In fact, in many ways, Singles’ Day has become the commercial archetype of China’s new urban youth culture, a custom that doesn’t fit at all into traditional Chinese stereotypes but is no less Chinese.

Emerging from a vast social transformation shoehorned into three tight decades, China’s new youth culture—both its admirable and banal qualities—is developing in great, ugly mainland cities that don’t fit into any standard Chinese stereotypes held either by foreigners or by older Chinese people. This culture is nonetheless profoundly Chinese in its urban rootlessness and fully representative of a China that is no longer rural, uneducated, and inward-turning. Singles’ Day looks like nothing in earlier Chinese culture, society, and history. And yet just like the loud, dissonant music pouring out of tiny, poorly ventilated clubs in many Chinese cities, it could not have emerged in any other place.

E-commerce is just a part of this broader transformation, and the significance of Singles’ Day lies in the way this instant classic of a holiday, unencumbered by tradition, combines a generation’s embrace of cutting-edge retail technology with media, entertainment, and shopping in a way that typifies modern China and blurs the lines between the three. Without any real history, Singles’ Day is as likely to become a permanent fixture in China as it is to die out.

Recent promotions by Alibaba and other entities have been quite crass. This year, for example, the company turned the one-day holiday into a two-day event. That being the case, it is not hard to imagine the next generation of young Chinese people turning away in disgust, just as young Americans in the 1930s turned their backs on flappers and drunken dance marathons. The profit-seeking zeal that powers modern China and turns off many Chinese people may well eventually kill the holiday.

But this brazen commercialism is also what makes the holiday a perfect symbol of China’s bubble economy. Singles’ Day and its staggering sales numbers stand out not just in economic terms, but also as an expression of an exuberant and confused urban youth culture as it fills in the generation gap left behind as a once-familiar, older China recedes. The holiday represents a certain conception of a new China—the China of e-commerce, smartphones, and consumerism financed by peer-to-peer lending—as much as installment buying, bootleg liquor, and nervous ragtime rhythms represented its American equivalent in the Jazz Age.

As long as the country’s bubble economy can be prolonged, Singles’ Day will continue to grow and break sales records. But as nervousness deepens in China and as economic worries spread, Singles’ Day itself will be threatened. In fact, while this year’s 22 percent increase in sales may seem impressive, at least part of this increase may simply reflect the fact that many new vendors joined the program; if so, the sales these newcomers would have made anyway will have been added to the Singles’ Day total as if they represent new economic activity.

One year on November 11, maybe next year or maybe in a few years, the dizzying sales growth of Singles’ Day will suddenly reverse. At that point, the exuberance of China’s bubble economy will almost certainly have ended and, as that happens, young Chinese people will probably increasingly reject the extraordinary commercialization of Singles’ Day as the very symbol of what went wrong in China.

This blog post draws on an article previously published by the Observer that the author co-wrote with Josh Feola. This post cites data that Feola has compiled.

Aside from this blog I write a monthly newsletter that covers some of the same topics covered on this blog. Those who are interested in receiving the newsletter should write to me at chinfinpettis@yahoo.com, stating affiliation.

Notes

1 Of course, China isn’t the first country unable to see what culture is being cultivated right under its nose. After all, in 1927, the established greats of the American music scene met at Harvard to tear out their hair and beat their brows over the sheer inability of Americans to make a national music comparable to European music. Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bix Beiderbecke, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, and dozens of other American musical geniuses were creating the greatest music of the twentieth century.