Five million likes, two million comments and one million reposts. That’s the reaction to the October 8 Weibo post where Luhan – also known as the ‘Chinese Justin Bieber’ – admitted his relationship with actress Guan Xiaotong. Five days later, another post telling his fans to stay warm on a chilly Friday also garnered millions of responses.
Luhan and members of a brigade of young Chinese pretty boys collectively labeled as ‘little fresh meat’ (小鲜肉, xiaoxianrou) – Kris Wu, Wang Junkai, Yang Yang, Xu Weizhou, Li Yifeng and many more – have some of the highest engagement numbers among all Chinese celebrities.
On any given day, those who live in any major Chinese cities would find it hard to elude Kris Wu’s blue steel stare while he models the newest Xiaomi smartphone on a subway billboard ad, or Luhan’s cheery grin as he enjoys (or pretends to enjoy?) a piece of fried chicken posted outside every KFC outlet. Chinese consumers – especially their enormous fan base made up of young women born in the 1990s and 2000s – clearly have a soft spot for these young stars.
According to a recent study that ranks the influence of China’s top celebrities and KOLs published by consumer intelligence research firm Bomoda, the social and commercial influence of the abovementioned stars are even higher than some internationally recognized names and award-winning musicians, actors and actresses.
It’s hard to dismiss the star power of the ‘little fresh meat.’ Louis Houdart, the CEO and founder of branding agency Creative Capital, points to French beauty brand L’Occitane’s collaboration with Luhan back in May for their cherry blossom skincare line as a great example.
Immediately after the announcement of naming Luhan as their brand ambassador, all 20,000 units of a limited edition gift box bearing the celebrity’s name were sold out online within two minutes.
“Luhan or any of the xiaoxianrou are an effective way to generate immediate buzz for a brand or a specific campaign; but six months later, people will only remember the brands that already have a strong identity and heritage,” says Houdart at his Shanghai office.
The limited shelf life of ‘little fresh meat,’ he explains, forces them to win as many brand endorsement deals in a short period of time before their freshness expires. “They become overexposed and over-commercialized over a very short time,” Houdart adds. “Using these xiaoxianrou to promote a brand is just a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy.”
After all, it’d be hard to sell oneself as a xiaoxianrou beyond the age of 30. And time is ticking for many of today’s hottest ‘little fresh meat,’ who are already in their mid- to late-20s.
But why are the Chinese so obsessed with these feminine, artificial-looking, guy liner-wearing pretty boys, and what makes them so influential in the first place?
An obvious answer that most people can point to is Korea. Since the late 1990s, the Korean Wave – a global phenomenon of the rising influence of Korean pop culture – has swept away the hearts of an entire generation of youth in the Middle Kingdom. The uncanny resemblance in terms of appearance and styling between K-pop stars like G-Dragon and China’s very own xiaoxianrou is hard to ignore.
But for Dr. Song Geng, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who has written extensively about the portrayal of modern Chinese men in pop culture, the answer is right here in our own backyard.
He argues that the appeal of xiaoxianrou, as well as their Korean and Japanese early influencers, can actually be traced all the way back to the time of Confucius, during the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history.
“The soft image of men is more easily accepted in Chinese and other East Asian cultures because of our shared roots in Confucianism, where the ideal image of men is a culturally refined intellectual who appears frail and feminine. This is very different than the macho idealized masculinity in Western culture,” explains Song.
In his book The Fragile Scholar, Song writes extensively about how this image has transpired into the age-old notion of zhongwen qingwu (重文轻武) in Chinese culture, where wisdom and literary talent is regarded as superior to physical strength and athleticism.
While there are similarities between the images of the modern day Asian pretty boys and fragile scholars of the past, there is, however, also a notable difference. “The term xiaoxianrou – especially the character rou (which translates to ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’) – definitely has some sexual connotation that’s not part of the fragile scholars’ appeal,” Song notes.
The ‘little fresh meat’ phenomenon, he argues, has something to do with the growing financial independence of Chinese women over the past couple of decades or so. “Traditionally, women were the object of desire; but these pretty boys have now become symbols of an implied heterosexual desire on the male body from a female perspective.”
Meanwhile, in the world of fashion, designers such as Coco Chanel and Rick Owens from the West or Yohji Yamamoto and Masha Ma from the East have pushed the boundaries of gender in their work, contributing to an ever-blurring line that is starting to intersect with mainstream culture, too.
South China Morning Post’s senior correspondent Jing Zhang sees a connection between the rising status of street fashion brands in recent years and the ‘little fresh meat’ boom.
“The soft image of men is more easily accepted in Chinese and other East Asian cultures because of our shared roots in Confucianism.”
— Dr. Song Geng, University of Hong Kong
“In casualwear, a lot of pieces are unisex and there’s less distinction between male and female,” Zhang notes. Some young Chinese designers that she’s interviewed take inspiration from a new mood of rebellion within Chinese millennials, who play with the concept of gender identity as an emblem of protest against the traditional roles that their parents’ generation staunchly enforces.
She adds, “It’s a similar case with these feminine looking male pop stars with their heavy make up; I think young people embrace them as a way to express themselves against the stereotypes that an older generation of society upholds.”
HKU’s Song Geng, however, sees the xiaoxianrou trend as more of an indication for a broader, more inclusive Chinese sense of appreciation for different styles of men. “The tough guy image still has its market,” he says, referring to the record-breaking success of Wolf Warrior 2 over the summer.
On Luhan’s Baidu Tieba (a web forum frequented by his loyal fans), which has nearly 3.5 million followers, an interesting thread written by the forum moderator on October 14 caught my eye.
In summary, this lengthy open letter to the community addresses the fact that some negative comments about their beloved pop idol have been circulating on the internet in recent days (following Luhan’s post about his relationship status), and she asks other fans to refrain from engaging in any verbal fights with trolls, as well as urging them to continue to support ‘Lu Lu’ through these difficult times.
Hundreds of replies with messages of support from fans around the country all came within the next few minutes and hours – many writing even longer letters detailing why, when, where and how they fell in love with Luhan in the first place.
This is the power of the ‘little fresh meat.’