This summer, as the French musical version of Romeo and Juliet toured Chinese cities, performing arts centers staging the show drew numerous exuberant young audiences clad in either red or blue outfits.
The colors represent the two feuding families of Verona, Italy, in the Shakespearean classic. Young Chinese fans went on social media platforms to share information about the show, and did everything — including following the dress code — to become participants rather than passive observers.
China’s Gen Z audiences are increasingly looking for opportunities for viewer participation in the performing arts. They have also become a formidable consumer force in China’s burgeoning performing arts market, and their viewing habits are shaping the business.
Young people who had watched Romeo and Juliet exchanged information online about the cast, the view from different seats in theaters and even French lyrics marked with phonetic indicators.
Offline, they lined up for hours for autograph sessions and sprinted to the stage area after the final curtain for encore performances. They even organized a chorus of Aimer, the signature song of the musical, in French.
Hao Jiajing, a 19-year-old student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, is an avid fan of rap music and attends live houses and festivals, meticulously dressed in hip-hop clothing. Her experience goes beyond music, providing her with an opportunity to connect with those who share her passions.
“Watching a show is a chance to find like-minded people. We may come from different walks of life, but the shared passion for rap creates a strong bond,” Hao said.
She said the sense of camaraderie among strangers who share a common love for the genre often develops into lasting friendships, extending beyond the concert venue.
Apart from attending autograph sessions and meetups with her favorite rappers, she occasionally participates in pre-show events organized by fan groups, helping distribute souvenirs ahead of concerts. When the concerts end, she goes to dinner parties with others from the groups, and they “recast “the entire concert together.
For Hao, dressing in a hip-hop style is more than just a social-media photo opportunity. It symbolizes a shift from everyday casual to a distinctive hip-hop fashion, a shift that helps her blend into the dynamic atmosphere of the rap culture. “It’s about totally blending with the vibe of live performances, making me feel like I’m part of the show,” Hao said.
Dressing up for live performances also provides her with an opportunity to assert a hidden identity.
“I personally love this style of dress. It may not be suitable for daily attire on campus, but attending this kind of musical event provides a perfect outlet.”
Consumers in China’s performing arts market today are getting younger. According to Zhu Min, an associate professor at the Communication University of China and director of the Culture and Tourism Research Base of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, over 30 percent of performing arts consumption is by audiences born after 1995.
“Gen Z has become a force to be reckoned with in terms of performance arts consumption, and their needs and preferences cannot be ignored, bearing in mind China’s recent efforts to boost cultural consumption and the nighttime economy,” Zhu said.
The new viewer habits have prompted changes in the performance arena. Music festivals, live houses, standup comedy and immersive drama have come into vogue, marking a departure from traditional shows, he said, as these performances bring the audience much closer to the performers and are peppered with improvised interactions.
As for the reasons behind the change, Zhu explains that China’s Gen Z has grown up in the digital era and against a rapidly evolving socioeconomic background. Many young people have extra money to buy not only concert tickets but also merchandise. In addition, Gen Z people are keen to form their own circles of friends and communities to find those who share their passions.
Zhu said he was impressed by the scene he witnessed recently at a music festival.
“I was there both as a researcher and as an enthusiast, and I was shocked by what youngsters did out of their heartfelt love, from the perspective of someone who was born in the 1970s,” Zhu said.
According to data from the China Association of Performing Arts, a total of 193,300 commercial art performances were staged in the first half of this year, a year-on-year surge of more than 400 percent. The total number of people attending was about 62.24 million, over 10 times more than during the same period last year.