This talk analyses social mobility and digital creativity among some of China’s most precarious people. Its focus is the short video and livestreaming app Kuaishou, which by 2017 had already acquired over 350 million daily active users, mostly concentrated in lower-tier cities and rural areas. Many are also producers, whose creative content celebrates so-called vulgar manners, crass customs, and uncool ways via a cultural mode known as tuwei. This talk explores tuwei via analysis of some of its boldest exponents. These performers behave outrageously as part of a deliberate campaign to monetize bodily abjection, cashing in on precisely those attributes which often make them targets of classist scorn and exclude them from normative routes to social mobility in neoliberal China. Unsurprisingly, Kuaishou has proved socially radioactive. At the same time as building community and creating opportunity amongst those left behind, the app’s lower-body revelry provoked a puritannical state crackdown in 2018, and has also driven many further up the social ladder into hot-headed acts of digital shaming, even vigilantism. Examining both the riotous abjection of Kuaishou and the intemperate reactions to it, this talk explores the limits of subaltern challenges to the shibboleths of taste and status in China today.
Margaret Hillenbrand is Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford.