Because it’s cheap!

I am currently studying jewellery design, but I will not be writing about beaded necklaces that are made for Mardi Gras. Actually, we do not celebrate it in Europe in the same way that it is celebrated in the United States. I am mostly going to express mine and others opinions about daily life and how we deal with jewellery and clothes shops in Dundee, the UK, France, and Europe.

In order to find the opinions of other people, I sent out a questionnaire to teenagers, workmen, students, unemployed, and retired individuals. I tried to ask people from different social classes to find if money made a difference. The questions I asked were simple and were based on questions that I was curious to find the answers to. After the answers I received, I also came up with a few more questions to ask.

The first question I asked was, “When I say ‘Made in China’, what does that mean to you?” The replies I received were very similar, ranging from “huge factories, poor people working, children workers, rapidity, profitability, cheap goods, bad quality”.  Almost everyone thought the same thing, more on a negative side. The question is, “do people continue to buy Chinese items even if they criticize it?” I found that people do still continue to buy items despite what they know.

Even as a jeweller, I admit that I buy cheap jewels that are made in China (Claire’s, Topshop, New Look, Primark). These jewels are the kind that are easily breakable, lost, cheap, and are not important.  I always check the labels of things I buy out of curiosity, including clothes and jewellery. Honestly, I know where and how the stuff I buy are made when it says “Made in China”, but out of habit I still continue to buy it. It seems wrong, especially when I am aware of the bad conditions, pollution, and other factors. Why don’t I change? It is probably because it’s a habit. I’m still a student so I always try to find the cheapest deal when I buy clothes and jewellery. Many people I interviewed do the same. Even though we are aware of what is happening, we live too far from the reality of the other side of the world and are more concerned about the money in our purse.

I’ve asked my friends and myself the reasons as to why we continue to buy cheap things all the time, especially when we don’t need it. Why do we not keep our money in order to buy something of better quality, made in Europe in good working conditions, but more expensive? The response that came up was quantity. Our society is a consumer society. The fashion society will tell you what to wear and say that what you are currently purchasing will be outdated in a few months! We do not want the expensive brand made by a fashion designer. Instead we prefer similar clothing just for the attitude and look. Most people don’t have the money to buy designer brands, unless they are from the upper class! You can just ignore that and try to buy “ethical” clothes and jewellery that was made in better working conditions or go to second hand shops. I try to do that sometimes, but I find that things made in Europe are too expensive to buy all the time or items in second hand shops are not “fashionable”.  I received similar responses from my panel. Some people are not interested in buying second hand clothes, but more to try less but Asian goods.

I’ve asked some people the reasons why they want to stop buying jewellery and good “made in China” and they reply, “ because Made in China items are destroying western jobs, factories, and the economy.” When I ask them about the working conditions, people are aware of how the products are made and feel guilty, but most of them admit that this is not the first thought that came to mind.

A few friends have argued that products “Made in China” are everywhere, so it’s kind of hard to boycott it. We can’t really do that because China has such a large export industry worldwide and it’s probably not a wise thing to do either. Europe is in a huge crisis and people are very aware of their money and how much things cost. We may tend to blame China, but actually they are just making what we want and ask for: cheap, consumable, but a detriment in quality and working conditions.

We tend to blame China for many reasons, but goods produced from other Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, South America and Turkey are all made in poor working conditions. The quality for products from these countries is similar to Chinese goods and pollution from clothing factories is quite harmful. A large number of jeans are made in Turkey and sadly workers in textile factories have serious health injuries. The public tends to turn a blind eye towards these issues. Why do we only really focus on what happens in China? I asked this question to my panel and gave them information about jean factories in Turkey as a comparison. Some people came up with interesting responses. They said that China is one of the most powerful countries in the world, western people and westerns factories are possibly afraid of that. They try to make China the black sheep because they were able to increase their economy so quickly. Chinese made goods quickly and at an affordable price in large quantity, due to the large numbers of workers they have! Westerns try to use the guilt factor with consumers in order to keep their economy alive.

