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China has experienced profound political and socioeconomic changes in the last few decades. Within the past few years, however, consumption has dominated the frenzied pace of change, impacting social life immensely. LiAnne Yu’s insightful book, Consumption in China: How China’s New Consumer Ideology is Shaping the Nation, is an engaging account of everyday consumption practices currently taking shape in the country. Through interviews and home visits, as well as drawing from more than 20 years of visits to and extended time spent in the country as an independent anthropologist and consumer insights strategist, Yu focuses on consumers mainly in the cosmopolitan cities of Shanghai and Beijing who are considered symbols of the country’s growing wealth. Having gone through decades of dearth under Mao, and then decades more of transition to a market economy after reforms began in the late 1970s, people now have considerable expendable income and myriad goods from which to choose. Long gone are the austerity and anti-bourgeois ideas of Maoism. The state now encourages domestic consumption and, along with it, promotes very different values that are transforming multiple dimensions of social life.
Consumption in China examines these transformations, with each chapter centered around a theme: “Spaces,” “Status,” “Lifestyles,” “Commodification,” and “Awareness.” These five chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion, can be read in any order. This book complements Karl Gerth’s 2011 book on consumption, As China Goes, So Goes the World, and the author notes she is inspired by Thorstein Veblen (1899), Michel de Certeau (1984), and Mark Liechty (2003), especially the latter’s [End Page 841] ideas of treating class as a set of processes that are continually renegotiated. The ends of the five core chapters each contain a section called “Theoretical Considerations,” which summarizes the main points of the chapter and draws out key lines of conceptual inquiry.
“Spaces” examines the experiences people have in physical spaces specific to consumption, such as restaurants and malls, as well as virtual spaces, and shows how these spaces allow for both individuals and families to express social distinction. Because grandparents and parents have had very different experiences with consumption in previous decades, young people learn how to be good consumers from spaces outside the family. Yu distances herself from those who study the Internet as what it could be, often in the frame of economic development and political freedom. Instead, she focuses on what it is, namely, “a dynamic space of consumer experimentation, discovery, and sharing” (50) that “has become the center of China’s consumer revolution” (59). Understanding the Internet’s role in consumer experience is critical, as China has nearly 200 million online shoppers (compared to the 170 million in the US) (50). She coins the term “virtu-real” to signify consumer behavior that moves seamlessly between virtual and physical spaces. In one salient example, a young office worker relates to Yu how she planned an outing with coworkers over social media: the group agreed on the restaurant over QQ (a form of social media), downloaded coupons onto their phones, followed map directions, posted food photos, and received friends’ comments on their profiles about the pictures. Since virtual spaces like QQ and other social media, and the Internet in general, are so critical to the consumer experience in China today, it seems Taobao (an online marketplace) could have received much more attention as it is one of the main venues for online shopping. Yu spends little time on this and other Internet sites, which is unfortunate given her claim in the introduction that online services in China are in many ways more advanced than online services in the West (16). I would agree with her statement, and have my own ideas for why they might be more advanced, but explicating these processes would help readers better understand how dominant the Internet is in consumers’ lives in China.
In “Status,” Yu shows how Chinese consumers communicate social distinction through conspicuous consumption and the display of luxury goods, brands, and smart phones—the latter of...