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June 5, 2021

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Meme gem is home to classic clothing, coffins, ancient tomb

YE Shijiu, a 26-year-old art teacher, likes to buy traditional Chinese garments known as hanfu. Though her wardrobe was full of them, she had no idea where they were made.

Enter the digital age, where obscurity can turn to fame with the click of a mouse.

Most of the clothing, it turns out, is made in Caoxian, a county in the city of Heze in the eastern seaboard province of Shandong. The county went viral on social media platforms under the meme “Caoxian — center of the universe.”

Its sudden celebrity status is the handiwork of a Caoxian County resident whose TikTok, or Douyin, screenname is Dashuo. In a short online video, the somewhat beefy man with yellowish hair repeatedly shouts out “Caoxian of Heze in Shandong, badass, my baby!” in Caoxian dialect.

Despite the lack of any other content, his video has a certain “brainwashing” element because the voice lingers in the head for a long time, according to its viewers. Then “badass” became a prevailing meme.

With rumors about Caoxian swirling online, Ye’s curiosity was piqued. She decided to visit the county on a weekend trip.

“One of the rumors is that workshops making hanfu in Caoxian used to make grave clothes,” Ye said. “As a hanfu fan I couldn’t help feeling weird about that.”

When Ye reached Caoxian, she first headed for markets selling traditional clothing. Most of the garment workshops and wholesale markets were in the towns of Daji and Ancailou, nicknamed “Taobao villages” because most of the clothing is sold on e-commerce platforms like Alibaba’s Taobao.

“There is a very big market, especially for hanfu sales, where stalls are lined up one after another,” Ye said. “Many people apparently were there to buy hanfu, and I had the feeling they were drawn to the area because of the meme.”

Ye found the garments selling at bargain prices compared with those in large cities. Garments that cost about 100 yuan (US$15.60) to 300 yuan each would fetch 500 yuan or more in Shanghai. Some luxury hanfu gowns in big cities sell for up to 3,000 yuan.

“Experienced hanfu fans pay a lot of attention to the details of the clothing, like the styles of different dynasties and the styles of collars and sleeves,” she said. “But in Caoxian, you find clothing targeting at a more pedestrian market of people who just want pretty clothes at no-frills prices. The hanfu there indeed were pretty.”

When Caoxian first got into the hanfu business, consumers and rivals accused county manufacturers of being “copycats” because they didn’t have their own garment designers. That has begun to change in recent years as local artists return to their hometown area and join hanfu businesses, trying to create local brands.

Today, Caoxian has more than 2,000 companies and workshops engaged in hanfu design and production, with annual sales of more than 1.9 billion yuan.

Meng Xiaoxia’s company is one of them.

When she realized that hanfu aficionados wanted higher-quality designs, she bought books on ancient Chinese fashion and studied the patterns. In 2019, she designed a traditional cloak and sold more than 5,000 of them soon after they hit the market.

Her husband Hu Chunqing, who majored in material sciences, now helps his wife manage the business. The couple’s team has already produced 42 original styles of hanfu.

“More people with talent are willing to work in this small county because it’s not so obscure anymore,” Hu said. “Now more than 10 garment factories in Caoxian are producing our designs, and that means an income source for hundreds of local people.”

Upon seeing the beautiful garments produced in the county, buyers don’t seem concerned about the grave-clothes rumor. Perhaps it’s true. The county does have a long history of coffin manufacture.

Unlike its hanfu business, which mainly targets the domestic market, the coffins produced in Caoxian are mostly exported to Japan.

After Caoxian went viral online, county Governor Liang Huimin claimed that coffins produced there hold 90 percent of the Japanese market. Almost all are made in a county town called Zhuangzhai.

Since ancient time the tung trees that grew wild in Zhuangzhai provided oil used in making paper umbrellas and one of the best woods for coffin-making. Apart from the wood’s solid texture, the vitality of tung trees was believed to bless families.

In 2017, a crew from Tokyo TV visited Caoxian and shot a small documentary broadcast on a variety show called “Ariehen Sekai” (“Unimaginable World”). In the documentary, a factory was filmed making at least 100 coffins a day. The workers did their jobs with robot-like precision.

The show ended with the workers loudly chanting: “We wish the Japanese would buy all our coffins!”

Jokes about Caoxian abound online. “Caoxian, the fourth first-tier metropolis after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou,” and “people would rather have a bed in Caoxian than an apartment in Shanghai” — a twist on the old saying about downtown Shanghai versus Pudong across the Huangpu River.

But is Caoxian as a tourism destination more than just a joke?

Before visiting the county, Ye checked tour-guide websites and found that Caoxian is the resting place of Shang Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC) and his chief adviser Yi Yin.

The two were buried there long before the county was created sometime in the 6th century.

Today, Shang Tang’s tomb has become a sightseeing destination always recommended to visitors by locals. However, those expecting a luxurious imperial gravesite are disappointed to find just a large mound of earth with a grave marker erected during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Several stone steles are also found at the site, carved with verses written by poets to commemorate the founder of the dynasty.

Ye said she visited the grave and had mixed feelings.

“As a sightseeing spot, it’s not worth all the road time to get to it,” she said. “But on the other hand, it’s unusual and nice to see a historical site without modern frills nowadays.”

After returning from the gravesite, Ye said she went to a night fair to sample local specialties. Street food stalls were full of stewed beef and baked flatbread.

Stewed beef is probably the best-known specialty of Caoxian. Calf beef shanks are salted for days before being stewed with more than 10 spices and herbs for three to four hours, then fried in sesame oil to finish them off before serving. The meat is tender and tasty.

“Local people eat the beef with freshly baked flatbread, making it into a sandwich,” Ye said. “And I should say, there is nothing better than carbohydrate with meat.”


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