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Made In China

Recently, my eyes have been opened to the working conditions in Chinese factories and the lives of their migrant workers, through books and documentaries such as Factory Girls and China Blue. Every year millions of young men and women travel from their homes in poor farming villages to the cities, in an attempt to work their way out of poverty. They are looking for jobs in one of China’s many sprawling factory complexes, in order to earn money to send home to their families and build a new life. They see this migration from the countryside as a great opportunity, a chance to better themselves and make their families proud. However, for many of these migrants, the reality is harsh working conditions, long hours and very little pay…

As a textile design student, I think it’s important that I look into the working conditions many migrant workers face in Chinese textile and garment factories. I did a bit of research, and what I found was unsettling. It seems that once someone gets a job in a factory, they are somewhat trapped. Young and in a lot of cases naïve, new employees are rushed into signing contracts, without being given a chance to read them, and most likely never given a copy. They are often rushed into the workplace on the same day as applying, and sent to work, with minimal to no safety training, just a brief run through of their responsibilities. Once employees have started working, it is immediately very difficult to leave the factory. It is likely that if an employee works less than a certain time before leaving, for example a week or even a month, they will receive no wages at all. In a lot of cases if you attempt to resign before you have done a couple of years work at the factory, you will be fined a substantial amount of money. Workers tend to work for twelve hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes even more during peak season. Payment is below minimum wage and sometimes does not cover the cost of living. In fact, garment factories in particular are apparently amongst the lowest paying in China. Also, more often than not, workers are not provided with paid sick or maternity leave.

The harsh conditions at some garment factories also pose a major health risk to workers. For example, factories are often very hot, with little or no ventilation, this can be a huge health hazard when employees are forced to work in these spaces using various dyes and chemicals, with no gloves, masks, etc, to protect them from fumes and hazardous materials. Workers using concentrated dyes in these conditions on a regular basis can end up with breathing problems and other serious health issues.

I wonder how many people here in the UK take this into account when buying their clothes? Clothes that may have been produced in factories just like this…

I did a bit of asking around, and the general response I received was that people don’t tend to check out where a garment has been made before purchasing it, where and how clothes are made isn’t something that most people usually think about unless it’s brought to their attention. I asked if people would prefer to buy clothing that had been made in the UK rather than in China, and the majority said yes for various different reasons, whether that be supporting the British economy/clothing industry, better quality garments or so they’re not supporting factories that mistreat workers. However, I then asked them if they would still do so if the British made piece were more expensive, and the response changed. People said they would pay more ‘within reason’ or ‘to an extent’.

I’m embarrassed to admit, that until now, I can’t say I paid a great deal of attention to where my clothes were made either. I had a quick look through my wardrobe the other night, and found that quite a few things in there had been made in China. I asked myself the same questions I asked others, and firstly I thought to myself, yes, I’d do my best to buy the good quality, ethically produced British product, but on reflection I suppose I’m rather conflicted. On the one hand I don’t feel comfortable supporting factories in China that take advantage of vulnerable, young workers, but then again, if I don’t, will I be putting an already poor person out of a job and forcing them back into a way of life they tried so hard to leave behind? Also, with almost every big high street clothing retailer opting to produce their stock in China and elsewhere in Asia, I wonder how easy it is to buy clothes that you can be assured have been made in the UK? As a textile student and general consumer, I find this entire topic fairly worrying and can’t help but feel guilty. It is certainly something that I wish to research further and perhaps consider when thinking about my own work.

Public awareness of the production process

Chinese factories and labor are seen as such a taboo in the British media with large companies being outed for using them. Are there two sides to these stories? Many Chinese see these factories as a way out of poverty and although most British shoppers is that this form of labor is wrong and would perhaps shop else where if they knew the shops they were buying from were using Chinese factories they would perhaps choose not to shop there.

The gap between the rich and poor people in China is still increasing even with the government’s initiatives to try and prevent this. Rural children and young adults are very ambitious there is a big cultural difference between China and the UK for many young Chinese family is very important to them and they want to support them and make them proud. They see the factories as a way of doing this; many of them are provided with an education. The income they gain from working in these factories keeps them out of poverty.

