Money culture

A new word for China’s brash nouveau riche catches on


Artful chap: Wang Jianlin just purchased a Picasso

What does Jay Gatsby have in common with China? As it turns out, after Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic extravaganza The Great Gatsby hit the Chinese screens at the end of August, audiences quickly associated Leonardo DiCaprio’s social-climbing bootlegger with the nouveau riche of their own country.

On Douban, a popular forum to discuss books and films, many say Gatsby’s love for bling and over-the-top extravagance is just like the tuhao of China. “The film is a sad melody of a tuhao romance,” is how one netizen describes the film. And, in what may have been the most depressing summary of the film’s underlying message: “Tuhao apparently can never become nobility.”

What is tuhao? The word tu means dirt or uncultured; meanwhile, hao usually means splendour. The phrase dates back to ancient times in China, when it referred to landlords who would bully those beneath them. But its usage started to pick up more recently thanks to China’s huge online gaming community, where players use it to mock fellow gamers who buy expensive virtual weapons to compensate for their mediocre skills.

Today, the word has become even more widely used too to describe “nouveau riche with garish tastes and lack of good cultural traits and sophistication,” says the China Daily.

Just last week one tuhao in Zhejiang dominated headlines when a man from a wealthy family proposed to his girlfriend. This drew attention because of the gift he gave to the bride’s parents. In a showy move, 18 of his retinue arrived at their home with thick decks of new banknotes – the cash pile added up to Rmb8.88 million ($1.45 million).

As readers of WiC will know, these types of gestures have become commonplace in China, where the country’s newly minted millionaires are buying everything from gold-painted BMWs to the new gold iPhone 5s. Their obsession with gold has even given rise to the term ‘tuhao gold’. Even the People’s Daily has caught the tuhao bug. The state-run newspaper recently decided to paint the exterior of its new headquarters in Beijing in ‘tuhao gold’.

Meanwhile China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, has been labelled by netizens as ‘the money-burning tuhao’ after he made a Rmb100 million bet with another tycoon on television. He did little to shake the image when he paid millions of dollars to invite DiCaprio and other Hollywood stars to China to open a cinema complex (Wang owns America’s AMC cinema chain). Netizens called September’s extravagant event in the coastal city of Qingdao a celebration of “Haollywood”.

Earlier this month Wang rekindled debate on his tuhao status. That followed his purchase of Picasso’s 1950 painting Claude and Paloma at a Christie’s auction. He paid $28.2 million, more than double the auctioneer’s estimate of $12 million.

The term tuhao has become so popular it might even appear in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. “A lot of media has given attention to the word tuhao, which also triggered our interest… If the influence of tuhao keeps rising, we will consider including it in our 2014 dictionary,” says the Oxford University Press.

Still, what does the rise of tuhao say about Chinese society itself? The magazine New Weekly, which ran a cover story this week about the social phenomenon, wrote: “If you put aside the lack of class and taste, tuhao’s are actually the first to realise the China dream…“

Indeed, the mockery and scorn of the phrase also points to a deeper problem in China: the increasing wealth disparity. For the country’s middle class the term is loaded with contradictions. On the one hand they despise the tuhao for their lack of culture and sophistication, but on the other the success of these nouveau riche has inspired envy.

The popularity of the word “seems to be down to the fact that it encapsulates China’s changing society so well – many people sneer at those with wealth, but are secretly jealous,” the BBC observes.

“The society is now divided into two polar groups: tuhao and diaosi [a term that describes underachieving losers]. While tuhao lack sophistication, diaosi lack the opportunity to move up the social ladder,” New Weekly grimly concludes.

Ironically, the only way to advance may be to befriend the tuhao, judging from the joke that is now doing the rounds. It goes like this: a young man asks a Zen master, “I’m wealthy, but unhappy. What should I do?” The Zen master says, “Define ‘wealthy.” The young man answers, “I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?” The Zen master silently holds out a hand. The young man says: “Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?”

The master replies: “No, but tuhao, can I be your friend?”

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