A Decade of Loneliness or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Spend All My Money On Taobao

Article by Tim King

It’s 11:59pm on November 10th. All across China, people are glued to their computers or phones, counting down the seconds until midnight, at which point they will all hit “Refresh.” Then, the Middle Kingdom’s annual simultaneous buy-gasm begins. Depending on when you read this, the panting fever dream of consumerism known as “11.11” will have already happened. But, given its absurd success, it stands to happen next year, and the year after that and the year after that, and the year after that, until the sea rises and swallows us all or entropy turns the universe into an unfathomably large mass of inert grayness, whichever happens first. So, on this, the tenth anniversary of 11.11, the eleventh such sale to date, I guess now is about as good a time as any to discuss the day that makes Black Friday look like a garage sale.

One is the Loneliest Number

I suppose it would be best to start with this: my claim that 2019 is the “tenth anniversary of 11.11” is a little bit misleading. There is always a November 11th every year, of course. Additionally, 11.11 as a sweaty, sticky, Alibaba-centric shopping climax has been going on for about ten years, but its actual origins are a bit older, from something called, “Singles’ Day.”

There is no single flashpoint for Singles’ Day—theories and rumors abound, which we will get into in a bit—but people generally agree on a few key details. The first of these is that Singles’ Day began sometime in the 1990s. The second agreed-upon factoid is that it started in a Nanjing University dormitory. And that’s about everything that everyone agrees on. There are two main theories floating around that offer more specificity into its dorm-room origins.

The origin story most people ascribe to basically sums up Singles’ Day as an invented, “Treat Yourself” kind of holiday during which single, university-aged men bought themselves luxury goods to both celebrate and lament their bachelorhood, a sort of “anti-Valentine’s Day.”

The other story is about a student at Nanjing University named Guangkun, whose girlfriend became stricken with (and subsequently died from) cancer. The tale then goes on to say that he held a vigil for his lost love on the roof of his dorm; other students and members of the community, so moved by his gesture, began to celebrate 11.11 (Guangkun’s alleged birthday) every year.

The second story was much harder to find online, but multiple sites and articles did mention it, with one source going so far as to call it “apocryphal.” I guess that would be FabriqueLove.com’s way of saying, “No one has ever heard a story about cancer and then wanted to buy an iPhone.” Given the hullaballoo about 11.11 these days, we’re probably a couple of Singles’ Days away from the “Treat Yourself” version of events being canon.

Time Magazine ran an article in 2014, which focused on the idea that there are still some Singles’ Day customs focused on relationships (or the lack thereof). The article quotes a Beijing-based dating consultant as saying that many of her clients treat 11.11 as a deadline—or as she says, “the last day [they] will be single.” Many couples around the country also choose the date as one to cement their relationship and get married, forever ending their lives as single people.

But let’s face it, we’re only here talking about 11.11 because of the money.

Alibaba and The Forty Sales

That brings us to 2009. Alibaba Group, the company started by Jack Ma, was celebrating its tenth anniversary. China’s now dominant ecommerce platform had run eBay out of the country years earlier; Taobao was six years old; TMall had been added as a supplement to the Taobao platform a year prior.

Quartz, in a feature on Alibaba’s role in popularizing Singles’ Day, states that Alibaba Group was looking to increase sales on the platform. In particular, they wanted to boost sales in the lull between the high-spending periods around China’s Golden Week holidays (namely, National Week in October and the Chinese Lunar New Year in January/February). No source could explain exactly why they settled on the fledgling Singles’ Day holiday, but Alibaba began to promote the day as a time for retail therapy, for shoppers to splurge on things for themselves, leaning into its “anti-Valentine’s Day” reputation.

That first year, only 27 brands participated, but Alibaba made about 50 million RMB in sales (roughly USD$7mil at the 2009 exchange rate). Quartz goes on to quote a former Alibaba employee as saying, “The first year, they were surprised at how well it went, and the second year promoted it more, and then it took on a life as its own.” Indeed, 2010’s Singles’ Day sale saw a 1700% increase in sales (nearly 1 billion RMB, about USD$135mil). Things just kept going up from there, and I’ll spare you most of the raw data and skip to 2018, when sales figures reached an eye-watering 213 billion RMB (~USD$30.7bil).

Savings As Far As The Eye Can See

So, now we’re up-to-date. At the time of writing, it’s not clear that Alibaba’s shopping holiday will set a new record, but they are damn sure trying. The advertising offensive has been going on since August; the company has plans for a star-powered livestream from Shanghai; it expects 200,000 brands to participate; they furthermore expect half a billion consumers to benefit from more than 50 billion RMB in discounts. They also continue to set their sights globally, with 78 countries expected to participate in this year’s sale. Whatever happens, there’s at least one thing we can expect: nearly half of China waiting with bated breath for the stroke of midnight on November 11th.

Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and is not much of an online shopper. He can be reached at tim.king@xianease.com