Obviously there are problems with some factories. The working conditions, the hours, child labor and the factories are never portrayed in a positive light. Every country that has become wealthy has had a period of laboring. An example in Britain is the coalmines and jute mills. So China is in a sense having its industrial revolution. As wages increase and people become wealthier and more prosperous in the country it is evolving into an ideas country and the laboring moves to a country wit cheaper labor, currently Vietnam.

Many shoppers are unaware of where the products they buy come from unless it is written on the label. Products made in Britain tend to be more expensive due to labor costs and people expect a better wage and also handmade products are considered good quality. Although when comparing the differences in wage between a British worker and Chinese worker may be vast there are also big differences in living costs and the price of food and where someone living in China could live comfortably off a certain wage someone trying to live on the same wage in the UK would struggle. So this is a consideration to make when thinking about these factories, but as things become more expensive expected wages will also rise.

Competition between big companies means they are striving to keep costs down. This is the main reason they use foreign factories with cheap labor costs. Many shoppers when asked saw big factories as a negative thing especially for the workers. They also mentioned that they generally didn’t know where what they were buying came from they also said when asked that when shopping the main thing they look at is the price. So to compete on the market companies must try to keep their costs low.

The convenience of buying in this country means people have become complacent. The journey the product has undertaken is not thought about. People care mainly about the price of the product. When asked whether they would buy a western product or a Chinese one they said the price would be the deciding factor. This may have been because most of the people interviewed in Dundee center were students who are low on disposable income. Although they did also comment that if something was of a higher quality they would consider paying more for it.

This raises questions about these big companies and whether new smaller, local businesses can set themselves up in the current market. With modern companies using cheap labor and creating production on a massive scale to provide these cheap products the market ask for is the more personal business losing out even if it is a better designed product?  Chinese factories provide opportunities to the people of China as an initial way out of poverty but are also in a way preventing growth of local business in other countries and preventing creative alternatives.

Companies are very wary of telling their customer where their products come from because it’s a taboo after big media cases such as Nike. Awareness of where something comes from should be more widely known around point of sale of the item or in the market place. This will take away the hidden elements of the production process so people know exactly what they are buying and whether it is the best option for them.

Jewellery and traditional beliefs

Today, China is known for being one of the largest producers of pearls. It is a very ancient artistic tradition, but China began to use precious metals relatively late. Rare references for ornaments date from the Tang period (618-906). At the beginning of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese showed great interest in jewellery influenced by Persia and India. Only toward of the end of the 11th century, we can see local characteristics. The most important type of jewel was worn on the head like tiaras and diadems. We can see many influences in Chinese jewels from the Himalaya region (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan), where the traditional skills were trekked from village to village, tribe to tribe. The jewellery traditions of the Far East reflect this immense environmental, cultural and economic diversity. However, many jewellery traditions were stopped during the time of communism, where personal adornment was severely criticised by the government. Only official badges and medals were authorized, in order to show one’s pride and loyalty to the party. Since the end of Mao Tse Tung reign, the Chinese have recovered the skills and knowledge to make ancient and traditional jewellery work.

Punched work, pierced work, and filigree are characteristics of Chinese jewellery. Their jewellery is seen to provide power and strength to the wearer. Animals were representative and symbolic. For example,  the dragon symbolized power and good luck, the goldfish for abundance of gold, the phoenix for good fortune, opportunity and luck, and many others like bird, tiger, monkey, bat, peacock. Clouds, flowers and twigs were also symbols of good luck. Colours and semi precious stones were worn in order to give power, but also to cure some diseases, give longevity, and to be healthy.  The most famous stones used for many centuries are coral, turquoise and jade.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Turquoise is seen as a “living stone” that shares the ultimate fate of the mortal that wear it. Its colour symbolizes water, air and sky. This stone can counteract devil forces and make the wearer brave and invulnerable. In addition, seeing it in a dream may bring you good luck.

Coral is supposed to bring good luck, strength to women, and favourable effects on menstruation. The most desired variety is the Italian coral. It was brought by the Silk Road and was only worn by the wealthiest class. Marco Polo noted that Tibetans ranked coral among the precious stones and used it to adorn the necks of their women and idols.

