Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Hanging Clothes and Losing Face: Che in China

Che Guiverra Doesn’t Hang His Clothes in the Street

I was riding the subway to the real estate development I am currently researching the other day, and as I stood up to get off, I noticed the profile of Che Guevara, the South American revolutionary that emblazens many T-shirts and posters in colleges throughout the United States. Curious as to Che’s appearance in Shanghai, no less on the number 5 subway line (which runs between Xinzhuang and the Minhang Economic Development Zone—both in Minhang District and all outside the outer-ring road—I leaned in for a closer look, and discovered an image of a Che T-shirt on a bamboo rod hanging over a narrow alley.

While the image is slightly blurred, you can make out the Chinese if you squint:

Chinese: “乱晾乱晒,它都怕丢人,你呢?”

Literal translation: “Chaotically hanging and drying your clothes -- it [Che shirt] is afraid of losing face, how about you?”

Figurative translation: “By hanging clothes out to dry next to the street, on sidewalks, from electric lines, etc, you go against principles of suzhi [quality, properness, manners], so you should be ashamed.”

Explanation and Opinion: It is definitely true that Shanghai people, more often outsider in Shanghi and especially the floating population (liudong renkou), lack proper places to hang their clothes. For those in apartment complexes, the “sun room” is a feature of almost all apartments, an area in which and from which to hang clothes. As I have mentioned in a previous blog, any view of an apartment complex in China will reveal hundreds to thousands of pieces of clothing in a rainbow of colors. In China, this appearance is jokingly referred to as “the 10,000-color flag of China” (wanguo qi) Hence those with apartments, more likely to be Shanghaiese or the huji population who make 70% of the population in 2007 according to the latest number from the Shanghai Bureau of Statistics (, have no need to be chaotic or outrageous with where they hang their clothes.

For those with less fortunate circumstances, however, the street is often the only place outside their domain (whether store, abandoned building, alleyway, etc.) where wet clothes can catch a brisk breeze. Che, figured in the city government public service announcement, is reminding this latter group (and perhaps re-enforcing what is “civilized” about the former group) that they should hang clothes away from the street, sidewalk, phone pole, fence.

My two cents: In thinking about Che and hanging clothes out to dry, the first thing I am reminded of is, as I argued in Green China, that China consumers are incredibly environmentally conscious. They do it out of cost, rather than some ideological commitment to the earth. Using the sun and wind to dry your clothes saves energy—indeed, a salute to the 10,000-color flag. The second thing is that, as a 2-year resident of Shanghai, the site of clothes hanging from phone lines, underwear in front of stores, pants and shirts on fences, indeed gives the appearance of untidiness and chaos—two things a stereotypical Shanghaiese dreads, preferring instead well-groomed, precise, and orderly appearances (of people as well as of buildings, streets, and apartment complexes). Perhaps I have become a little Shanghaiese myself. But the third point comes more from my Beijing-background, where the people reign supreme. There is nothing unsanitary (scientifically) or harmful about these clothes hanging in the street. Indeed, living in cramped and often dirty conditions, people still wash and dry their clothes—necessitating a place to hang them. The necessity of saving energy in the process of cleaning trumps Shanghaiese uneasiness about appearances. It is unfortunate that Che doesn’t agree.

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