They recite Tang dynasty poetry, practice calligraphy and martial arts, and dress up in traditional Chinese clothes. They also get millions of views on popular video platforms in China and are leading one of the country’s most intriguing youth trends. These are the fans of Guo Feng, which roughly means National Style.
It’s a broad online trend among a new generation of influencers that’s meant to be about taking pride in traditional Chinese culture. A prominent part of this trend is hanfu, a booming movement in China to bring centuries-old Chinese clothes back to the streets. The term refers to the traditional dress of the Han people, the largest ethnicity in China. But some argue the movement has more to do with nationalism than fashion.
The impact of Guo Feng is being felt on a variety of online platforms, but it’s most visible on Bilibili, a video platform akin to YouTube that has traditionally catered to gamers and Japanese anime fans. Bilibili also publishes a list of the most impactful uploaders, similar to YouTube Rewind. This year included a couple of names under the Guo Feng banner.
Between 2018 and 2019, Guo Feng videos surged 60% on Bilibili, according to the platform. These videos cover content that ranges from traditional music, dance and poetry to Guo Feng-style anime. The trend has also been big on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, where it has generated dozens of related hashtags. One Guo Feng star named Nanzhi, who explains how to dress up in traditional costumes, has 1.5 million followers.
Some cite the influence of Japanese and Korean traditional garb wearers, while others see the impact of anime-inspired cosplay beloved by Bilibili users. Many, however, see the roots of the trend in popular period TV dramas such as The Story of Yanxi Palace or wuxia novels, a genre that combines fantasy and martial arts (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
What’s obvious, though, is that the trend has blown up over the last couple years, and many people are trying to cash in on it. An overwhelming majority of Guo Feng fans are Gen Z-ers, according to research by Beijing Youth Daily. So it’s probably not surprising that on Taobao, China’s dominant ecommerce site, search for hanfu clothes surpassed that of regular shirts with more than US$25 million worth of hanfu clothing sold during the Double 11 shopping festival.
The hanfu wearers are also stepping out into the streets. The movement started in the early 2000s as a fringe subculture that attracts weird looks. But today it has state-supported events like Traditional Chinese Garment Day, which is organized by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League (CCCYL) and Bilibili.