Turquoise and coral were used to make amulet boxes in silver, gold or copper. Hidden spells or prayers in the boxes were used to appease evil spirits, while the decoration was symbolic to strengthen power content.

amulet box made with turquoise and coral stones

The blue turquoise colour was also given by enamel or by the very traditional Chinese process: using Kingfisher feathers. The technique, called tian-tsui, means “dotting with kingfishers” that involves using glue to adhere the feathers onto vermeil, or silver. The Kingfisher bird is highly esteemed by the Chinese for its colour and celebrated in poetry and song by Chinese from ancient times. Over the centuries, the Kingfisher’s blue colour feather became highly prized and extremely sought after as an inlay in decorative arts. Kingfisher feather were used by the Chinese to denote status, wealth and royalty. Today that tradition has disappeared; many birds were killed during the Qing dynasty just in order to collect their feathers and the skill of tian tsui has disappeared as well. But we can still see very wonderful pieces in museums.

hair ornament made with kingfisher feathers

chinese necklace and earings made with coral beads and kingfisher feathers

This portrait of the wife of a high dignitary is painted on silk. It was made during the 1st Ming dynasty (early 15th century). She’s wearing a traditional headdress, which constituted with phoenix, clouds and flowers. The red beads were probably coral and the clouds in blue are made with kingfisher feathers to symbolize air and sky. We can also see turquoise beads on the pendants and pearls.

Turquoise, coral and pearls are very famous in Chinese jewellery. But the most famous stone is obviously the Jade. Not only for jewellery making, also for decorative objects, dishes, vases, hair comb… We found utilization of jade as jewel since Palaeolithic (hunter-gatherers) period with perforated beads at Zhoukoudian. But it’s during the Neolithic period the “art of jade” have started, caring in the Zhejiang province (5000 BC). The massive production of finely polished pendants and beads were being produced in South-East China during the 3rd millennium before Christ.  In ancient time, Jade was most expensive than gold. For example during the Imperial China, the first prize for an athlete was jade, after gold for the second place and at the third place ivory.

Jade often has a green colour, but the most rare and luxurious one is the white jade.  Many colours can be found: pink, orange or light brown, blue, black. The different colours are created by different types of chemical components: the green jade contains chromium salts, the blue-green jade contains cobalt salts, the black jade contains titanium salts, and the pink jade contains salts of iron and manganese.

traditional jade bangle made in various colours

In ancient China, jade was used in rituals and sacrifices. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the sky was round and the earth was square. A jade ornament with a round hole in the middle, called “bi”, symbolized the sky. A jewel of long hollow jade with rectangular sides, called “cong”, symbolized the earth. The bi was often placed with the corpse before burial as jade cicada was used to symbolize rebirth.

China, late Eastern Zhou dynasty or early Western Han dynasty 3rd – 2nd century BC Diameter: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm Thickness: 1/8 inch, 0.4 cm

In the Han Dynasty, some leaders were buried in suits made entirely of jade. It was made of many pieces with various shapes, usually square, that were held together by thin threads of precious metal or silk, like the shroud of King of Chu. These extremely expensive structures were reserved only for elites. It is estimated that it took several years to achieve this kind of ritual costume that consists of 2000 to 5000 pieces! The Chinese believed that jade had magical properties and protected the corpse from decomposition.

jade shroud made with white jade and gold thread, Han dynasty.

Jade is still being used today, although the techniques have changed with technology the jade objects as talismans, “bi” or decorative objects are still used in Chinese culture, and popular with tourists as souvenirs.

The China Wide Web

Designing for the Chinese when it comes to websites is not as easy as converting the information into the Chinese language, there are many barriers to be considered. Here some light will be shed onto the Chinese web design world, the focus and reasoning behind website creation along with understanding parts that westerners would see as bad practice, or horrible design.

Chinese web design will not work for the western world, why? Culture, the Chinese web could be seen as a reflection of Chinese culture. The way people interact with each other and information to honour that is held in high regard to the local people, this along with other barriers creates more personalized web interactions.

