‘Denim’ and the Dongs

The closeness of denim consumption in a family in a South-west Chinese city
Tom McDonald, Research Student, UCL Department of Anthropology
For the Dong family, who live in Kunming, a city in South-west China, the chief, consumer of denim is 22 year old Dong Baiyi. Dong Baiyi lives at home, with her older brother and parents they have two children, due to an exemption in the family planning laws allowing couples in which one of the parents is of a state-recognised ethnic minority (Dong Baiyi’s mother, Li Jingmei, is of Dai ethnicity) to have multiple births (Sautman, 1998:89-90).
The family are economically comfortable. Dong Baiyi works as a receptionist in a two-star hotel, earning around 2000 RMB per month. Her brother, Dong Yishan, sells insurance, which can earn several thousand RMB per month dependent on commission. Baiyi’s father, Dong Guoping, is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor, and her mother is a nurse.
Dong Baiyi claims only she and her brother wear denim regularly, while her parents wear it very rarely. Baiyi herself had six pairs of jeans, and her brother had 4 pairs. The presence of denim in the family, however, is not a new phenomenon, dating back to 1990, when Baiyi was only four years old. At that time she received a denim dress from her mother’s sister, who, Baiyi informed the researcher, was then making a living importing large amounts of foreign clothing for sale.
Baiyi’s testimony reveals important trends for her induction into denim. All four of the first denim items she received were gifted to her, with at least three coming from close relations on both the maternal and paternal sides of her family. Baiyi herself took an active role in instigating the purchase of one pair.
Since graduating from university Baiyi’s situation has changed. She continues to live at home, but now has works, and considerable autonomy over her clothes, food and lifestyle. However, in this period denim has continued to remain an important feature in Baiyi’s wardrobe, even if the way she has thought about them has changed from an emphasis on ‘cuteness’ to a more practical rationality:

Now I like jeans because they are convenient (fāngbiàn), you can match them with anything. Match them with T-shirts, match them with shirts. And… the main point is you can match them with anything. Also, they won’t be vulgar (yōngsú).

Baiyi’s denim collection has expanded to six pairs of jeans (only three of which she regularly wears), a pair of denim dungarees, and three denim dresses. Baiyi’s jeans often featured floral embroidery.
Virtually every time Baiyi met the researcher she was wearing at least one item of clothing featuring some kind of floral pattern. But flowers were not merely worn by Baiyi, they seemed to permeate her entire life. This was made apparent when Baiyi invited the researcher on a park trip to “look at the flowers” (kànhuā). Baiyi was able to identify a large array of flora, their blossoming times, and sometimes their medicinal use. On at least three separate days, she pointed out, or drew the researcher’s attention to flowers.
Baiyi is aware that her clothing differs markedly from that of her parents. Her father owns only a single pair of jeans (which he rarely wears); her mother owns three; in comparison to four owned by her brother and six by herself. Baiyi reported that none of her grandparents (both paternal and maternal) ever owned or wore jeans. She describes her parents’ style as ‘plain’ (pǔsù), although she said that she did not mind the clothes that they wore. The wearing of flowers, either embroidered or print, seemed to be something that both her and her mother could indulge in, both linking the maternal side and emphasising femininity.
Baiyi has been wearing denim for over four-fifths of her life, and jeans for over half. Baiyi likes jeans because they are “comfortable” and “convenient”, two words she used on countless occasions to describe jeans. Not only has Baiyi grown up, denim has grown with her, and her preferences in what constitutes suitable denim have changed.
Most of her jeans remain straight-legged or flared, which she maintains is appropriate if your body is “just ok”. Flowers emphasise her femininity, but also draw attention to her body. The cut of Baiyi’s denim enables her to be a grown woman, while still being a filial daughter. The history of her receiving the denim from her family represents a tacit approval of her choice by her parents, that has enabled her to expand the forms of denim she wears. The multiple forms of denim Baiyi owns suggest the fabric was instrumental in allowing this transformation of identity to occur.
Denim and the closeness of kinship
The Dong families case, in common with that of other families in China illustrates two phenomena. First, denim has been particularly efficacious due to its ability to insert itself into traditional Chinese notions of nurturance (Stafford, 1995:80; Stafford, 2000) enabling Kunming parents and elder relatives to gift it to their children in the hope that the act would strengthen their kinship bonds, while simultaneously making their offspring’s lives 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 in Kunming at the turn of the century is that it was seen as a tool that could create generational disjuncture through the most traditional of means, and then later was hoped would provide the solution to remove this disjuncture.
This article is an extract from a forthcoming paper to be published in the journal Textile. To preserve informants’ anonymity, their names have been altered.

Sautman, B. (1998). Preferential policies for ethnic minorities in China: The case of Xinjiang. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 4(1), 86-118.
Stafford, C. (1995). The Roads of Chinese Childhood: Learning and Identification in Angang. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stafford, C. (2000). Chinese patriliny and the cycles of yang and laiwang. In J. Carsten (Ed.), Cultures of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study of Kinship (pp. 37-54). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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