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‘Cowboy Cloth’ and Kinship

The closeness of denim consumption in a South-west Chinese city

Thomas Niall McDonald, University College London

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, lying on the South-West frontier of China’s territory. Though Yunnan remains one of the poorest provinces in China, with a 2008 GDP of approximately £1100 GBP per head (YSGHFWYH, 2009). Kunming, however, renders itself economically in sharp contrast to large parts of the rest of the province. The city has escaped the recession that faced China’s east coast cities during the last two years, and continues to attract economic migrants from the countryside. In 2005 the total population was 5,084,722, of which 743,868 were ethnic minorities (Zhao, 2007).

Denim consumption has become a common feature of the sartorial landscape in Kunming. The researcher’s own head-count on a commercial street in the centre of the city revealed 44 out of 100 passers-by were wearing denim. In Kunming’s residential suburbs this figure decreased to 23 out of 100.

This essay concerns itself with the ramifications of denim consumption in contemporary Kunming, with a central focus on the effect of this garment on the formation of kinship in the city. Long-standing ethnographic evidence stresses familial relationships as constituting the fundamental tenet of Chinese cosmological systems of belief, central to the structural organisation of society. The work of Morgan (1871), Lévi-Strauss (1969) and Freedman (1965) informed anthropology’s classical model of kinship as being consanguineal in nature, agnatic, emphasising patrilineality, reinforced through a complex array of vocatives, and the corporate institution of the family. It will now be briefly illustrated how jeans materialise kinship through the experience of shopping in Kunming, and observations made of denim appropriation within the context of familial relations.

Shopping for jeans

Store displays contributed significantly to the formation of discourses around denim. They did not attempt to conceal denim brands. Store holdings bore brand names, and denim was intentionally displayed to give prominence to the clothing label on the inside waist, or the leather patch on the outside waist above the rear pocket, which would normally be obscured by a belt.

denim rows

Jeans hung giving prominence to Yexingtou brand name, written in pinyin on inside waist label.

Significantly, in cases where the brand was Chinese (as opposed to Western), the brand name was frequently printed on the jeans in pīnyīn, the official romanisation system for standard Chinese, rather than in Chinese characters themselves. This is also testament to the symbolic value of the Latin alphabet, in and of itself.

The names chosen for the brands themselves also have semiotic value. Nationally, 68% of the population are able to read pīnyīn (JBYWYYS, 2004), although less in older generations. Thus, symbolic names can at least be partially understood by those who wear them. The names warrant attention because of the prominence they are given by shopkeepers, but also, as is apparent below, the relative heterogeneity in many of their meanings.

hanging jeans

Men’s Dongliniu jeans hung with the leather reverse label, inside waist label and brand/price tag on display.

Simply translating these Chinese brand names into English, at a content analysis level, brings forth two main themes. The first is names which are generally seen as subversive, challenging and nefarious such as ‘devil’s head’, ‘wild nature head’, ‘little strange devil’ and ‘devil-fish’; the second theme revolves around strength, force and animality with names like ‘dynamic force cow’, ‘skillful child’, ‘open-up promote’.

The invocation of ghosts is an atypical branding technique for Chinese mass-produced items. Requiring further explanation, however, are the brands containing the word for a devil, as in traditional Chinese popular religion are devils or ghosts are able to harm individuals (Stafford, 1995:44).

hanging jeans 2

Hanging method of men’s jeans

There was a clear differentiation between the way male and female jeans were hung. The methods emphasised the differing cut of jeans between the two genders. Male jeans are frequently hung at an angle, or from one edge. The bottom of the leg was rolled up to about ankle length. In one case, the jeans were ‘double hung’ (name given by author), a procedure which involves hanging one pair of jeans inside a second pair of jeans. One shop owner explained that doing this made the jeans attractive (xīyin), claiming this hanging method had the advantage of giving the jeans shape and form. Jeans, he asserted, “want to be revealed” (yào zhanshì chūlái). The jeans are exhibited in a way that appears to suggest they are in movement, or motion. Men’s jeans are typically loose (kuānsōng), an adjective which has other shared meanings: relieved or relaxed.

