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Foreigners seek style advice on Chinese social media platform

By ZHANG YI | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-05-22 09:28

Want a new look? A different hairstyle? Can't trust any one opinion? You probably need to seek help on Xiaohongshu, or the Little Red Book. Thousands of netizens from around the world are turning to the social media lifestyle platform for advice. Holding up a piece of paper with the Chinese characters Tingquan — which means listening to advice — written on it, they are posting their earnest queries, and getting answers by the dozen.

Take for example 21-year-old Elmanu from Germany, who recently posted on the platform, thanking Chinese netizens for their advice, which helped him improve his image. "I received far more comments and suggestions than I had imagined, many of which were very helpful," he wrote.

In February, he posted for the first time, seeking advice on hairstyle and clothing, providing his height, weight and photos. The post triggered over 800 likes and more than 600 comments, in both Chinese and English, with some users even sending him photos of hairstyles and outfits to help him make up his mind.

In his latest post, he shared photos of his new look, mentioning that he had changed his hairstyle, bought new clothes, and no longer wore glasses. He also updated about his life and said he had started learning Chinese.

People from all over the world are popping up under the hashtag Tingquan. They usually introduce themselves in Chinese and put forward what style aspect they need advice on. What follows is direct, brutal and honest advice from Chinese netizens.

The current trend can be traced back to a popular video posted earlier on TikTok by a blogger named Candiselin86, who shares posts on Chinese culture. She uploaded screenshots from Xiaohongshu, which showed pictures of people who had transformed their image by acting on the online advice they received. Chinese netizens are helping girls to look and dress better, she wrote.

The video quickly garnered tens of thousands of views, with many wanting to know how to download Xiaohongshu. Soon, overseas users were flocking to the Chinese platform under the Tingquan tag seeking suggestions and then sharing their experiences on TikTok.

Tingquan was selected as one of the three most popular keywords in Xiaohongshu's 2023 report on lifestyle trends. Data showed that last year, the total views under the tag exceeded 900 million, with a 51-fold increase in searches compared to the previous year, and nearly 3 million posts.

Under the tag, one can see various posts seeking advice, including those sent by governments, brands and ordinary netizens, as well as the active participation of people providing suggestions.

Data showed that on average, each post seeking suggestions would get comments from 43.9 strangers, which shows that interactive socializing for mutual help is favored by users.

"When you can't make up your mind and there's no one around to ask, you can just post something online and see if anyone can offer advice. Most of the time, I find that netizens are quite enthusiastic and provide many genuine suggestions," said Felicia Ngan Wei Wei, a user from Malaysia.

Currently a senior student at Tianjin University, Ngan developed a keen interest in studying in China upon graduating from high school. She downloaded Xiaohongshu to gather information about Chinese universities and found them helpful.

The platform has become her most frequently used social app, where she finds information on hairstyles, fashion and other daily interests. She said that in Malaysia, many people, even those who have never been to China, enjoy using it.

"Whenever I encounter any curious questions in life, I search for them and find lots of notes and instant comments from others, which feels very real," she said.

To assist foreign students like herself who are interested in studying in China, she produces videos in both Chinese and English, introducing campus life at Tianjin University, including details about international student accommodation, and answers people's queries.

After graduating with her bachelor's degree this year, she is preparing to study in the United Kingdom. She recently sought advice on preparing for the IELTS exam and renting accommodations in the UK on the platform.

Zhang Xiaoqiang, a professor at Chongqing University's School of Journalism and Communication, said that for foreign users, the Chinese social media platform offers a unique textual and cultural experience.

Also, using social media from a foreign country allows individuals to distance themselves from their familiar social circles and cultures, making it easier to let their guards down and express themselves freely, Zhang said.

He said the major advantage of Xiaohongshu lies in its focus on everyday life, steering clear of controversial public topics, and the platform hosts fewer media outlets, making it relatively more relaxing for users.

On some foreign social media platforms that tend to emphasize public discourse, users become easily entangled in public issues. Some platforms even allow harmful and inappropriate content, resulting in a poorer user experience, he added.

In recent years, Chinese social media and e-commerce platforms have transitioned from imitating foreign models to inspiring imitations abroad. Apps like Douyin and Pinduoduo have successfully launched their platforms overseas, leveraging the successful experiences in China, Zhang said.

Whether on Xiaohongshu or Douyin, there are many foreign users who live in China for study, work or marriage. However, Chinese language-dominated platforms have not placed significant emphasis on developing for international users, he said.

These domestic platforms could consider expanding into the global market by offering features like multilingual translation and page design to cater to non-Chinese users, Zhang said, adding that once foreign user base grows, the international expansion of Chinese-language social media platforms would happen naturally.

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