Recently, while reading an unofficial report on the proceedings of the trial of Gu Kailai, I noticed something that has long fascinated me about modern China. Those following the news may have seen that Gu, the wife of fallen Communist chief Bo Xilai, has just received a suspended death sentence for poisoning a British businessman. Yet it was not legal improprieties that caught my attention, these seemed about par for the course of a Chinese criminal trial. Instead, it was another facet of contemporary Chinese culture that attracted my attention, the ubiquity of the polo shirt. The report included pictures of Zhang Xiaojun, Gu's alleged co-conspirator, and prominent Beijing attorney Shen Zhigeng (who despite allegedly being Gu's first choice to represent her was only allowed to attend as an observer), both sporting polo shirts. Compare this to any American courtroom and the difference is stark (even Michael Jackson wore "suits" to his trials).
The Polo Shirt (originally called a tennis shirt), has come to dominate China nearly as completely as the Mao-suit (generally called a Sun Yat-Sen suit in Chinese) did. True, the highest echelons of China's leaders don suits and ties for photo ops. But, the polo shirt, along with its illegitimate cousin, the short sleeve dress shirt, dominates among all other strata of white collar workers. They are in evidence even in colder months, when they may be covered by a suit jacket and long sleeve versions also feature prominently. Unfortunately, the polo shirts favored in China often lack the monochromatic simplicity of more traditional western equivalents (see pictures). Many contain dizzy arrays of colors and/or over-sized logos.
Yet, much of China is sweltering in August and the wearing of climatically appropriate clothes should certainly be encouraged. By contrast, the Japanese government has an ongoing campaign to persuade Japanese men to shed their dark wool suits during the summer months.
The polo shirt has become so central to officials' wardrobes that it may even act as a de facto currency. A couple years ago, this blogger heard a story from a foreigner trying to start a small business in Beijing. In order to smooth over his relationship with local authorities, his connection helped him provide a "gift" to the local police. Specifically, he was advised to offer two extra-large (sizes run small in China and beer- guts are standard issue for mid-level officials) polo shirts from any one of five prestigious brands and not to cost less than 1,000 RMB (at that time approximately $127). Already amused, the foreign entrepreneur was staggered when he was politely informed that an upscale shop did not stock any polo shirts under 2,000 RMB.
The adoption of the polo shirt could be interpreted as a rejection of Communist Mao suits in favor of an article of clothing that is consummately capitalist in its showcasing of logos. Without a doubt, it is an example of a Chinese twist on conspicuous consumption. Instead of expensive tailored suits, designer ties and glittering cuff links, nouveau riche Chinese seem content to purchase ever pricier polo shirts. Partially, this may be because it is easier for novice capitalists to recognize logos on polo shirt than subtler hints of opulence, such as fine Italian wool and expert tailoring. Yet, even if Gu's co-defendant had opted for the finest three-piece Mohair blend that Savile Row had to offer, the guilty verdict was probably a forgone conclusion.
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