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Chinese speak brashly and boldly – through their T-shirts

By 22 June 2009 2 Comments
Photo by Alice Ju

T-talk: Young Chinese wear their thoughts front and back | Photo by Alice Ju

Walking down the street in central Beijing, I passed a guy sporting a T-shirt that said, “If hope is fire, and future is smoke, life is a cycle of smoke following fires; light seven fires and see smoke erupt from eight places.”

“Deep,” I thought, thinking the man’s shirt held some philosophical interpretation. But when I asked him what it meant, he shrugged. “[It's] just for fun,” he said.

When I asked for his name and contact information, he hesitated before writing “Fearless” in my notebook in Chinese characters. I thought he was kidding, so he gave me his business card. A blogger and  freelance T-shirt designer, he actually goes by the nickname Fearless. I realized the name suited him well when I looked at his Web site later on.

Fearless tackles everything from free speech on the Internet and the sovereignty of Taiwan to public attitudes toward sex. The T-shirts he designs are a further means of self-expression.

Take Cheng Yujiao’s incident, for example. Cheng worked in a karaoke bar in Hubei province. Last May, two customers asked her to offer “special services.” Cheng refused, but the men later came back and pushed her down on the sofa. Cheng then took a knife and killed one of the men. Cheng’s subsequent imprisonment aroused the sympathy of Chinese Netizens, including Fearless.

“After reading the story and discussion [comments], I had too much on my mind,” Fearless said. “But I immediately began thinking about what I could do for this incident. I designed a T-shirt right away to show my support.” The T-shirt reads, “Learn from Heroine Cheng Yujiao.”

In a country where the media is wholly owned by the government and Internet access is restricted, free speech in China may seem like an oxymoron. Yet somehow, people seem to manage to express their ideas. Blogs are one outlet. Graphic T-shirts are another.

Fearless’s latest work addresses swine flu. When H1N1 was first reported a few months ago, the Chinese public panicked over buying imported pork. Fearless designed a shirt that said, “Pigs are not sick. People are.”

Fearless’s work may have serious undertones, but other T-shirts on the street were merely light-hearted fun.

A small clothing shop on Beijing’s Dianmen East Street sells couples’ T-shirts. There are several versions:

Boys Girls
I only do dishes. I don’t eat. I only eat. I don’t do dishes.
I only earn money. I don’t spend it. I only spend money. I don’t earn it.

A Taiwanese friend of mine told me that in his experience, Beijing girls held higher social status than their male peers. But seeing the rumor expressed so openly on a T-shirt was, nevertheless, a surprise to me. I asked the store owner, Du Jiaquing, if these products revealed the true gender situation in Beijing. “I’m afraid Beijing men need to cook, eat, do the dishes, and everything,” he said.

Du said these couples’ T-shirts came out seven or eight years ago, the first of their kind.

“Now society is more open-minded than before,” Du said.

Indeed, from serious topics to hilarious slogans, anything goes — on a T-shirt.


  • Magnus said:

    Can you post a link to their websites? Really interested!

  • Alice Ju (author) said:

    Hi Magnus,thanks for your comment. This is Fearless’ blog. http://bjnahan.net/

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