Consumerism, both as the mass consumption of commercial goods and as an ideology of the Chinese economy, has significantly shaped the lives of the ordinary Chinese since the end of the 1970s. Since the end of the 1970s, ‘mass consumption’ (dazhong xiaofei), a characteristic of consumption, came to refer to the rapid spread of durable goods such as refrigerators, televisions and washing machines into every household within a few years. If one family purchased an item, all families in the neighbourhood followed suit. Also, mass consumption was manifest at the ideological level. Because the individual was not allowed to own productive materials under the system of planned distribution, ownership of consumer goods became the major form of personal wealth. Hence, in the mid 1980s when reform began in the cities, ‘make money, spend hard’ (nengzheng huihua) became a fashionable new lifestyle widely reported in the media.
As incomes rise and new products enter the market, Chinese households steadily redefine which household purchases are considered ‘major items’ (dajian). During the 1970s, bicycles, sewing machines and watches were considered substantial household purchases. In the 1980s, colour televisions, refrigerators and washing machines were the new status objects. In the 1990s, stereo sets, air conditioners, microwaves and personal computers became the new indicators. Housing and home improvement are currently a major area of consumption. All-in-one housing units—self-contained apartments with their own entrance, private bath and kitchen—have become the norm in new buildings and the standard in most renovations.
The development of consumption has also been shaped by the significant increase of leisure time. Before the 1980s, there was hardly differentiation between ‘work time’ (gongzuo shijian) and ‘rest time’ (xiuxi shijian), between ‘individual activities’ (geren huodong) and ‘collective activities’ (jiti huodong), and between ‘material pleasure/entertainment’ (wuzhi xiangshou/yule) and ‘spiritual pleasure/entertainment’ (jingshen xiangshou/yule). By the 1990s, the boundaries between ‘work for wages’ (gongzuo) and ‘leisure’ (xiuxian) had been clearly marked. Moreover, leisure time has been increased significantly since 1994 when the Chinese government reduced weekly work hours from forty-eight to forty. Since 1999, the national holidays, including Chinese New Year Festival, May Day and National Day (1 October), have been significantly expanded so that Chinese have more time to consume and travel. May Day celebration, for example, has been extended from a one-day to a seven-day holiday. The total number of holidays in a year has currently reached to 114 days.
The Chinese government has also encouraged the development of the ‘rights of the consumers’ (xiaofeizhe). The first consumer rights organization began in Xingle county, Hebei province in 1983. The Chinese Association of Consumers was established in Beijing in 1984, and 15 March has been recognized as International Consumer’s Day since 1985. An Act for Protecting the Rights of Consumers (Xiaofeizhe quanyi baohufa) was passed in 1993. There are now over 20,000 consumer rights organizations across the nation.
Dai, Jinhua (1996). ‘Redemption and Consumption: Depicting Culture in the 1990s’. positions: east asia cultures critique (4.1 Spring): 127–43.
Davis, Deborah (ed.) (2000). The Consumer Revolution in Urban China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Hooper, Beverly (2001). ‘Consumer Voices: Asserting Rights in Post-Mao China’. China Information 14.2:92–128.
Schein, Louisa (2001). ‘Chinese Consumerism and the Politics of Envy: Cargo in the 1990s?’ In Zhang Xudong (ed.), Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China. Durham: Duke University Press, 285–314.
Zhao, Bin and Murdock, Graham (1996). ‘Young Pioneers: Children and the Making of Chinese Consumerism’. Cultural Studies 10.2:201–17.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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