Censorship, a driving force in the China wide web, could be seen as a hindrance and a blessing to the web design world, where websites are banned a new website can be created purely for the Chinese people, centred on their own preferences. “It limits your freedom, but meanwhile, it has a positive effect on UI design and content presentation. There is less room for gimmicks. It forces you to concentrate on useful content and how to present your content.” – Whitecrow Zhu

Before getting deeper into the cultural aspects of China it would be good to see an example of a popular Chinese website:

Sina could be seen as a copy of Yahoo as we know it, providing news, mail, blog platform, instant messaging, communities etc. At first glance of this site, most western users would leave; the website is cluttered and full of images and text, general ‘bad design’.

Many websites in china follow this style, and are popular and well used, why you may ask yourself, well this could be because of cultural influences and web design practice that is used in china.

The above website example is based on a design principle called “Designing for clicks” this form of creating websites is placing as much recent information on the front page as possible allowing the user to interact with what they find interesting, also allowing people to see an over view of everything at once.

The concept of ‘Face’ plays a role here, this could be likened to what we know as honour, and you can gain it or lose it. This cultural aspect affects the design of websites, having a website trenched in text and links is showing people what your site has to offer, nothing is hidden from the user, this leads to trust of the site, unlike western counter parts where the user is lead down a path to where the designer wants them to go, this could be seen as dis-honest to the average Chinese user.

Other cultural influences on designing for clicks can also be understood when seeing how the Chinese interact with information, at school there is more focus on memorizing facts, rather than understanding the information they are being given. The idea that later in life this information can be understood and put to use when it is needed this is reflected in how websites are read. Upon logging onto a site information can be digested then the user can go deeper into the site at their leisure.

In the same way the western world would shun Chinese web design the same could be said the other way around,  upon logging onto a minimalist website Chinese people are more likely to leave thinking there is nothing of interest, so would  Chinese web design ever be seen in the western world?

An opinion here would be no, simply because Chinese web design focus’s a lot on the Chinese people, traditions, celebrations and festive past times. Colour use holds different meanings to them as it would to us. Acceptance of cultural differences is as positive as it has been in the past, diversity is the spice of life as we like to say, Chinese culture has a lot to offer us, including new ways to create the web, but understanding the way Chinese people use the internet can help us branch out into their culture and vice versa.

Innovations of Graphic design in China

    Printmaking and papermaking innovations that influenced the development of graphic design

China innovated the key features of graphic design, printmaking and papermaking. Both of these inventions were essential to the development of graphic design. Without them the development of the written word would not of developed from writing on stone and other materials, which don’t have the same qualities as paper, and the development of print and moveable type meant that the mass production of written communication such as books and propaganda could happen creating vital elements in the history of graphic design.

In AD 105 the invention of paper was cited and reported to the Chinese emperor by an official of the imperial court, Ts’ai Lun. However recent archeology discovers show the invention of paper in China to be around 200 years earlier during the reign of Emperor Wu. Whether Ts’ai Lun invented paper is for debate but how developed it as a material revolutionized China. The main development was using a smooth material in the mold covering this meant the mold could immediately quickening production. Other developments included adding yellow dye that acted as an insect repellant and using starch as a sizing material creating a stronger material overall.

Printing in China was developed long before it was developed in Europe some of the earliest examples of woodblock printing text, images and pattern originated in China early 220 A.D. These surviving woodblock printed fragments are of silk printed with flowers in three colours from the Hans Dynasty and in the mid seventh century the earliest example of woodblock printing on paper was also discovered in China.

China was ahead of Europe in developing printing and colour printing by hundreds of years. They also developed the first moveable type. Bi Sheng developed moveable type in China in 1040 using porcelain. He used clay type but this broke easily, but Wang Zhen later carved a more durable type out of wood in 1298. He developed a complicated system using revolving tables and number association with written Chinese characters making the process of typesetting and printing more efficient. Woodblock printing remained the main method in use in China for a long time due to the hundreds of Chinese characters. Copper moveable type was developed in China in the twelfth century and was used on a large-scale to produce printed money in the Northern song dynasty.