Women’s jeans, by contrast, were frequently hung flat in close racks, or flat against walls. Female jeans were also often dressed on half-mannequins that seemed to emphasis the tightness (jin) of the jeans. The word jin also has other homonyms, including ‘pressing’ and ‘strict’.

mannequin legs

Female jeans displayed on mannequins.

Women’s jeans were also frequently displayed and folded in such a way that the embroidered rear pocket was given prominence. Drawing attention to the embroidered rear pocket in this way suggests that such designs are judged as an important feature of women’s jeans. The patterns were, in the main, intricate designs often featuring floral patterns. In addition, women’s jeans also defined themselves by an often dazzling array of sequins or fake diamonds. Older women tended to wear sequinned tops, while younger women wore sequined jeans. One female seller accounted for the precedence for such sparkly items by explaining “when you wear them you feel you yourself shine”.

‘Every type, every kind’: varieties of denim and consumers

The Chinese term for the fabric denim (niúzaibù), is a composite of the word ‘cowboy’ (niúzai) and the character for ‘cloth’ (). The array of products available under this term are incredibly wide (especially for females), but accounts from merchants all tell of the proliferation of differing applications of denim over the last decade. This is of vital significance in the understanding of how denim relates to kinship, particularly in connection to the relationships between generations.

In an effort to try and understand the demographic of denim wearers merchants were asked “what kind of customers buy your jeans?’ Virtually all of them answered with the Chinese idiom “every type, every kind” (各种各样 gèzhong gèyàng). Mrs Hong, the owner of a small speciality stall, was forthcoming with further details, explaining her customers were mostly under 50. However, older individuals still sometimes buy jeans for their grandchildren. This also ties in with the researcher’s own observations that shopping for clothing was often a family process. In the last few years, Mrs Hong noticed a further phenomenon: a general trend of denim consumption ‘seeping up’ to the middle-aged demographic. She claimed that in 2008, men between the ages of 40-50 started purchasing denim for their own consumption. Accounts such as this reveal demographic expansion in the consumption patterns. This description of denim in flux was accompanied by an awareness amongst retailers of the changing variety of denim products. It was almost as if, as well as there being ‘every type and every kind’ of consumer, there was also ‘every type and every kind’ of denim.

Men’s denim most often appeared in the form of the denim jeans. Within this there were several styles and forms of distressing. Jeans with little distressing were referred to as ‘simple’ (jiandān). Popular among some younger males were jeans with bleached thigh areas. Jeans featuring heavy distressing, such as tears or holes were rarely observed in Kunming, and were often described as being ‘shabby’ jeans (pòjiù; literally ‘broken and old’), or by the more creative term ‘beggars trousers’ (qigàikù). There also exist, for males, jeans adorned with paint, distressing, and other marks, extra pockets, stitching or buttons. In addition, younger men, particularly labourers, were also observed wearing denim shorts. Denim shorts are frequently cut at knee-length, but also have frayed edges.

For women, denim occupies a particularly expansive array of forms. Informants divided jeans into a wealth of categories, mostly depending on cut. These included flared jeans (la bā niúzaikù); straight-cut jeans (zhítōng niúzaikù); pencil jeans (qiānbi niúzaikù). Female distressed jeans were, like men’s, referred to as ‘shabby’ or ‘beggars’ jeans, and were sighted on only one occasion during the fieldwork period.

The variety of non-jean denim items available to females was particularly overwhelming. These included denim dungarees (niúzai bēidàikù); dungaree shorts (niúzai bēidàiduankù); denim skirts (niúzai qún) which encompassed strappy (diàodài) and dungaree (bēidài) varieties; denim shorts (niúzai duankù) of various lengths starting from hot-pants (rèkù) and proceeding on a graduated scale for thigh-length shorts (sānfēn, literally ‘30%’), knee-length (wufēn, 50%), below-knee (qīfēn, 70%) and shin length (jiufēn, 90%).[1] These non-jean forms of denim seemed to be confined, in the main, to those below the age of 30. Dungaree type clothing was, in general, limited to younger women, my informants frequently speaking of it as being “cute”.

The popularity of these various items was not in stasis. Mrs Hong told the researcher that this year the popularity of denim waistcoats (niúzai majia) had decreased sharply. Several informants reported a surge in popularity for pencil jeans.

