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China Books & Literature

No Man’s City – A Chinese Blogger’s Powerful Essay About The “Fake Lives” of Beijing Residents

An essay titled “Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There” by Chinese blogger Zhang Wumao has gone viral on Chinese social media. The essay describes how Beijing has changed into a city that is overrun by ‘outsiders’ and no longer belongs to the ‘old Beijingers.’ The article has now been censored. Chinese state media say the essay impedes good relations between Beijing’s locals and immigrants.

Manya Koetse

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An essay titled “Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live Here” by Chinese blogger Zhang Wumao (张五毛) has gone viral on Chinese social media, sparking wide debate on life in China’s capital. The essay describes how Beijing has changed into a city that is overrun by ‘outsiders’ and no longer belongs to the ‘old Beijingers.’ Chinese state media say the essay, which is now censored, polarizes the relations between Beijing’s locals and immigrants.

An online essay titled “Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live Here” (or: “There are 20 Million People in Beijing Pretending to Have a Life” “北京,有2000万人假装在生活”, full English translation here) by Chinese writer and blogger Zhang Wumao (张五毛) became a viral hit on WeChat and Weibo after it was published on the author’s WeChat account on July 23.

The essay is a witty yet powerful critique of Beijing and its residents. Over the last decade, and especially over the past few years, Beijing has undergone enormous changes. The city is expanding, high-rise buildings are mushrooming, while old hutong areas are bricked up and familiar neighborhoods demolished for the sake of the city’s metamorphosis in an ‘international metropolis.’

According to Mr. Zhang, the city’s rapid transformation has turned it into a place with no identity; a place that nobody can call home. The essay argues that Beijing has been overrun by migrant workers or waidiren (外地人, ‘people from outside the city’), and that these ‘outsiders’ have turned China’s capital into a place with staggering house prices and heavy traffic that lacks soul. The city no longer really belongs to native Beijingers, Zhang writes, as they cannot even recognize their old neighborhoods anymore.

The essay describes how Beijing has become so big, so full, and so expensive, that life has virtually become unsustainable. The result of Beijing’s transformation, according to the post, is that its residents, both locals and immigrants, just “pretend to live there”, leading “fake lives.”

 

ZHANG GUOCHEN

“It was destined to go viral. It ridicules Beijing + it talks about migrant workers + real estate market + and state of life.”

 

Zhang Wumao, whose real name is Zhang Guochen (张国臣), is an author born in the early 1980s. He is from Luonan, Shaanxi, and came to Beijing at the age of 25 in 2006. A year later he started blogging. He previously published the novels Spring is Burning (春天在燃烧) and Princess’s Tomb (公主坟).

Zhang’s online essay about Beijing spread like wildfire on WeChat and Weibo on Sunday. It was viewed over 5 million times within an evening and soon became a trending article on WeChat. It triggered wide debate across Chinese social media on the lives of people in Beijing.

WeChat’s “Today” overview showing dozens of mentions of Zhang’s essay earlier this week. (via zhihu.com)

On Monday and Tuesday, the essay was also republished by various Chinese media such as Tencent News, iFeng, and Sohu.com.

But on July 25, the full text was removed from all social media accounts and Chinese online newspapers. Its hashtag on Weibo (#北京有2000万人假装在生活#) is now no longer accessible.

On Tuesday, any link for the online essay came up with a ‘404 page’ saying: “Cannot open – you can no longer view this page!”

The article also disappeared from Zhang’s WeChat account.

Zhang’s Wechat account shows that the article from July 23 has now been deleted.

On Quora-like discussion platform Zhihu.com, one person said the essay was destined to become a hype: “This is a typical Wechat viral article. It ridicules Beijing + it talks about migrant workers + real estate market + and state of life. As it contains all of these elements in 1 article, the author just intended for this to become a hit.”

 

A SENSITIVE ESSAY

“What Beijingers increasingly feel is the suffocation of the smog and the high cost of housing. They cannot move, they cannot breathe.”

 

Zhang’s essay is divided into five paragraphs. In the first part, he explains that Beijingers often seem inhospitable; the city is so huge and congested, that people simply cannot find the time to see their friends in other parts of the city.

“Beijing is really too big; so big that it is simply not like a city at all. It is equivalent to 2.5 times Shanghai, 8.4 times Shenzhen, 15 times Hong Kong, 21 times New York, or 27 times Seoul. When friends from outside come to Beijing, they think they’re close to me. But actually, we’re hardly in the same city at all.”

“For 10 years, Beijing has been controlling housing, controlling traffic, and controlling the population. But this pancake is only getting wider and bigger, so much that when a school friend from Xi’an calls me to say he’s in Beijing and I ask him where he is, he tells me: “I am at the 13th Ring.” Beijing is a tumor, and no one can control how fast it is growing; Beijing is a river, and no one can draw its borders. Beijing is a believer, and only Xiong’an can bring salvation.”

The second part, which is titled ‘Beijing actually belongs to outsiders’ (北京其实是外地人的北京), claims that Beijing is one of the most beloved cities in China because of its rich cultural heritage and long history, but that this is something that is only of value to people from outside the city.

“In the 11 years since I’ve come to Beijing, I have been to the Great Wall 11 times, 12 times the Imperial Palace, 9 times to the Summer Palace, and 20 times to the Bird’s Nest. I feel emotionless about this city’s great architecture and long history. (..) Going into the Forbidden City, I only see one empty house after the other – it’s less interesting than the lively pigsties we have in my native village.”

“Upon mentioning Beijing, many people first think of the Palace Museum, Houhai, 798; they think of history, culture, and high-rise buildings. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s good! Does it make us proud? It does! But you can’t make food out of these things. What Beijingers increasingly feel is the suffocation of the smog and the high cost of housing. They cannot move, they cannot breathe.”

