A Narrow Space for Rebellion: The Cultural T-shirt in China’s 1990s

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Following the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the beginning of the 1990s witnessed one of the few instances in modern Chinese history of the silenced making their voices heard – through printed messages on T-shirts. Phrases and sentences in large Chinese characters were printed on the front or back of plain white short-sleeve T-shirts with statements originating from a variety of sources, including literature, rock music, pop songs, movies, cartoons, old sayings and political slogans – or sometimes only an apparently meaningless assemblage of words. These phrases distanced the wearers from the earnest attitude that was promoted by the state, affording the wearer a sense of individual empowerment. This paper focuses on this cultural T-shirt fad of the 1990s in China and traces its rebellious origins, along with the multiple interpretations of its significance. This hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry relies on Chinese newspapers pub-lished at the time, as well as the researcher’s own observations as a participant of this shared cultural experience. As a unisex sartorial symbol, the “cultural T-shirt” presented an open arena for both males and females, as well as a battleground over “spiritual pollution”.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-96
Number of pages20
JournalInternational Quarterly for Asian Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 25 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© International Quarterly for Asian Studies.


  • China
  • clothing culture
  • cultural T-shirt
  • fashion
  • non-verbal communication
  • youth


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