Beverly Hillbillies in China
They have been mentioned more than 56 million times on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. Everyone wants to be their friend, but no one likes them. They seem to be everywhere, throwing around their newly minted renminbi and well-used UnionPay debit cards; yet they are elusive and shun the media. Their love for bling has become the backbone of the global luxury goods industry, yet they are also the subject of disdain, the butt of jokes, the punching bag for that which is offensive to good taste.
They are the tuhao -- tu means dirt or uncouth; hao means splendor -- and they are the Beverly Hillbillies of China.
Tuhao once meant rich landowner -- the villainous landed gentry and class enemy of communist China's proletariat -- but the term's modern revival began with a popular joke that made its rounds on Chinese social media in early September. A young man asks a Zen master, "I'm wealthy but unhappy. What should I do?" The Zen master responds, "Define 'wealthy.'" The young man answers, "I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?" The Zen master silently holds out a hand, inspiring the young man to a realization: "Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?" The Zen master says, "No … Tuhao, can I become your friend?"
This rather lame joke struck a chord with China's middle class, a rapidly expanding group that now numbers over 300 million. As a middle-class lifestyle grows increasingly normal, so has disdain for flaunted wealth. Many Chinese would now say they consider themselves the antithesis of tuhao -- educated, fashionable, and disdainful of conspicuous consumption.
At the same time, Chinese live in a society where understanding tuhao is valuable, catering to tuhao taste is lucrative, and making tuhao friends is sensible. Multinational corporations understand this.
Tuhao had their breakout moment on Sept. 20, when Apple introduced a gold version of the new iPhone 5s smartphone. Despite initial disbelief that Apple would indulge such tackiness, the gilded phone has become insanely popular in China, where it is known -- even in state media headlines --as the "tuhao gold."
The tuhao concept extends beyond gilded gadgets. On Sept. 22, members of Hollywood royalty flocked to the seaside Chinese city of Qingdao for the opening of a cinema complex owned by developer Wang Jianlin, whom Bloomberg calls China's richest man. China's Internet users labeled the event an "Extravaganza of Tuhao" and a celebration of "Haollywood". A-listers rubbed shoulders with security guards in uniforms; elderly locals performed Chinese opera. The country's middle class, it seems, is conflicted: The nouveau is surely gauche, but the old is still uncouth.
Among stiff competition, the most famous tuhao on the Chinese Internet in early October was a nameless woman in backwater Anhui province. Chinese media reported that she gave a Bentley worth approximately RMB 4 million (about $650,000) to her son-in-law as a wedding gift. Some allege the reporter fabricated the story, but it has already caused uproar online, where responses range from derision to expressions of real or exaggerated jealousy of the young man's good luck.