In China, patriotic nostalgia is big business


FIVE OR SIX Years ago, when many Chinese still associated American culture with novelty and fun, Halloween was big business in Caoxian. This rural county claims to be the biggest source of inexpensive costumes in China for children’s parties and school concerts as well as dramatic galas that are sometimes held in Chinese workplaces, from small factories to government departments. Not so long ago, Caoxian entrepreneurs could live a year on a month’s sale of pumpkin costumes, witch dresses and other Halloween props, says Ren Yafeng, a local costume dealer, perhaps exaggerating a little.

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Over the past three years, however, America’s image has darkened and consumers have become more nationalistic, driven by Communist Party propaganda and four years of Trumpian swagger. Market signals were quickly received in Caoxian, as this light manufacturing hub in eastern Shandong Province is linked to customers through e-commerce. Officials in Mr. Ren’s hometown of Sunzhuang report that nearly three-quarters of households sell goods on online platforms such as Taobao, 1688, and Pinduoduo.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party. Throughout the year, orders poured into Caoxian for replicas of the Red Army uniforms that were worn by Communist guerrillas. Schools have been buying them for more than a decade for children to use in shows. But it’s not just children who wear them. Such costumes are now almost compulsory for groups visiting party-approved “red tourism” sites, such as the bases used during the Long March and the battlefields where the Communists suffered gruesome but inspiring losses. Since January, Mr. Ren has shipped 100,000 Red Army uniforms from his warehouse, located at a crossroads between cornfields and a duck pond. He hopes to resell the same issue before the end of the year.

The sight of adult men and women dressed as 1930s soldiers, in powder blue or gray tunics, octagonal pants and caps topped with a red star, is one of the sights of modern China. They can be seen panting on the Red Army’s supply tracks in Jinggangshan, a mountain in southern China known as the Cradle of the Revolution. They can be heard reciting Mao’s poems in Yan’an, the party’s former headquarters, and singing red hymns around vats of thin soup the troops might have eaten long ago. They are pilgrims, for the party, although an atheist, speaks shamelessly of “sacred” sites, of “martyrs” and of filling hearts with revolutionary fire. The costumes are an aid to the faith. Official documents speak of tourists inspired by “wearing Red Army clothes, eating Red Army meals and walking the Red Army trails.” Some visitors are bureaucrats on government-paid study tours or private company workers eager to show their loyalty to the party. Business guides also rent or sell uniforms to individual tourists. Devotion to authenticity varies, with some visitors pairing uniforms with sneakers and plastic bags filled with modern snacks. Those who pay attention to detail wear old-fashioned cloth slippers, canvas saddlebags and toy guns.

Children’s costumes still make up the bulk of Mr. Ren’s sales, but adult orders are booming. The cheapest Red Army suits sell for 25 yuan ($ 3.90) while more durable uniforms can go up to 100 yuan, including a belt and cap. He reports seeing a first wave in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan, and ever-increasing orders from revolutionary bases over the past two or three years.

Especially last year, when covid-19 lockdowns forced performances to be canceled, many Caoxian costumers branched out into another patriotic fad, selling the supposedly old-fashioned dresses known as Hanfu to individual buyers. These loose dresses and tunics are largely invented, based on a mishmash of historical styles. Yet, they are adopted by many Han Chinese, who make up over 90% of the population. They lacked an ethnic costume that they could call their own, unlike Tibetans or other minorities. Even children’s costumes are becoming more and more patriotic. Those based on “Journey to the West”, a famous folk saga, are quick sellers, as are some based on a 1980s cartoon series about seven brothers born from magical gourds. In Sunzhuang, locals call national pride a sign of progress, suggesting that as the Chinese get richer and no longer care about their next meal, their minds turn to “higher things,” like their own history. . The village party secretary, Sun Xueping, encouraged locals to seek jobs as migrant workers. Now he is urging them to stay and make more money selling products online. If these products reflect the love of the country and the celebration, “it’s a win-win”, he beams.

Red tourism, golden opportunities

Down the alley in Mr. Ren’s warehouse, a line of beige uniform pants drying next to a stack of corn on the cob reveals an even more specialized business. Through a farm gate is a backyard workshop employing a dozen people to make costumes worn by enemy troops decades ago. Inside, the workbenches are filled with caps bearing the blue and white insignia of the nationalist regime, which the Red Army overthrew in 1949. Boxes contain the black and white uniforms of the nationalist police, which hunted down the underground Communists. in Shanghai and other cities. These are used by extras in videos or shows, guesses workshop owner Ren Gen. He only gets orders for adult sizes, maybe because parents don’t want kids to be bad guys.

It is telling that the blue or gray uniforms of the early decades of the party dominated the replica trade. There is less demand for the green uniforms worn in Mao’s later years, including by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76. In Caoxian, as elsewhere, this dark period saw destroyed temples and people with poor social background, or even a thin connection to the outside world, tortured by crowds. “People don’t really want to mention such things,” says an older resident who recalls the horrors. Nostalgia is both party-approved and profitable in China today. It is also selective.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Patriotism for Profit”


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