On a regular Shanghai afternoon, I was heading for lunch in Jing’an. As I walked down Wanhangdu Lu towards the temple, I was stopped in my tracks by a startling sight. A gaggle of teens on their lunch break from the school nearby had gathered around a shopfront. As I approached, I saw that the newly opened boutique was a Hello Kitty emporium. The windows were stacked with effigies and figurines of the famous, oddly mouthless feline, and merchandise bearing her image lined the shelves inside. Out of curiosity, I followed the girls inside. They were in their element, squealing at the plethora of Sanrio merchandise, handing over their pocket money in return for glittery mobile phone decorations, purses, stickers, and toys.
Cuteness in China is everywhere. You need only consider the cheerful blue Shanghai Expo mascot, and the five merry Fuwa of the 2008 Olympics to see that “kě’ài” (可爱) has the country in its thrall. And it isn’t confined to teenagers and children; even grown women (and sometimes men) are bewitched by cute. Once I was in a meeting with a businesswoman who used a series of highlighter pens decorated with the cartoon rabbit Miffy during a presentation; I’ve dealt with an estate agent who brandished a crystal encrusted phone, and met countless folk with names like Apple, Charm, Snowflake, and Sparkle (and that’s just the guys…) China Eastern Airline’s swine flu warning video features a group of cartoon pigs being cruelly reprimanded for their poor hygiene by an army of malevolent grinning rabbits. This sort of thing is unimaginable in the West, but very much a part of life over here. Rather more sinister was the case of Lin Miaoke, the nine-year-old girl who was chosen to mime “Ode to the Motherland” at the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony, lip-synching over the voice of the less attractive (but vocally talented) Yang Peiyi.
So where does this fixation with cuteness come from? Japan, that’s where.
Nowhere in the world is fluffy, sparkly, pastel-toned cuteness as rife as it is in Japan. Tokyo is the capital city of cute, an accolade it has held proudly since the 1970s. Apparently, it all started with a handwriting craze among teenage girls in the early 70s. A new style of mechanical pencil meant great versatility, away from the vertical lines decreed by old-fashioned nibbed pens. With these pencils, girls began to write using round characters, adding adornments like flowers, smiles, and hearts. This rendered their handwriting nearly illegible, and unsurprisingly, it didn’t go down too well with teachers. The writing style, named “Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting” by academic Yamane Kazuma who studied it in the 80s, was banned in schools. However, magazines and comic books took it on, and so began a trend that would sweep the country and later the world.
Sanrio started as a silk company in 1960, but recognised the burgeoning fashion for cuteness and relaunched in 1973 as a purveyor of character toys and merchandise. The company now has over 50 characters (including Hello Kitty, a bizarre goth penguin named Badtz Maru, and numerous other saccharine creatures like Chococat, My Melody, and Deery Lou) and rakes in a staggering 1 billion USD per year.
Each of Tokyo’s 47 prefectures has a cute mascot, and All Nippon Airlines painted three of their passenger jets with the image of Pikachu, one of the Pokémon characters (incidentally, and rather amusingly, another of the Pokémon characters labours under the moniker ‘Farfetch’d’). The packaging of Fuji Latex condoms features Sanrio’s Monkichi, a cartoon monkey, and the Asahi Bank decorates its credit cards with images of Miffy.
The Japanese word for this phenomenon is ‘kawaii’ or 可愛い. It is related to Mandarin kě’ài, but while the latter means likeable or lovely, the Japanese word has deeper undertones. ‘Kawaii’ originally meant the protective love a parent feels for a child, with all the implications of weakness and dominance that it entails. There are many theories about the psychology and meaning behind kawaii. It could be a natural impulse towards “harmony” (yes, the Japanese are crazy about it too), or a form of escapism from the drone of daily life. It could be an outlet for hidden desires, seen in the popularity of Maid Cafés in which pretty girls dressed as French maids cater to men’s every non-sexual whim. Many psychologists and sociologists view it as infantilism – an obsession with childishness and youth that could be dangerous in the long term.
But since Chinese society is very different from Japan’s, the psychology behind kě’ài is likely to be different from kawaii. I asked some Chinese friends what they thought of cuteness. Twenty-year-old Xiu thinks it’s a way of brightening things up in an otherwise colourless world. “We love cute stuff because it’s pretty and fun,” she said. “Who wants to own boring stuff when you can decorate it, or buy cute things instead? Life is dull from day to day. It’s better to be cute than dull!” Kelvin, 24, said “I think it’s kind of stupid. My girlfriend loves cute stuff, but I find it frivolous. But if she likes it, I can’t argue!” Hanghzou-born Lucy, age 22, believes that the cuteness trend doesn’t have any darker meanings. “Some people might think I’m trying to look childish, or be infantile, but really that’s not what it’s about. I don’t want to look like a kid, I just want to surround myself with nice-looking images and things.”
Whatever the true meaning of kě’ài, one thing’s for sure – it’s here to stay. I’m heading down to the Hello Kitty store tomorrow to stock up…
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