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Pulse on China

Zibo Barbecue: Economic Boom and Nostalgic Craze

by Junyi Hua

“Pulse on China” is a series of articles comparing Mainland China’s media coverage of key events with those outside of China. Analysis is conducted by graduate students with native Chinese language skills and focus on Chinese affairs.

A group of people standing around a grill with food on itZibo, a small industrial city in Shandong Province, became China’s hottest travel spot in 2023. Its unique barbecue — a mouth-watering combination of skewered meat, flatbread, Shandong green onion, and a generous helping of cumin barbecue sauce — have earned it nationwide renown. According to the Zibo Municipal Bureau of Commerce, some thousand Zibo barbecue restaurants have averaged 135,800 customers each day since March 2023. [1] During the 2023 May Day holiday, Zibo Railway Station disgorged a massive 240,300 passengers, an increase of 55% over the same period in 2019. [2]

Much ink has been spilled in China on this Shandong city’s barbecue renaissance, with Chinese media attributing three main meanings to the Zibo craze: a beacon for new youth culture, a return to pre-pandemic life, and an economic model for China’s lagging industrial cities.


Gratitude is the spark that lit the Zibo barbecue blaze in Chinese media: students grateful to their Zibo hosts for their warm welcome after quarantine stranded them there. According to The Paper (澎湃), the trend of going to Zibo for barbecue began with a group of college students returning to the city to reminisce about their barbecue-filled quarantine experiences. [3] An article from Securities Daily points out that this story has broadly resonated with hundreds of thousands of young people  who were seeking connection with fellow youths to make sense of the recent past. [4]

Zibo’s down-to-earth and welcoming atmosphere drew notice. [5] People of all stripes flocked to Zibo, not just recent students. Zibo people’s hospitality was widely praised, as media reported how ordinary people in Zibo even volunteered to take to the streets to give gifts to tourists coming to their city. [6] Spontaneous outbreaks of song further livened up Zibo’s barbecue scene. Professor Shangwei Cai, director of the Cultural Industry Research Center at Sichuan University was quoted as saying that singing while eating barbecue can be seen as  shared cultural communication.  At the large scale seen in Zibo, however, this singing becomes a viral phenomenon, drawing in  consumers eager for human connection as much as for barbecue. [7]

Zibo’s down-to-earth culture also evokes nostalgia for an imagined past, a past that was simpler and more connected than the unfeeling modernity confronting China’s contemporary urban residents. Shi Jin, a former director of the China Center for Urban Development, pointed out that in the process of China's urban modernization, wealthier residents may have a sentimental attachment  to a street food culture that has largely been cleared out of China’s so-called higher-tier cities. [8] On the other hand, Zibo,  with its “less-developed” economy, has capitalized on its informal economy of street vendors and food stalls, captivating these nostalgic patrons hailing from wealthier locales.


Another angle Chinese media have used to view the Zibo barbecue craze is seeing it as a new type of development — a sort of Zibo model. According to some reports, the success of Zibo barbecue may even bring about urban transformation for the city. Xiang Wei, researcher at the National Academy of Economic Strategy, wrote that Zibo barbecue can be seen as a consumption hotspot that can transform its development model from one powered by external  investment to one driven by local consumption. [9] It was reported that Zibo’s government even used barbecue to attract young talents. During the May Day Holiday, Zibo offered free passes to scenic sights and designated hotels to students from elite universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University. The hope is that such visits will leave these students with a good impression of Zibo, thus increasing the likelihood of these students returning to the region in the long term. [10] Whether such efforts could succeed is of course another matter.

Media reports have carried the Zibo barbecue story to other cities where a debate arose about if other industrial cities should replicate the Zibo model. Helin Pan, a researcher from Zhejiang University International Business School, offered a positive view. He reportedly argued that Zibo’s success lies in its ability to create a unique city brand based on recognizable features of the city itself. That, he reasoned, can be replicated by other cities. [11]

Plenty of others disagreed with Pan, according to various media reports. Changfa Ding, Associate Professor of Economics from Xiamen University, recommended that other cities avoid blindly copying Zibo's model. In his view, an industrial city like Zibo cannot rely solely on tourism industries in the long run. He asserted that only innovation can power economic development from within. In his view, a barbecue craze does not make nor sustain innovation. 

Supplementing this view, analysis by Phoenix New Media adds that barbecue could not possibly become the driving force for the sustainable development of Zibo, arguing that one-off novelty and emotional consumption cannot be converted into long-term consumption. Moreover, Lian Zeng, Associate Professor of Business at Beijing Foreign Studies University, expressed concern that if the heat of Zibo barbecue dims, businesses will begin to sell barbecue shops at low prices, causing a stampede of sales and leading to unhealthy fluctuations in the barbecue market. [12] Therefore, although the barbecue story seems to have buoyed the Zibo economy in the short term, its sustainability is still under question. In the long run, Zibo has many difficulties to overcome, likely more difficulties than can be resolved by a singular barbecue craze.

Chinese media certainly has in some ways had a field day reporting on the Zibo barbecue craze: at times promoting it as a vision for urban development, a panacea for small cities post-COVID economic blues, or as a way to relive the past to recover emotionally from the pandemic. However, this craze isn’t just a profusion of positive fluff pieces on economic revival or cultural renaissance. Indeed, while many positive articles exist, just as many warn that the Zibo craze is unreplicable or unsustainable. 

Amidst the noise of media clatter, one thing is clear: Chinese citizens are hungry — whether it be for the past, growth, or just good grilled meat. The craze may stem from different imaginations, and its significance to the public may be elusive. 

End Notes