The first time I heard “Shamate,” after moving to China in 2015, the term had already evolved into a slur, denoting the very antithesis of the English “smart,” of which it was a phonetic translation. But more than its general meaning of idiotic, garish, and uncultured, I gathered that Shamate referred to a specific style of dress and behavior for young adults: capris and tank tops, hair dyed magenta or kiwi green and styled into a parrot’s crest or hedgehog spikes, texting each other with strange, wingding jargon and live-streaming bad breakdance contests in dusty courtyards.
Only much later did I learn the heartbreaking truth: that Shamate had once been the country’s largest working-class subculture. Its lack of “refinement” stemmed not from some moral defect, but the fact that its adherents were poor farmers’ kids, middle-school dropouts with absent parents who flocked to cities in search of better jobs, and who were shocked by the brutal labor conditions and urban snobbery. Shamate, which fused their earthy sensibilities with the swaggering bombast of Japanese Visual Rock, had offered them a rare chance at dignity and self-expression.
Shamate spread as an online phenomenon in the mid-2000s: too poor to buy personal computers, its founding members haunted web cafés, uploading pictures of their eye-grabbing hairstyles onto Qzone—a blatant imitation of MySpace—and chatting with each other on the platform’s messaging software. By the late 2000s, they had attracted some 200,000 followers—migrant workers like themselves—who loosely organized into “royal houses,” with fabulous names like “Lovelorn” and “The Princelings.”
By the early 2010s, considerable backlash had mounted. Mainstream media seized on Shamate as a symptom of China’s lack of “suzhi,” or refinement, and malicious users infiltrated and sabotaged Shamate spaces. Factory bosses’ tolerance for their hair and clothing dwindled. I can only attribute this venomous reaction to a combination of middle-class contempt for the rural poor—“uppity” farmers intruding into “our” cities—and an overactive, online id (anonymous Internet users launched the most vicious attacks) taking out the anger of political emasculation on a group too weak to retaliate.
Faced with the choice between gainful work and community, most Shamate bowed to the exigencies of the body and the wallet, cutting their hair off, dressing in bland clothes, and disappearing, once more, into the mute ranks of factory workers. A small minority refused, moving back to their rural hometowns, where they eked out a living doing farm work and sometimes live-streamed frenetic dance-offs with their friends, hair and all.
Subcultures die out all the time, but Shamate has gone on to enjoy a strange afterlife. In the mid-to-late 2010s, a spate of new, online “lifestyle” publications began to run nostalgic pieces about the erstwhile trend; center-left magazines like Sixth Tone lionized it as a “punk” aesthetic, ignoring its lack of a coherent political imaginary. In 2019, filmmaker Li Yifan’s sympathetic documentary, We Were Smart, did much to humanize the group among educated Chinese millennials and Zoomers.
In Luo Fuxing, the “godfather of Shamate” and the person who coined the term, these publications and content creators found a willing spokesman. Like his peers, Luo quit the group in the early 2010s, becoming a barber in suburban Dongguan, but he has ridden intermittent surges in public interest into a modest stardom, moonlighting as the “last of the Shamate” and earning 10,000 RMB (approximately $1500) per appearance as a guest star on reality TV shows.
I visited Luo in C5CNM, a tiny art space in Beijing’s 798 Art District. On view was “Exhibitionist: The Shamate Gallery,” a salon in both senses of the word—a gathering place for like-minded people and barbershop with mannequins in wigs. (Ye Funa, the performance artist who suggested that Luo do the show, seemed to view Shamate as one more disposable identity to “cosplay”—a major part of her practice, in her own description). I watched his customers pay 300 RMB ($46) to get their hair styled by Luo and ask him half-reverent, half-mocking questions like, “Which one of us has higher status hair?” “Would I be accepted into Lovelorn like this?”
It was difficult not to feel that I was witnessing the last moments of Shamate’s hideous transformation from sincere, working-class aesthetic into ironically-consumed, middle-class kitsch. Posed as ethnographic curiosity to the very class of people who destroyed your community—was this, I wondered, one of the few, depressing paths to success as a worker in the world’s largest “worker’s state”?
As Luo styled hair and hawked merchandise—illustrated tote bags for 150 RMB ($23), a spray-on hair dye for 20 RMB ($3)—I spoke to him about his thoughts on the state of labor, the importance of authenticity, and the possibilities of—and limits to—calls for aesthetic freedom in China.
—Henry Zhang for Guernica
Guernica: Before we get into the details of your life, can you briefly talk about how you met Ye Funa, who was the one to reach out to you and suggest doing a show?
Luo: She came to Shipai Village in Guangdong, looking for me. Li Yifan introduced us. Ye Funa’s father, Ye Yongqing, and Li Yifan both teach at the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts. Yifan said, “Can you pick up Ye Funa and show her around?” But because I was busy with other freelance work, I didn’t really want to—until Yifan said, “Her family’s loaded! Just show her around, okay?” As soon as I heard that, I agreed. Time passed and we got to know each other better; she’s very relaxed, and it’s easy to talk to her. She loves money—that’s why we’re friends. Our love for money unites us.
