This summer I found myself with an empty afternoon in Jinhua, a mid-sized city in Zhejiang province, best known for its dry-cured ham. I was due to take a train back to Shanghai in just a few hours, so I didn’t have time to check out the beautiful hills outside the city — nor the Jinhua Ham Museum.
Looking for something to do, I opened Xiaohongshu on my phone. Immediately I was met with “citywalk” street food guides and images of young women posing at cafés or against a backdrop of natural scenery. Admittedly, Jinhua is located in one of the richest parts of China, but I couldn’t help but be impressed at how quickly and thoroughly people there had adopted aesthetics from a certain slice of Shanghai hipster/yuppie life.
Since beginning as a pdf shopping guide for Hong Kong in 2013, the social network Xiaohongshu (sometimes called RED in English) has continued to evolve, and in doing so transformed life online in China. While at its core it might still be viewed as a shopping-oriented social network for female urbanites, it’s becoming so much more — not quite the “everything-app” that WeChat is, but nevertheless a one-stop-shop for entertainment and lifestyle in the broadest sense of the term. Xiaohongshu can tell you not only what to buy and where to eat … but also how to treat a cold without lining up for the doctor, or how to get a visa to your dream destination.
The application means a lot of things to a lot of people. As of 2022, its monthly average users exceed 200 million, 72% of whom were born after 1990, and half of whom live in first or second tier cities in China.
There are other Chinese apps or websites that can fulfill some of the same needs as Xiaohongshu, like the restaurant directory Dazhong Dianping, or the rambling, Quora-esque advice site Zhihu. But these aren’t really social networks, and there’s a class aspect to Xiaohongshu’s user base which can make its content more targeted and appealing.
Think about the type of content you’ll see from other Chinese social networks, even if you don’t directly use them. Videos from Douyin or Kuaishou that end up reposted on Instagram or Twitter/X for a foreign audience usually show something ostensibly “crazy” — old people dancing in parks, farmers chilling out, unhinged rural music videos, esoteric accents from remote parts of the country. None of this is actually “weird” in its own right; it just exists outside of the normal context for an overseas viewer.
This kind of content isn’t as unexpected for 20- or 30- somethings living in major Chinese cities, and they may appreciate it out of a semi-ironic embrace of rural chic (土味 tǔwèi) or the relaxed lifestyle of senior citizens. However, Xiaohongshu speaks more to their daily lives, or how they want their lives to be, while also avoiding in part the totally manufactured online presence of major stars and celebrities. At its best, using the app can be like getting advice from your cooler, richer friend.
Xiaohongshu most closely resembles Instagram, both in its photo-based format, and the upper middle class aspirations of its urban users. When people post photos of brunches and vacations they aren’t performing for the Western gaze, yet it doesn’t feel incidental that there’s an overlap between Xiaohongshu users and the relatively small number of young Chinese people who have spent time abroad and have a VPN or even an Instagram account. As reported by Rest of World, Xiaohongshu even helped turn Düsseldorf into a foodie destination for Chinese expats in Europe.
For better or worse, depending on how you feel about consumerism, Xiaohongshu channels into aspirations analogous to those pushed by Instagram and its influencers’ perfect wardrobes, homes, and holidays. Armed with a highly effective search function, it has turned into a key tool for those looking to “live their best life” or explore a new city.
For all that has been made about Xiaohongshu’s direct line to female consumers, the app’s demographics are changing too. In 2018, only 11.7% of Xiaohongshu’s users were male, but by 2021, that figure had climbed to 30%. While there’s a stereotype that male users just lurk on the site without posting, they do exist.
Shanghai-based Xiaohongshu user Justhw started using the app about a year ago, looking to share photos and the films he had been watching with people outside of his immediate social circle. He confirmed that while he had other male friends who used Xiaohongshu, “they only browse and post nothing.” Besides an outlet for creative expression, he has been using the app as a “consumer guide.” “I will search for some reviews and comments before I buy something, to spend my money wisely.”
This isn’t that much different from how many women use Xiaohongshu. Shiqi, a public relations representative at a Shanghai arts institution, has been using the app since 2019, and started raising a Devon Rex cat a few months ago. “Before getting my cat I watched a lot of content related to the breed on Xiaohongshu, actually almost all of it, trying to decide whether or not to raise one. Afterwards, I started looking at any and all advice on taking care of cats, for example what brand of cat food to buy, and how much to feed your cat. When my cat gets sick my first reaction is to check Xiaohongshu.”
Shiqi also mentions viewing reviews for makeup and skincare products on Xiaohongshu, as well as buying a gift on the platform. When she recently grew interested in rock climbing, she headed to Xiaohongshu to learn techniques, and even check for advice on routes at a specific bouldering gym. Perhaps part of Xiaohongshu’s strength is content like this — not directly related to e-commerce, but also leading to some shopping opportunities.
The case of “The Most Obedient Man on the Internet” may be illustrative. In 2021, a chubby 25-year-old man in Jingmen, Hubei province, posted a photo of himself on Xiaohongshu and asked why he didn’t have girlfriend. Getting advice from netizens (along with a fair amount of trolling), he embarked on a journey of self-improvement, trying out different diets and haircuts while also working on his career prospects. Finally, this October he got married, much to the excitement of his followers.
Xiao Ai’s transformation definitely involved some purchases, but it was fueled by Xiaohongshu’s community — he was asking for advice from the kind of people he wanted to be. This might be Xiaohongshu’s ultimate strength. On a domestic internet with limited spaces that speak to young, relatively prosperous people living in big cities (or those aspiring to be them), the app provides an oasis of people who might know exactly what you’re talking about and what you’re looking for.
Cover image by Haedi Yang; all other images via Xiaohongshu
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