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Friday, March 15, 2019, 10:23
More turning to the bare essentials of life
By Pan Mengqi
Friday, March 15, 2019, 10:23 By Pan Mengqi

(LI MIN / CHINA DAILY)

The observation that less is more, first associated with the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe more than 70 years ago, has been embraced by a growing number of minimalists seeking to rid their minds and living environments of clutter and counter frenzied consumerism.

"Uncluttering and minimizing are part of the process of getting organized. The main process in professional organizing is to edit and re-edit in order to fill your space with only worthy things. By minimizing, people are eliminating the things they don't love to create space for those they do."

Zhou Yiyan, founder of Wechat account the No.1 Organizing Platform

Lin Hanxing is one of them.

The 30-year-old, who lives in Beijing, owns just five shirts, two pairs of pants, four pairs of shoes, a trenchcoat, a down jacket and a meager smattering of various other items. All her belongings fit in a small suitcase.

Five years ago, Lin said she was a member of the "hand-chopping mafia"-a slang internet term referring to shopaholics who feel the urge to figuratively cut off their hands to stop impulse buying.

Lin, who works as an interpreter for an international company, said she used to spend lots of money buying fashionable clothes in the hope of "winning people's recognition and attention".

At one time, she owned more than 400 items of clothing, shoes and handbags. These not only cluttered her 25-square-meter apartment in Beijing but also became an economic burden.

"My salary was around 15,000 yuan (US$2,230) per month, but my monthly credit card bill would sometimes reach 25,000 to 30,000 yuan back then," Lin said.

In 2014, she saw an online challenge had been launched by Joshua Becker, a blogger in the United States promoting a minimalist lifestyle. Participants were encouraged to reduce the number of possessions to less than 100. Lin decided to give it a try.

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She discarded 90 percent of her clothes, decorations, cookware, furniture, linen, tools and books, along with anything else in her home that was not "essential to life".

In addition, she deleted 120 contacts on her social networking account to whom she had never spoken.

After purging her life of much physical and emotional baggage, Lin said she felt "lighter".

China is one of many countries that have been swept by a wave of minimalism as a lifestyle choice.

While an increasing number of Chinese consumers have acquired strong purchasing power in recent years, some urbanites, such as Lin, are abandoning consumerism to pursue a more ascetic lifestyle as minimalists.

Minimalism as a lifestyle philosophy is simple-the less you own, the happier you will be. Pare down and unclutter, the thinking goes, and your mind will have room to breathe.

But minimalism comes in different forms. Some people are getting rid of books, papers, unused toys or even TV sets. Others are taking matters a step further, and once they have shed their possessions, they are moving out of their large homes in favor of smaller apartments. Some are attempting to reduce the barrage of information they face each day by limiting time spent on the internet.

A report in The Wall Street Journal last year said consumerism is at its peak, thanks to multiple factors-"rising income, fast fashion, ease of e-commerce and a wider embrace of use-and-throw culture as technology advances". These are all combining to make frequent product upgrades a buyer's ritual.

Status symbols

Zhu Rui, a consumer market researcher in Beijing, said, "Amid constant stimulation from society, many consumers now feel that things may have gone beyond their control."

Zhu said most well-off Chinese, who have gone through a time of "material scarcity", are now using possessions as status symbols to show they are living a good life, adding, "After getting rich, people like to purchase a lot of expensive things.

"However, when they become aware that what they possess is actually a kind of burden, or does not represent their taste at all, some may think differently about their lifestyles," and turn to minimalism to regain control.

According to Becker, minimalism, which first emerged in some developed countries, is growing as a lifestyle movement because of "an overwhelming worry of global financial turmoil". He launched the blog becomingminimalist.com, which promotes a minimalist lifestyle and has garnered more than 1.3 million followers.

He offered an explanation of why people across the US and the developed world are abandoning consumerism to live more simply: "Rising unemployment, stagnant wages and falling stock prices have forced families and individuals to re-evaluate their purchases. People have begun living on tighter budgets. As a result, many consumers are choosing to identify the difference between essential and nonessential purchases."

Sociologist Joel Stillerman said there is a connection between minimalism and a quest for well-being among certain educated, upper-middle-class areas of society in the US and other Western countries. In his book The Sociology of Consumption: A Global Approach he states that minimalism is also meant to "project taste, refinement and aesthetic knowledge".

"These people are making the statement: 'I can afford to have less. I appreciate books and travel and good meals'," he said.

Zeb Smith, 30, from the US, became a minimalist in 2014 after losing his job. He discovered that by reducing the number of items he owned, he had a better quality of life.

Smith said he grew up in a typical US consumerist family. "We had so many toys, clothes, videotapes, books and other things that you could not see the floor in our house. The messy home caused serious stress in my parents' marriage. They eventually got divorced."

After losing his job, Smith and his wife moved to Colorado from Idaho, a distance of 1,450 kilometers.

"We could not afford a big trailer for the move, so we had to get rid of a lot of things. After we got to Colorado, we bought more things again, and marriage was hard. I worked all day and came home to a messy house."

Smith and his wife noticed that their cluttered home was causing them stress. While his wife, Lauren, searched on the internet for ways to solve the problem, Smith wrote a book titled Minimalism in Real Life: 4½ Practical Steps Towards a Meaningful Life, which was published under the name Jefferson Gow.