Guernica: You’ve been in 798 for several days now; as part of the guided tour, you, Funa and a few friends visited UCCA’s Cao Fei show, “Staging the Era,” which is about the psychic lives of factory workers. What were your thoughts?
Luo: I’ve got a bad impression of UCCA—when we visited, this employee in a yellow suit said, “What kind of people are these? How’d they get inside?” All I could think was, you better fucking not let me catch you in Guangdong, or I’ll make you pay. So I ended up just looking around for a second, then leaving. I don’t think art about factory workers is interesting, because I was a factory worker. Isn’t watching a film about my own life idiotic? I think Cao Fei is probably trying to appeal to other Chinese people who’ve lived abroad. You all don’t understand what we do. She’s basically imported our lives for you.
Guernica: Sixth Tone ran a piece recently called “How China’s White-Collar Workers Are Co-Opting Blue-Collar Punk.” Do you think the comparison of the subculture you helped found, and punk—a working-class, anti-establishment, anti-consumerist movement—is apt?
Luo: I don’t think Shamate ever really reached the level of self-consciousness that punks did. You might understand the average Shamate as someone who’s been wounded repeatedly since childhood—crushed by gears, by machines. They act out of the instinct for self-preservation. If you say their hairstyle is a kind of resistance, well, maybe that’s true, but it’s a totally unconscious kind, the result of these impoverished surroundings. It’s how our bodies retain some measure of control. The kind of self-consciousness you’re talking about is on a much higher level.
Guernica: So none of you were angry young men, agitating for more rights?
Luo: It takes a lot of resources to become an angry young man, you know! Not everyone can do it. The fastest route is, you become part of the establishment, you get a good look at the corruption inside—see it, be unable to change it, bottle things up until you want to explode. Or maybe you show your rage through art.
The parts of rural or suburban Guangdong we lived in were cultural deserts, cut off from the country’s intellectual resources. We thought everything that happened to us was part of normal, everyday life. We had very limited access to information; we would only occasionally watch the news. Information didn’t exactly flow. We didn’t get how to use VPNs, how to be heard, become part of the discourse. We didn’t read the right books. It’s too hard for kids like us, working in the factories, to be radicalized—I wouldn’t count on it.
Guernica: But surely you sometimes got into disputes with factory owners?
Luo: We had a slave mentality then—it didn’t matter who we were dealing with. Let me give you an example: The other day my Shamate friend’s hand was pierced by a steel rod in a construction site. It was very gruesome stuff, but he didn’t make a single bit of noise. He just thought, “I was careless, this was all my fault.” He didn’t know that the normal way to go about things was to contact the Labor Bureau. Of course if you call them up, they really do send people over to conduct an investigation, but even this was hard for him to grasp.
Li Yifan asked him if he wanted to hire a lawyer, but as soon as my friend heard the word “lawyer” he got scared. He thought, “No way, I’ll get fucking ripped off.” He was grateful enough that his boss gave him money to help with the medical fees, or else he’d have to pay out of pocket, you know?
Guernica: Why do you think there aren’t more labor movements in manufacturing hubs, like Shenzhen?
Luo: In the past there were—small movements, a few dozen people. In 2013 there was one, and then it was squelched in an instant. The one advantage Shenzhen has over other third- and fourth-tier cities is its NGOs, like Green Rose, which serves female factory workers. They publish some articles educating underserved populations about their rights, but the readership is small. But in Dongguan (Guangdong), you wouldn’t be able to access any of this information. It would be great if you could build some institutions, help workers or ethnic minorities—a lot of people from Yunnan, Guilin, and Sichuan are in Guangdong—but none of that exists there. All there are are workers and managers; the whole area is just kind of a fog of confusion.
Guernica: So Shamate wasn’t ever really adversarial? It was more about acceptance—including by the middle class?
Luo: Shamate might have been invented by workers, but exploitation isn’t intrinsically related to aesthetics—we were never trying to wage class warfare. It doesn’t even have to do with how much money you have; it just happens that Shamate were all poor, all workers. But we were perfectly welcoming to rich folks. We would never have excluded someone for being rich—they could buy drinks for us, after all. If there had really been this aspect of class warfare, it would have been much cooler, much more high-level. But I’d be lying if I said we reached that level of awareness. Fuck, if we had, then I’d probably be an elected official right now. I wouldn’t even be talking with you; I’d be chilling in the central government.
To be honest, when I look back to my days working in a factory, I feel grateful. Grateful I was able to leave the countryside. All I could do then was dig up potatoes in a field somewhere. I was too young to be hired at most factories—and I’m too scrawny. Look at how small I am now; just imagine what I was like when I was thirteen. What kind of physical labor do you think I was cut for? But one factory eventually did hire me, so I’m pretty lucky. I made somewhere between 1500 to 1800 RMB a month ($235-280). That was a huge sum then. In my hometown, you’d make 800 to 1000 RMB ($125-155). If you went to Shenzhen you could make more, maybe 2000 to 3000 RMB ($310-465). Only by joining state-owned enterprises could you make 5000 RMB ($775).
