Caoxian has an unusual claim to fame. As WiC noted last January, the rural county of 1.75 million in eastern Shandong province supplies a huge proportion of Japan’s coffins (see WiC481). And that is still a growth market, given Japan’s aging population. But this month Caoxian popped up again on social media as a much-enjoyed meme, the nub of which is that it is just as cool, beautiful and prosperous as Beijing, Shanghai, Paris or New York.
The meme began when a proud resident – a 23 year-old going by the Douyin handle of ‘Dashuode’ – started to post videos extolling the virtues of his hometown in an exaggerated Shandong accent.
In the footage, the man tours the area’s asparagus farms, talks about his struggles with obesity, and notes that his home city is also a major producer of hanfu, a traditional Chinese item of clothing.
He explains all of this in a mock gangster style that he only veers away from when declaring how much he loves his hometown.
Most videos are rounded off by his shouty catchphrase: “Shandong Caoxian is [expletive] awesome baby! 666!” – the latter being Chinese internet speak for ‘very cool’.
Something about the mix of his humour and sincerity caught public attention and other social media users began to riff on his sense of local pride, making even more exaggerated claims of their own about Caoxian’s greatness.
“I’d rather own a bedroom in Cao county then a whole apartment in Beijing,” wrote one Sina Weibo user.
“I was born in Cao County and my girlfriend from Shanghai broke up with me. It’s understandable: she just felt she could never compete,” laughed another.
On Douyin, people were soon posting footage of Caoxian interspersed with scenes from cities like Paris to demonstrate the area’s ‘superiority’ to China’s first-tier cities.
“Let’s be frank about the gap between Caoxian and New York,” added another. “New York might catch up in the next five years, if it is lucky.”
Caoxian has struggled with its reputation in the past as its main industries – coffins and funeral shrouds – were seen as inherently unlucky by most Chinese. Factory owners there have sometimes had to pay a premium to attract workers.
But the enterprising residents of Caoxian were never discouraged. They doubled up on the coffin trade, sending sales staff to Japan to study the language and better understand local funeral traditions. With the recent craze for different styles of hanfu (see WiC479), local seamstresses have enjoyed another windfall in sales – helped by promotional support from the local government and the fact that Shandong is the birthplace of Confucius.
While it would be easy to see the memes as mocking Caoxian and its no-frills way of life, some have suggested that the interest from so many netizens hints at nostalgia for the China of 20 years ago, when people could come up with new business ideas, work hard at them and become wealthy.
Others have pointed out that house prices in Caoxian are still relatively low but that local incomes are good. “Many young people living in big cities regard Cao county as a symbol of anti-urbanisation and as a way for them to talk about the nostalgia they feel for their own smaller hometowns,” one businessman from Shandong explained on a blog called 20 Club that focuses on the careers and lifestyles of young people.
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