Gold iPhone 5s Sells Well in China Despite Online Mockery

On Chinese social media numerous posts have taken to describing the new gold iPhone 5s as tuhao jin (土豪金), which translates literally as "local bully's gold" or perhaps more accurately (see the detailed recent history of the term below) as “the gold of the uncouth nouveau riche.”

But owning a 5s - and not the plastic cased 5c - but the 5s in metallic gold finish - is something that has strong appeal to many mainland Chinese buyers:

In fact, the demand for the gold iPhone became so great in China that a side market developed for counterfeit goldfoil stickers that could make an older iPhone look like a new golden iPhone 5s. For example, here's a link to an ad for the DIY version that asks: Why sell a kidney to own the iPhone 5s when the goldfoil sticker is only 25 yuan?

You can see that the kidding online in China about the gold iPhones has been vigorous.

It's all part of the new China, where over 20 million people each year for the last ten years have been moving from the provinces to the cities. Access to material comforts and newly affordable status symbols - like an iPhone - are the driving force for many.

As migrant dreams are pursued in the big cities, new arrivals share tales of sudden wealth via social media. There are literally tens of millions of ambitious young people scrambling out of poverty. Some fail or grow cynical. But many (most?) are simply eager to have the material possessions that signify that transition from peasant to successful city dweller.

In that simmering cultural pot, the term tuhao has recently become very popular in mainland China - showing up whenever shameless displays of wealth merit a bit of derision from the online cognescenti.

The derisive term tuhao has even attached to descriptions of the new still-under-construction headquarters of the People's Daily in Beijing - which many online wags have compared to an ostentatious golden phallus. (On Weibo, upon seeing the People's Daily golden shaft, one user was moved to exclaim "Wow! What a massive tuhao jin…".)

But back to the golden iPhone...

The jokes about its color have not diminished the gold iPhone's popularity. Even though it has come in for criticism as garish and unsophisticated in appearance, the gold iPhone 5s has sold well in China - with the Wall Street Journal reporting that Apple has "asked its suppliers to increase production of the gold-colored iPhone 5s by an additional one-third after seeing strong demand [there]."

But what about the word tuhao and the mocking of uncouth rich people?

Does the use of the term tuhao - or its etymology - suggest anything about trends in Chinese consumerism?

Is there really a backlash building against China's materialism?

As the NY Times explained on Oct. 15th, 2013: "Tuhao isn’t a new term. Combining the character tu, which means dirt or soil, with the character hao, which can mean despotic or bullying, it is translated in many dictionaries simply as “local tyrant.” Until recently, the phrase had been most commonly associated with a popular slogan used by the Communists during the 1930s: da tuhao, fen tian di (打土豪、分田地), meaning “overthrow the local tyrants and divide the land.”

But in a bit of clever wordplay — a national pastime in China — Internet users have managed to deploy this traditional term with Marxist overtones against the new class of wealthy businessmen and officials, and their relatives, who are thriving in what is still supposed to be a socialist nation marching toward an egalitarian utopia. The tu now draws on its colloquial use as a synonym for unrefined or vulgar, and hao picks up a new tone from the Chinese phrase fuhao (富豪), which means rich and powerful.

Thus, in a single stroke, tuhao links the crass nouveau riche benefiting from Communist rule in modern China with the cruel feudal landlords of pre-revolutionary China whom the Communists promised to wipe out generations ago."

Although I am just beginning to study Mandarin - I'm finding cultural insights (like those above) into recently popular words like tuhao (and other faddish words on the mainland that are barely known just 90 miles away in Taiwan, like huyou - 忽悠, which roughly translates as "bamboozle") a great window into how Chinese culture is evolving.

But, despite the ribbing, there's no denying that somebody is buying the gold iPhone for use in China.

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