November was not traditionally known as a month for bustling festivals in China. That was, until a few years ago, when Alibaba – the Chinese retail giant – created a trademark ‘double 11’ online shopping day. The remarkable e-shopping festival (November 11) that resulted was adapted from an obscure ‘anti-Valentine’s’ singles’ day (guang gun jie) among young single persons in mainland China, who had picked that date because 11/11 resembled single individuals. One might hope that shopping would compensate for their lack of a partner. This year’s double 11 shopping day established a new world record with sales of $17.8bn (£14.2bn) in 24 hours.
As a digital anthropologist, my interest is in the social side of this business phenomenon. Among my WeChat friends from the previous Why We Post project, I can see charts, like the one displayed here, that rank my contacts in terms of how much money they have spent, and how many items they have purchased. People are not shy, it seems, about talking about money and their shopping practices on social media.
Older people are not immune to this. For example, 62-year-old Ms Zhang posted a photo of her new air-filter machine and wrote,
“Young people are just crazy in the double 11 festival. My daughter-in-law is really ridiculous, she bought a very expensive air-filter for me even though she knew I already had two. She always spends a lot of money on me, and I always say I am old now, don’t need so many new things. But she never listened.”
Ms Zhang’s ‘complaint’ invited a string of complements such as “Your daughter-in-law is such a filial (xiao shun) daughter! I envy you. Just take it easy and enjoy a happy life!” or “My son did exactly the same, he just filled my flat with all kinds of new stuffs he bought in double 11. But I think we should just accept the filial piety (yi pian xiao xin) from them! After all we spent money on them the great part of our life, it’s time for them.”
The way this shifts commercial activity into issues of intergenerational relations shows its potential value for my new project on the impact of smartphones among the middle class and middle aged of Shanghai. The study of the smartphone and related digital use is an illuminating starting point for me to understand the daily social life of an urban ageing population in China. Are there other ways in which the smartphones become pivotal in linking kinship with spending, that build on traditional anthropological studies of the gift economy? Can we use smartphones studies to build a picture of the contemporary family in Shanghai? I have sixteen months to find out.