Guernica: But when your Shamate friends from before made it into the middle class, did they ever come back and try and become Shamate again?
Luo: Never, not once. As soon as they decided they wanted to be middle class, they’d start to make value judgments, they’d start to think that being a Shamate had hurt their personal growth. The aesthetic bloomed out of our poverty and exhaustion; as soon as someone became middle class, the aesthetic died.
Guernica: But you’ve said, “I’ll always be a Shamate: I would never tear off that label,” even after you’d cut your hair and gotten “normal” clothes. That strikes me as an appeal to authenticity—meaning it’s not just about the hair.
Luo: I didn’t say that—I said something more badass. I said, “Marx is a Marxist, but Marxism isn’t Marx. Luo Fuxing is a Shamate, but the Shamate aesthetic is more than Luo Fuxing.” Very pretentious. But the entire social experience of the Shamate was different; they were people who’d been abandoned, but they never reached the level of punks.
To be a Shamate, you have to first think you’re a Shamate. The way you show your appreciation for the aesthetic is your hair. Of course, you had to send pictures to us, and we’d decide. But if you just dye your hair one day then wash it off the next, you’re not a Shamate. Ye Funa isn’t a Shamate.
Guernica: But you aren’t dressed as a Shamate, and it doesn’t seem that any other Shamate have come to this pop-up store to support you. Some people might accuse you of selling out, exploiting a larger, grassroots subculture for personal gain.
Luo: I’m exploiting Shamate? [Long pause] Let’s get things straight. I’m not exploiting anything. Let me think. This space, this hair salon, I’m here because I’ve learned a certain skill. I’m letting people come and experience this hairstyle. I charge a reasonable price for my hard work—now I’ve become an exploiter? Unless I stay in the countryside, digging potatoes, I’m exploiting people? I don’t think it’s that kind of commodification. This job—or practice if you like—it’s what I love. I’ve never given Shamate a bad name.
Sometimes we hear that commodifying, consuming a thing or culture does it harm, but I think consuming something means it’s got value. It’s more worrying when it no longer gets consumed. As long as we aren’t harming anyone when we do it, I think commodification can be quite positive—it means this thing or this person still has influence over people. I think consumption equals production.
Guernica: So Shamate was more about equality of consumption? I remember elsewhere you wrote, “The freedom to express oneself without judgment is the basis for all freedoms.” Would a world that accepted your aesthetic as equal to others be enough?
Luo: That was my personal declaration to the world. The reason I phrased it like that is because I think we’re bringing up a lot of these issues—free speech and so on—too early. Free speech can’t be treated as a basic freedom. It’s too difficult to realize in China, because speech has the power to harm people. But if we treat aesthetic freedom, the freedom to express oneself without judgment, as a kind of foundation on which to build these other freedoms, we might slowly get there. My aesthetics won’t hurt anyone.
Guernica: When asked why you didn’t try and hop on the TikTok bandwagon and become a social media influencer, you said, “Being famous and being liked are two different things.” You don’t feel reluctance anymore about betraying your principles to get famous?
Luo: I’d be perfectly happy doing TikTok or Kuaishou. It doesn’t really have to do with how much I’m liked—but I do have standards for the content they put out, how they shoot it, and the way it’s received.
If Ye Funa uses me, I’m fine being used—as long as we can use each other, as long as we can accept the consequences. That’s collaboration.
Guernica: But do you sometimes feel like a circus sideshow?
Luo: One thing I have to admit is, the documentaries and the articles about me, the people from Tsinghua or wherever who come and visit me this week, they’re all coming from a certain specialist angle. There isn’t quite that level of mainstream appeal. Ordinary people, they don’t really come to the salon. It’s got to be people from famous colleges, or reporters, or people with ulterior motives. But I haven’t thought it through.
Guernica: The entertainment world is fickle. You mentioned not letting fame get to your head, lest you turned into the next Pang Mailang, the one-hit musical wonder, also from a rural background, whose failure to stay relevant resulted in his mental breakdown. You’re really not worried?
Luo: If you haven’t thought things through, it’s easy to become Pang Mailang. If you never did figure things out—all the rules worked differently than how you imagined—well, wouldn’t you go crazy?
The largest blow I experienced was, I used to think I was someone really powerful. But because I cut my hair off, shit, suddenly I was nobody. That was the biggest disappointment of my life; if I survived that, I can survive anything. When I stopped being a Shamate, I felt like all of my desires were just illusions. I didn’t even have the right to have fantasies, because I cut my hair off.
Guernica: In that case, isn’t it a stupendous irony then to be representing this subculture to the very same class of people who were once sending you death threats?
Luo: I want to let bygones be bygones. Even if their siblings or their parents were the same people who attacked me, I don’t begrudge them—nor do I think other Shamate would. The strange thing is that Shamate isn’t a stable identity, it’s more like a way station. Some people are joining, but others are leaving. Maybe some of the people who’ve moved on have become friends with the people who were criticizing us.