Learning from his experience, he said he hoped to help people systematically create peace in their homes by practicing minimalism.

"Things are so affordable now that they no longer work as symbols of social status. Cleanliness and tidiness are becoming the new marks of wealth," he said.

In the US, millennials-the 18 to 34 age group that comprises more than 25 percent of the population and the majority of the workforce-are the main driving force seeking a minimalist lifestyle.

Robin Lewis, a US retail expert said: "Millennials have a unique set of values around how they choose to spend their money. They grew up during the recession, entered a struggling job market and must now pay off record amounts of debt."

He said the millennial generation is bigger than that of the baby boomers in terms of numbers, but has less money. "This is a big threat to the economy. They're not into a lot of shopping," Lewis added.

But this may not be the case in China. A report by market research company Euromonitor in London found young Chinese consumers spend less on possessions, but tend to spend more on, for example, short holidays and visits to the movies, with ticket sales rising by 13.5 percent last year.

Alison Angus, head of lifestyles at Euromonitor, said this, in part, is driven by the rise of a Chinese counter-culture dubbed wenqing, or "cultured youth", but perhaps is better expressed by the word "hipster".

"They are rejecting materialism, which sort of goes against the grain in China," Angus said. "They are looking for a life that is all about culture. They spend their leisure time reading poetry, going to art galleries, looking after pets and drinking little alcohol."

However, some brands are still trying to tap the new generation of Chinese who have consciously decided to consume less.

These approaches can take different forms. They range from the functional basics of Japanese retail company Muji and the production of simple quality clothing by Uniqlo, to subscription services, which are replacing ownership of music, books, movies and software. Electronic books and devices such as Kindle are among the top items bought by Chinese born in the 1990s and 2000s, according to data from Iresearch.

Other industry trends in China, such as the booming sharing economy, in which, for example, consumers choose to use new services available through Didi and Mobike rather than buy cars, are also evidence of this trend, the report said.

Prakash Ghai, an Indian minimalist, tried to introduce the concept to his country through photography. "People first learn to acquire before learning to give up," he said, adding that although the minimalism movement has been evident for some years in the Western world, it is still a relatively new concept in India because "many Indians are still learning to acquire".

But statistics from Google Trends show that minimalism is spreading from the Middle East to Western Europe. The top five countries and regions searching for information on "minimalism" in 2017 were Hong Kong, Iran, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the Philippines.

In Asia, the most prominent minimalist is Japanese expert Marie Kondo, whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold millions of copies worldwide and inspired countless numbers of people to reorganize their homes and lives. Although Kondo focuses on tidiness, the psychological benefits of this overlap with the minimalists' goals. The book struck a chord with many middle-class readers and fueled their enthusiasm for minimalist lifestyles.

Worthy things

Zhou Yiyan, a fan of the book, was inspired by it and has capitalized on many middle-class Chinese consumers' desire for minimalism.

In 2015, she launched a public account on WeChat called the No. 1 Organizing Platform, with the aim of introducing consumers to Japanese home organization techniques and to onsite consultants operating in China. Just 18 months later, her account has more than 200,000 followers.

Zhou said Chinese clients who hire a well-regarded professional home organizer will likely have to pay about 1,500 yuan for a five-hour consultation. As it generally takes five to eight sessions to organize a home, the cost of making a house less cluttered can sometimes exceed 10,000 yuan.

"Uncluttering and minimizing are part of the process of getting organized," Zhou said. "The main process in professional organizing is to edit and re-edit in order to fill your space with only worthy things. By minimizing, people are eliminating the things they don't love to create space for those they do."

Zhou, who describes herself as a "uncluttering consultant", predicts that China will be swept by the trend to rid living areas of homes in first-tier cities of too many possessions.

"There are three main reasons behind this. First, housing prices in first-tier cities-vast metropolitan areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou (capital of Guangdong province)-are rising rapidly. At the same time, a growing consumer class is spending more and more on products that, frankly, are junk," she said.

However, some of these people have caught on to the fact that often the most expensive, attractive aspect of the home is the property itself, Zhou said. "This actually shows that the newfound interest in the Japanese principles of paring down one's belongings and revealing space has come at exactly the right time," she said.

"Second, although increased consumer power coupled with the convenience of online shopping has encouraged a multitude of material possessions, for some people this trend has reached saturation point." Against the rising tide of cheap furniture, TVs and domestic appliances, the notion of practicing minimalism proves highly seductive.

"Third, the deeper concepts behind home organization attract educated, middle-class Chinese who are uninspired by the blind materialism of the country's predominant consumer culture," Zhou said.

Even though minimalism has always advocated reduced consumption, the concept has helped spawn many new business opportunities in China.

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Yang Zhihua, who set up a "training camp" for minimalism in 2015, recruited thousands of people in China to practice living with fewer items; Carrie Yu and Joe Harvey opened a store in Beijing called the Bulk House to promote maximizing the use of existing items and a zero-waste lifestyle; while Lin Xun started a company to help simplify people's social networking and to unclutter their "emotional waste".

Zhou said, "I think Marie Kondo should now set her sights on China as her next market."

She added that the trend toward minimalism is attracting attention worldwide-and, in China at least, is diversifying into new and interesting forms likely to prove lucrative to more business for a long time to come.

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