Young children frequently wore particularly loose jeans, embellished with cartoon characters or flowers (females only). The wearing of denim jackets was also more common for children. Evidence suggests the practice of dressing children in denim has been place for as far back as the start of the 1980s. The practice is particularly significant in considering the role of parents in introducing their offspring to denim.

There was occasional disagreement among informants about what items could, and could not be called jeans. One informant claimed to own three pairs of jeans, while her daughter told the researcher they were “not real jeans”, citing the thin fabric as the disqualifying factor. Another middle-aged man was criticised by his peers in the same family for wearing similarly thin ‘jeans’. The rugged qualities of denim originate from the weft of the cotton twill textile being passed under two or more warp fibres during production to make a dense, and the presence of metal riveting. There was not an opportunity to examine these problematic garments in detail, so it is unknown whether their construction made them bona fide denim. However, the disagreement over what was and was not denim was significant, as it often seemed to align itself with generational divides.

Denim in the family

Many of the young people included in this investigation were effectively ‘weaned onto’ denim by parents, or other members of the preceding generation. An informant in her early twenties recalled being gifted denim dresses from relatives as early as the 1990s. Parents were often complicit in, or the instigators of, the purchase of denim for their offspring. As such, many parents encouraged their children to dress in denim, while not wearing the fabric themselves. This indicated that parents wished their offspring’s sartorial life to be markedly different to their own.

As these children, born from the end of the 1970s onwards grew up, they continued to wear denim, albeit the styles which they wore tended to undergo transformation. As they grew, they became able to express themselves through the widening array of denim available for purchase. Children who started with a denim skirt or trousers, now owned a multitude of denim items, encompassing skirts, jackets, trousers, dungarees and shorts. Also, varying styles of embellishment and adornment, from cartoon characters to flowers, paint and English words, enabled consumers to find a type that was appropriate to them, while still being ‘denim’.

Having effectively ‘weaned’ their children onto denim, most parents opted not to actively follow the path they had sent their own offspring down. One young woman recounted the pairs of jeans that hung, unused, in her parents’ wardrobes. A woman in her forties had a pair of unused jeans that she disliked for their lack of comfort and overall tightness. The jeans a separate woman of similar age purchased for her daughter had been rejected, and by default fell to her to wear, which she did so in the workplace, despite being somewhat ill-fitting. Parents would happily say that denim looked good on their own offspring, but that it was not suitable for themselves. This phenomena may be explained by the fact that these parents are likely have witnessed or been aware of the criticism levelled at denim by the CCP in the 1980s, and more broadly, the severe repercussions of sartorial indiscretions during the cultural revolution (Nien, 1987:85; in Steele & Major, 1999:59). It is possible that such memories generate the ambivalence felt by parents and grandparents towards wearing denim themselves.

Conclusion: the closeness of denim

Denim has been particularly efficacious due to its ability to insert itself into traditional notions of nurturance and kinship, enabling Kunming parents to gift it to their children in the hope their lives would be fundamentally different from their own, coupled with an awareness that an alteration in material circumstances would be necessary to achieve such a change. But denim also provoked a ‘kinship gulf’ between children and their parents, one that parents now appeared keen to close, by purchasing and wearing denim of their own, though not without a degree of ambivalence. It is as if, having dispatched their offspring into the Brave New World, parents desired to follow in their progenies’ footsteps, to experience some of the materiality their offspring had. Ambivalence was best reflected by the amount of parents’ jeans lying inactive, in wardrobes. Thus, perhaps the most remarkable discovery about denim denim in Kunming at the turn of the century is that it was seen as a tool to create generational disjuncture through traditional means, and then later was hoped to be the solution to remove this disjuncture.

Denim has indicated, with great subtlety, an important change that has taken place within South-western Chinese society. Denim showed hope for the future of the youngest generation, a desire that through their use they could be ‘comfortable’, in every sense of the word, not only with their family and peers but with a world ‘out there’. Denim not only provided this opportunity, but continues to do so, day in and day out.


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[1] Men’s shorts were also similarly graduated, although the rate of adoption of shorts at lengths other than knee-length appeared much less.