When I close my eyes and think of China, this is what I see: Swirling dragons and sweeping calligraphy. Elegant, refined porcelain. Extravagant architecture from dynasties past.
Fast forward to the 20th century. I’m surrounded by walls covered with propaganda posters and a sea of bicycles. I walk along streets lined with imitation logos, bumping shoulders with people carrying fake LV bags.
Then suddenly I’m transported to modern times. Bright, dazzling ads wrap monstrous skyscrapers from head to toe. A blur of innovation, it’s a society developing at breakneck speed, powered by a digital revolution.
As I open my eyes, my mind is spinning. Trying to picture China always gives me vertigo because it conjures up such a spectrum of polarizing visuals. It’s hard to say what China really is—even harder to pinpoint what modern China is.
And I’m not the only one trying to define it. Across almost every sector, China has evolved, developing at a speed unlike any the world has ever seen. Regardless of industry, everybody wants a piece of China today. With its 1.4 billion inhabitants, it’s the world’s largest untapped well of data, knowledge and potential.
So here’s the $1.4 billion question: What exactly is modern China?
As a designer, I believe design itself holds an intrinsic power that’s often overlooked. It has the power to capture the spirit of a culture: When harnessed well, it can mirror the mood, beliefs, and even value systems of a place at a particular time.
Let’s look at Japanese design for example. Often (inaccurately) referred to as “Asian design”, Japanese design is in a league of its own. Elegant, subtle and obsessed with reducing the unnecessary. Why is it so streamlined? Because it is a direct reflection of the Japanese mind-set: the pursuit of serenity that comes from mindful decluttering. Translated into design language, it has become a global phenomenon: Minimalism.
Now on the other side of the world, this principle remains. Take iconic Western design in the 1980s (below). A product of a society at its peak, design from that era is bursting with optimism: bright colors, dynamic typography, an obsession with neon.
But in recent years, economic and political instability has unfortunately sucked away the creativity. We now see a resurgence of heritage design because people are drawn to design codes that signal simpler, happier times.
Rooting design in motifs from earlier periods, recognizable elements such as calligraphy and frames are making a reappearance in cases like limited-edition Pepsi “Retro Cans” and fast-growing categories like gin (above).
From China’s universally-recognized aesthetic codes to the inventions that spurred global revolutions, design has played an indicative role following the course of China’s development.
However, nearing the '90s, China lost its close relationship with design. There no longer existed a quintessential, representative Chinese aesthetic. This is because as socioeconomic turmoil finally came to an end in the '90s, China’s boom of prosperity spurred bewildering transformation, in turn costing China its identity.
This 5000-year-old civilization suddenly became a teenager without its own sense of self, copying other stabilized, grown-up markets in the quest to discover who it truly was as it grew and morphed day by day.
And like most teenagers, it got lost. It tried to mimic its neighbors.
Chinese brand Nongfu Spring (market leader in spring water) released its Vitamin Water in 2011, arguably a direct copy of Coca Cola’s Glaceau Vitaminwater (above).
Chinese consumer goods variety store Miniso modeled its minimal look after Japanese retailer Uniqlo, from its logo through to online platforms, down to retail design (above).
Even traditional Chinese elements were revived in some shape or form, dubbed “the new China style”. See for example, this Nike limited-edition series for the China market (below).
Meanwhile, Chinese cosmetics brand Meikang (below) borrows generic elements from tradition. While aesthetically pleasing, it represents a fundamental issue: modernized traditional Chinese design is still just “old wine in a new vase”. Underneath, modern China is still without its own identity separate from Western influence or generations past.
A modernization of traditional elements is not an accurate representation of modern China, because things are completely different from what they used to be when these elements were a relevant depiction of the environment.
So Modern China continues to roam as the same lost teenager, trying on different things in the hopes of finding one that may fit, lacking its own distinctive character.
China’s new generation (born during and after the mid '90s) has brought about an inflection point. For the first time in decades, there is a spirit so acute and unique that it can finally be captured through design once again.
This new generation was born during the time of unprecedented affluence. China’s one-child policy guaranteed that they would be raised with financial safety nets and with basic needs taken care of. They were free to explore what was previously discouraged: freedom to find their own sense of identity and subsequent self-expression. They’ve made China the most optimistic country in the world, with 94% of Chinese teenagers being hopeful about their own country’s future, compared with 64% of American youth. (Data Source: Inkstone)
The generation shaping modern China is positive, confident and fearless. The definition becomes simple as it is complex: Modern China is young.
With the lack of historical baggage and newfound positivity for the future, young China has become a culture that’s proud of its own. A recent surge of “Made in China” pride has urged many local brands to burst out of the shadows and take the spotlight, that was previously claimed by Western counterparts.
Representatives have popped up, shaking up their respective categories to define a modern Chinese aesthetic.
Chinese athletic-wear retailer Li Ning (below), for example, offers a bold look bridging performance wear with high-end streetwear aesthetics, satiating the growing need of having an ownable Chinese style among a landscape of established Western aesthetics (driven by Nike).
Chinese coffee giant luckin coffee (below) represents a self-assured identity with its deer logo and its spokespeople “looking up”, reflecting the assertiveness and confidence of its Chinese audiences.
Facing the mounting pressure of appealing to China’s youth, many mass, older brands are losing relevance because their audiences don’t have any emotional attachment to their heritage cues. It’s become a battle to re-invent yourself, which is no easy task for 100+-year-old brands.
As an example of a brand leading its category in re-invention, take China’s first local beer, Harbin Beer. The brand has a 119-year history, and is one of many local beers, that was part of a category built and driven by Western design codes. So the local beer category is dominated by crests and badges, holding shapes with brand names fitting horizontally across them (below).
Harbin Beer, by contrast, launched a radical redesign this year, which presents a brand-new language unprecedented in its category to grab the attention of China’s fickle youth (below).
Harbin’s new logo and packs completely break away from current category convention, and its new identity takes cues from craft-beer language, reflecting an energy and unique personality previously lacking from the category.
Through cases like Li Ning, Luckin and Harbin Beer, we learn that in this era of modern China, conventional language is meant to be broken, in order to make way for the new. This boldness is exactly the spirit of this culture. It’s no longer trying to mimic its neighbors nor is it trying to modernize things from the past. We’re proud of our own uniqueness, and we’re celebrating this through tradition-shattering design explorations.
There may not be a distinct aesthetic yet—but we can be sure of one thing: this is the time for experimentation, for fundamental transformations, for brave rebrands from the inside out. If you want to capture the hearts of young China, you need to echo its bravery to try new things, and to share its hunger in setting new standards.
René Chen is co-founder and Nina Kong is senior strategist at JKR René & Yolanda branding design.