Recycled buzzword tuhao shows changing attitude of newly rich

Suppose you are clad from head to toe in name brands.

You wear a Versace shirt underneath a Giorgio Armani jacket. Your Hugo Boss slacks are fastened with a belt from Hermes.

On your wrist is a Vacheron Constantin watch. An LV bag dangles from your shoulder.

You strut on the latest TOD’S ballet flats. All these fashion items are topped off in extravagance with the new golden iPhone in your hand. Then get prepared for making heads turn on the street, and in rare cases, even encouraging someone audacious enough to approach, circle his arm around your shoulder, and say, “tuhao, let’s be friends!”

Until recently, tuhao wasn’t the favored word to greet those Chinese fond of displaying wealth.

Literally translated as “rustically rich,” it became a popular substitute for nouveau riche virtually overnight.

It seems that the phrase tuhao has colonized the Internet since early September, as there are references to it here and there all over cyberspace, especially in chat rooms and web forums.

The phrase owes its popularity to the online gaming community, where players use it to mock fellow gamers who buy expensive virtual “equipment” to compensate for their mediocre skills.

Tuhao quickly caught on as a buzzword in social media.

As it gained traction, tuhao replaced nouveau riche in describing, unflatteringly, those bling-bling Chinese who shop till they drop overseas but hardly have any class or sophistication to show for their conspicuous consumption.

Evolution of neologism

The rise of tuhao as a new social class has attracted media such as the BBC to probe the evolution of the neologism.

In fact, tuhao isn’t a new invention, but has fairly recent and revolutionary origins.

During the land reform era in the 1950s, tuhao specifically referred to the landlords and gentry that bullied those beneath them, as BBC reported.

So this word often evokes the unsavory image of a despicable landlord mercilessly crushing his social inferiors.

The redux of tuhao is notable in the sense that the term has been largely stripped of its political connotations, although the negative undertone remains culturally.

Members of the Chinese online community have an uncanny ability to find new usages for old language, and for tuhao, they have adapted it in a way that no longer encapsulates the antagonistic, class-struggle view of the wealthy, but suggests more of a love-hate relationship.

Still, tuhaos are sneered at for their loud manners and gaudy tastes, but that very disparagement is usually tinged with light-hearted humor and jealousy.

Nowadays, whenever someone draws attention by mindless flaunting of fancy purchases online, he or she usually gets called a tuhao, to be followed, at times, by the catchphrase “let’s be friends!”

Besides placing themselves at the pointy end of people’s ire, the clan of tuhao is also stoking such feelings as envy, jealousy, self-mockery as well as aspirations to join their ranks.

My personal experience

I have experienced those feelings from time to time.

As an amateur saxophone player, I often come across people online showing off their vintage Selmer Mark VI, a coveted horn that could cost as much as 100,000 yuan (US$6,250) if it comes with the best serial numbers.

My fingers ache to type tuhao at the sight of those beauties, only to find there already are dozens of the same scornful remarks that precede my proposed comment.

From nouveau riche and “coal boss” to tuhao, the coinage of terms to label, mock, and denigrate the upper crust has demonstrated the traditional Chinese derision of getting rich yet staying crass, which is a good indicator that Chinese remain true to their ancestors’ philosophy of moderation, despite how consumerist society has become. Naked displays of extravagance still are cultural anathema.

But the partial endorsement of tuhao also signifies a resignation to the hard reality of a highly unequal society, where the gap between rich and poor is yawning. In some sense, the slogan “tuhao, let’s be friends!” is reflective of the attitude of “if you cannot beat them, then join them.”

Resentment and hatred of the rich has long been said to be a dangerous undercurrent in China, with the potential of causing social unrest. But the peaceful emergence of tuhao and similar buzzwords points to a contrary view — that the undercurrent may not be necessarily murderous.

Rather than targeting the rich with a knife, people have taken up a cultural weapon to poke fun at their social betters, and maybe also at their own financial desperation. And deep inside some may even envy tuhaos for their success and wealth.

Birth of neo-tuhao

Recently, there have been interpretations online of what constitutes the 10 criteria of neo-tuhao. The 10 criteria include substituting Buddha pearls for gold chains,  wearing linen garments and cloth shoes rather than suits and ties, and riding a bike instead of driving a Mercedez.

The criteria vary across regions. The ones listed above apply to Beijing and Shanghai.

While it’s easy to laugh it off as simply a joke, talk of the new tuhao actually embodies the hope for qualities lacking in some uncouthly rich Chinese. Of course, there is no guarantee that an affluent man wearing Buddha pearls and chanting incantations is humbled by religious faith and genuinely espouses modesty.

However, no matter how oxymoronic and pretentious the neo-tuhao standard is, it indicates approval of identification with something more positive and healthier and the desire to distance oneself from the crass paleo-tuhao.

The intriguing thing is that the majority of those asked online about their association flatly reply that they don’t qualify as neo-tuhao. Apparently the labeling game is taken to a higher level than many can reach.

For astute observers, new buzzwords that pop up regularly are a barometer of changes in mass psyche.

Adaptation of tuhao as a legacy of the revolutionary era hints at the increasingly clear-cut stratification in China.

Tuhao has come back with a vengeance. It sarcastically captures the social fault lines that underlie public discourse. Its bling will likely glitter for some time to come.

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