The Chinese word yuàn (媛) has traditionally referred to the “virtuous and comely woman” as mentioned in the Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字), a Chinese dictionary compiled in the Han dynasty. Since 2020, however, the word has rapidly evolved — or perhaps devolved — into a catchall word used on the Chinese internet, and also in state media, to denigrate modern-day beauties as disgraceful and degenerate.
In October 2020, a Wechat article profiled a group on the WeChat platform called “Shanghai Female Socialite” (上海名媛群) in which women discussed the art of living or pretending to have rich lifestyles. The members, for example, would split the costs of high tea at fancy hotels, or they would share Gucci pantyhose, in order to mutually cultivate high-society personas — sometimes with the goal of connecting with wealthy suitors.
The behavior of these self-proclaimed “socialites” prompted a public outcry online, and waves of criticism in China’s state media. In China Comment, a political journal under the official Xinhua News Agency, the superficially rich lives led by “socialites in Shanghai” was deemed “neo-fetishism over money” (新拜金主义). China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Youth League, remarked that the pretense of the socialite identity would coax people into the trap of vanity.
The mystique surrounding the “socialite” was deepened, and criticism fully kindled, in September 2021, as 23-year-old Zou Yaqi (邹雅琪), a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, ran a social experiment on the phenomenon as part of her graduate thesis. Zou was able to live for 21 days on a zero-yuan budget disguised as a wealthy socialite, decked out in a designer tracksuit, a fake diamond ring, a knock-off Hermès bag, and fancy necklaces. Her documentary about her experience getting high-end handouts from luxury businesses and VIP lounges was an online sensation.
In Chinese, the word “socialite” can be paired with various modifiers to form combinations that categorize female online influencers. There are “Covid-testing socialites,” or hesuanyuan (核酸媛), a reference to female Covid prevention volunteers in protective suits who offend the image of anti-pandemic seriousness by wearing too much make-up. There are “delivery socialites” or waimaiyuan (外卖媛), a label that wags its finger at female delivery riders likewise seen as too made-over, all at once sexualized and demonized online. There are “sick socialites” (病媛), women judged as looking far too polished in their hospital sickbeds, and “Buddhism socialites” (佛媛).
As these specialized “socialite” terms show, the word yuan has now grown beyond the sense of flaunting extravagant lifestyles. Paired with other prefixes, it is applied more broadly to cast moral judgment on women seen to overemphasize and advertise their sexuality. Images and videos of “socialites” against the backdrop of everyday life in China have proliferated on social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu (小红书) and Douyin (抖音).
Aside from the “Covid-testing socialites“ there are the “frisbee socialites,” or feipanyuan (飞盘媛), a term invented to refer to young women who share images of themselves playing frisbee in yoga outfits that fully show off their figures.
New types of “socialite” are constantly emerging on social media, a phenomenon the Shanghai Observer, a spin-off of the city’s official Jiefang Daily, referred to in October 2021 with the phrase “yuan yuan bu duan” (媛媛不断), or “unending stream of socialites” — a clever play on the Chinese idiom “a steady flow” (源源不断).
But the various permutations of the modern-day “socialite” all share a misogynistic sense, stigmatizing various forms of female expression as selfish and loathsome attempts to pursue wealth and visibility.