Chinese society is going through what could be the most radical demographic changes in its entire history. Some of these changes indicate changes in some of the basic Chinese cultural values. One of those values is the highly communitarian character of Chinese culture, which seems to be challenged by the growing number of one-person households.
Chinese marketeers like to divide the country’s population in cohorts named after a decade – such as the post-80, the post-90 and the post-00. Each group is characterised by a number of distinctive habits and world outlook. The post-80s were born after the end of the Cultural Revolution and have been shaped by the early years of the economic reforms that changed the lives of Chinese so profoundly. They are approaching 40 now and most of them are married and have children. They are much more affluent than their parents but are not big spenders on food, as there are so many other expenditures to worry about. The post-00s form the new generation. They are becoming a market segment of their own but are financially still dependent on their parents. The post-90s are the segment on which this post focuses.
The post-90s are young, well-educated, concentrating on their careers in corporations or their own start-up enterprises. With a few exceptions, they are all only children and have been spoiled by their parents and grandparents, as a result of which they have developed a taste for good food. Moreover, a considerable part of them are single and living by themselves. They may marry once, but they give priority to their careers. A modern term for these people is Single Dogs (danshengou). Experts estimate the number of people in the post-90 cohort at 188 million, approximately 14.1% of the Chinese population. 92 million of them were living a single life in 2021. In spite of their young age, many of the post-90s are complaining about ailments resulting from their demanding lifestyle. A 28-year old female Internet programmer is quoted as saying: “I used to buy supplements for my parents, now half of the supplements I buy are for my own consumption.” To cash in on this trend, food producers and retailers have started making and selling single-portion packed versions of a large spectrum of foods and drinks. This photo is a screen shot of a random selection of such products on the site of an online retailer.
One of the ‘bad’ habits many of them share is staying up late, or even regularly skipping sleep altogether. A survey has shown that 44% of the 19 – 25 years cohort stay up until after midnight. In order to stay awake, they need aoyeshui night owl beverages (literary: staying up all night water)’. Most of these are based on the milk tea drinks that have become so popular among young Chinese. Some also contain traditional Chinese medicinal herbs, which links these drinks to the nationalist trend (guochao). A term that has become fashionable among the same post-90/post-2000 consumer segment is pengke yangsheng, or the ‘punk diet’: nutritious food presented as junk food. The choice of this term indicates that these consumers give themselves a kind of subcultural status. A food to think about in this context is the energy bar. Energy bars are the ideal ‘punk diet’ food. They can be consumed with one hand, while the other remains functional (e.g., for moving a mouse). They provide energy, but are also a source of fibre and nutrients, so comforting to both your stomach and your consciousness. The Chinese name for this product, yingyangbang, literally means: ‘nutrition stick’. Nuts, a natural source of nutrients, form a common ingredient, but you can add whatever you want, or, better, is allowed by the local regulations. Another occasion for consuming energy bars in China is what I would like to translate as ‘après fitness’ (jianshenhou). The Chinese are only just starting to ski but fitness centres are extremely popular. One recent study states that there are more than 43 million patrons of fitness centres. After a tough spell on a treadmill, you need something that gives you energy without making you gain weight again. The same study mentions energy bars as the most favourite après fitness snack.
A company to note in this context is Hengmei Food Science & Technology, based in the eastern city of Hangzhou, so a neighbour of Alibaba. Hengmei profiles itself as a private-label sports-nutrition and weight-management manufacturer, but also includes an R&D department that is headed by one of Hengmei’s founders, Zheng Yadan. The department has designed a broad range of energy bars. Ms. Zheng personally has a number of meal replacer energy bar patents to her name.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success