T-shirts and their culture


T-shirts and their culture
In 1991 Beijing was swept by a fad for logo-emblazoned T-shirts, or ‘cultural shirts’ (wenhua shan), which carried ironic and tongue-in-cheek silk-screened statements and illustrations. The invention of a frustrated artist and cultural gadfly, Kong Yongqian, the shirts sold at street stalls and in shops throughout the city. Similar to ‘attitude T-shirts’ in other countries, in the oppressive urban atmosphere of post-4 June Beijing, the ‘cultural shirts’ proved to be a runaway popular success. They were a reflection of the temper of the times; resulting in numerous imitations; some people even claimed that the shirts gave rise to a ‘T-shirt culture’ that has flourished ever since.
Slogan T-shirts had appeared on the mainland as far back as the 1950s bearing legends like ‘Oppose the US, Support Korea, and Protect the Motherland’, or ‘Oppose Revisionism, Prevent Revisionism’. Universities and schools also produced shirts bearing their names, either in print or in the calligraphy of Mao (if they were so privileged).
Kong’s 1991 T-shirts had their greatest impact in Beijing, a city where sardonic wit and straight-faced irony that often verged on gallows humour were appreciated perhaps more than anywhere else in China. The most famous sayings on his shirts, which soon entered everyday language, included: ‘Life’s a bore’ (zhen lei) and ‘I’m pissed, leave me alone’ (fanzhe né, bie li wo). Others parodied old Party slogans, like ‘I’m not afraid of hardship, nor afraid of dying; and I’m not afraid of you’ (yi bupa ku, er bupa si, ye bupa ni).
Still others expressed the frustrated commercial spirit of many in the days before Deng Xiaoping launched a new wave of economic reforms in early 1992, like ‘A total failure: I’d like to be a smuggler but don’t have the nerve/Wanna be a bureaucrat but ain’t sly enough/If I slack off at work I’ll be canned/Wanna start a stall but don’t have the cash’ (Yishi wu cheng: yao zousi mei dan’r/xiang dangguan’r shao xinyan’r/hun rizi za fanwan’r/qu liantan’r mei ben’r). The shirts were soon banned, Kong was detained and fined. Soon all that was left of the summer craze of 1991 were innocent and anodyne imitations, as well as the constant use of T-shirts as mobile billboards for brand products.
As Gregor Benton pointed out in an essay on political humour in China:
political jokes are revolutions only metaphorically. They are moral victories, not material ones. To be sure, officials whose pride is wounded will smart for a while and may lash out at those responsible for the hurt. But the more cynical and far-sighted among them know that political jokes and the other small freedoms that irritate some zealots are a useful means of dissipating tensions and of keeping people happy, and that it would be foolish to deal with them too harshly…To permit jokes against the state is a clever insurance against more serious challenges to the system.
After a stint in Australia and the USA in 1992–4, Kong returned to China and involved himself in a series of unsuccessful get-rich-quick schemes. With the coming of the new century, he, like so many others, turned his attention to the Internet.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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