In 868 the Diamond sutra was the first completed printed book and printing on paper had taken off. A skilled printer could print up to 2,000 double-page sheets per day and by the tenth century 400,000 copies of some sutras and pictures were printed. In the British library amongst the Dunhuang manuscripts the Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra and it is the earliest version of a dated printed book. By the beginning of the eleventh century moveable type was being used to produce longer scrolls and books making books widely available in the Song Dynasty.

The earliest dated printed book

Printing spread of China and Japan countries that used Chinese logograms and developed for other scripts into Vietnam and Turpan. But it didn’t reach the Islamic world.

Moveable type eventually made it from China to Europe and in 1450 Johannes Gutenberg developed the Gutenberg press and introduced what was seen as the first system of moveable type in Europe. He was the first to create type pieces from alloy lead and steal the same materials that are still used today. Aldus Manutius developed his book structure and this became the foundation for western publications. This era of graphic design is known as Humanist or old style.

Gutenberg bible

These innovations relate directly to what I study as a Graphic design student from editorial and typography work to large-scale imagery and photography. If this wasn’t developed communication on a large-scale would not be possible and it all developed out of China and has created the modern design industry.

Made In China: China in the Digital Media

China’s portrayal to the western world is seen mainly through the news, film and documentaries. These are all digital and accessible from around the world and are a perfect place to understand a western viewpoint about China and how it is portrayed.

Over the recent years the main discussion involving China focus’s on the growth of the country that is soon to be the next super power in the world. American news has mixed opinions on China being bought into the new world, mainly the questions; is China a threat? Or is China’s growth something to be welcomed?
Here China is being seen as a worry to a current super power even though it has been stated that China wants to have a peaceful rise into power. This kind of fear mongering by the news gives the general public of America a negative feeling about China.
Anoither main story that has always piqued interest in the news about China involves the censorship that is imposed on the internet usage, this is also known as ‘The great firewall of China’. Blocking information that the Chinese government does not want their citizens to be exposed to. Censorship like this could be seen as oppressing human rights, this coupled with the 1 child rule imposed on the country puts China in a bad light to the western world.
This portrayal of China shows oppressed people, having rights taken away. The one child rule also shows signs of the removal of human rights, even though rights get taken away the Chinese population still hold their country highly and go by the rules. Enforcements like this haven’t been seen in the west until recently with proposed bills that threaten to follow in China’s footsteps (Bills such as SOPA/PIPA & ACTA).

Documentaries mainly portray China’s history and China as a whole. The history of china reflects where the country has come from and focuses on the great achievements the Chinese people have accomplished.
When portraying China the documentaries tend to show the honour the Chinese have for their country and the vast expansion that is happening along with the modern take over of traditional values and ways of life.
Modernism versus tradition is a reoccurring dilemma when China is portrayed, becoming modern a lot of traditions must be lost, for example ancient crafting techniques are slowly dwindling along with martial arts as students of the crafts want to join the modern world and not live in the past of China. Traditional Chinese people fear for their way of life, hoping their family traditions do not die out.

The majority of films either released from China or created and based in China by the western world focus towards the rich history of china with a lot of fantasy swordplay and martial arts involved, the films set in the past are generally around the time that china was unified, either just before or just after.
The films also tap into fantasy and the legends of china, some famous examples would be crouching tiger hidden dragon, also forbidden kingdom which hints on the tales of monkey.
Kung fu is a reoccurring concept in film about China, since Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other great martial artists have been involved in the film industry it even started a trend where actors had to know what they were doing rather than bringing in someone who can do it for them. Another trend this bought in was the learning of martial arts by the general public.
In cinema china can be seen as the front of human progression, throughout history china has been at the forefront of technology and a hub of intelligence that the rest of the world followed behind.

Working to achieve a common goal is a known aspect of the Chinese, and the honour to serve their country that is rarely seen else where in the world where people have become used to easy living.
Known as honourable people, the Chinese are working as one towards a better China. The drive that built the great wall can still be seen among the inhabitants today with their drive towards becoming the next super power and breaking into a new world.