At last weekend’s Midi Music Festival, where Suede headlined, many of Beijing’s young and fashionable were seen dragging heads of cabbage on leashes as they flitted between stages and bands. The Huffington Post originally misidentified it as a massive symptom of Chinese loneliness and depression. That’s only partially accurate. In actuality, people in China viewed it with the same skepticism as we view a Portlandia sketch.
Yes, a performance artist did this for the young and hopeless. Well, sort of. And if cabbage-walking had to happen, Beijing’s a fitting place for it. The city coined terms like “bei piao” — or “northward drifter” — to describe the droves of aimless college grads who migrate from southern China to the alternative digs of Beijing. Shanghai is glitzier and more international, but Beijing has grit and weirdness, and China’s young are willing to share bunks in windowless underground apartments to live there, the way people are willing to pay out of their noses to live in a hamster cage in Brooklyn.
As mentioned by the Weibo commentors above, cabbage-walking isn’t that far off from other ‘diao si’ flash mob hoaxes. ‘Diao si’ is popular internet slang for an poor, underemployed, slackerish, and socially undesirable young man or woman. People wear their ‘diao si’ label with a defiant, self-mocking pride. They also tend to be the most active people in China’s social media and online culture.
As the West began to report on this ‘trend,’ Chinese news outlets began to translate them in earnest, and Weibo exploded with Chinese netizens asking why cabbage-walking was a thing, completing the ouroboros of East-West meme-making.
As for the artist who started this performance spree at Midi Music Fest: Han Bing has caused all sorts of cabbage trouble since 2000, walking cabbages through London, Tokyo, and other cities around the world. You can view more photos of his cabbage strolls around the world here or read the Wall Street Journal’s interview with him.