He then goes on to mock the old residents of Beijing, who still have the upper hand in the real estate market despite the flood of new immigrants, all owning “five-room houses.” The old Beijingers lead very different lives from the migrant workers, who are caught in a negative spiral of hard work, no social life, and finding a place to settle down.

“In Beijing, the migrant workers, who have no real estate from previous generations, are destined to be trapped in their house for life. They strive for over a decade to buy an apartment the size of a bird cage; then spend another decade struggling to get a house that has two rooms rather than one. If that goes well, congratulations, you can now consider an apartment in the school district.”

“With a house in the school district, children can attend Tsinghua or Peking University. But Tsinghua graduates will still not be able to afford a room in that district. They will then either need to stay crammed together in the old shabby family apartment, or start from scratch, struggling for another apartment.”

 

“For Beijing’s new immigrants, the city is a distant place where they can’t stay; for Beijing’s old residents, the city is an old home they can’t return to.”

 

In the final part of the essay, however, Zhang shows his sympathy for the old residents of Beijing:

“I once took a taxi to Lin Cui Road. Because I was afraid the driver wouldn’t know the way, I opened the navigation on my phone to help him find the way. He said he did not need the navigation because he knew that place. There was a flour mill there 30 years ago, he said, it was demolished 10 years ago, and they built low-income housing there. I asked him how he knew this so well. “That used to be my home,” he said, the sorrow showing in his face.”

“I could hear nostalgia and resentment from the driver’s words. For Beijing’s new immigrants, the city is a distant place where they can’t stay; for Beijing’s old residents, the city is an old home they can’t return to.”

“We, as outsiders, ridicule Beijing on the one hand, while on the other hand, we cherish our hometowns. But in fact, we can still go back to our hometown. It is still there. (..) But for the old Beijingers, there really is no way to go back to their hometown. It has changed with unprecedented speed. We can still find our grandfather’s old house. The majority of Beijingers can only find the location of their old homes through the coordinates on a map.”

He concludes his article by highlighting the recent demolishment of old Beijing shops and restaurants, saying that the city is being renovated but is becoming less livable.

“Those who chase their dreams of success are now escaping [Beijing]. They’re off to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the West Coast of the United States. Those who’ve lost hope of chasing their dreams are also escaping. They return to Hebei, the Northeast, their hometowns.”

He ends by writing: “There are over 20 million people left in this city, pretending to live. In reality, there simply is no life in this city. Here, there are only some people’s dreams and everybody’s jobs.”

 

CHINESE MEDIA RESPONSES

“The contrast between old Beijingers and new immigrants is exaggerated, and it polarizes the relationship between locals and outsiders.”

 

Despite censorship of the actual text, Zhang’s essay is widely discussed by Chinese official media.

State media outlet People’s Daily (@人民日报) writes on Weibo:

“The essay ‘Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There’ is a viral hit but is not approved of. There really is such a thing as the “Big City Disease”, and we do not need to pretend as if people in first-tier cities are not struggling and facing hardships. But in Beijing, both locals and outsiders are alive and kicking; they are all the more real because of their dreams. Making a living is hard, but it is the days of watching flowers blossom and wilt that are full of life. The city and its people don’t have it easy, but they have to show some tolerance for each other and then they can both succeed.”

Xinhua News Agency also published a response to the article titled: “Lives in the City Cannot Be Fake” (“一个城市的生活无法“假装“).

Lashing out against Mr. Zhang, they write that: “Beijing has no human warmth, Beijing is a city of outsiders, old Beijingers can’t go back to their city – behind every one of these sentences is not the ‘fakeness’ of Beijing, but the clamor of the author’s emotions about ‘coming to Beijing.'”

State broadcaster CCTV (@央视新闻) also responds to the essay on Weibo, saying:

“Over the past few days, the essay ‘Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There’ has exploded on the Internet, but how the text portrays the contrast between old Beijingers and new immigrants is exaggerated, and it polarizes the relationship between native Beijingers and outsiders. In reality, Beijing is not as cold as it is described in the essay. Everyone already knows that it’s not easy living in a big city. The future of Beijing is in the hands of competent, daring and hardworking people who pursue their dreams.”

 

A STORM OF DEBATE

“I am one of these 20 million people, and my life is not fake – I am living it.”

 

On social media, many netizens commented on the state media’s responses to Zhang, saying they were tired of the repeated emphasis on “people’s dreams.” One person said: “My belly is empty, what are you talking about dreams for?! Dreams cannot guarantee our most basic needs for survival.”

Many people on Weibo and QQ also applauded Zhang’s essay for being “well-written”, “honest”, and “real.”

But there are also those who do not agree with the essay and take offense at how it describes Beijingers leading “fake” or “pretense” lives. A Beijing resident nicknamed ‘Little Fish’ (@小小的爱鱼) commented: “What on earth gave him the courage to speak on behalf of 20 million Beijing people? I am one of these 20 million people, and sorry, but my life is not fake – I am living it.”

“I work overtime until 9 pm, then take the bus and subway and won’t arrive home before 23:38, then quickly rinse my face and brush my teeth and roll into bed. But it’s still life. What life and being alive is all about ultimately is a personal issue,” one other netizen from Beijing says.

“Mr. Zhang,” one angry commenter writes: “You can leave this cold and big city of Beijing, and go back to your ‘real’ live in that pigsty of yours that’s supposedly more imposing than the Forbidden City.”

The recent hype surrounding Zhang’s essay somewhat resembles the overnight buzz over the autobiographical essay of Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu. This essay also described various hardships in the lives of Beijing migrant workers.

Fan Yusu’s essay and posts related to it were also taken offline after several days when discussions on the account spread across Chinese social media.

Zhang’s hit essay shows that the combination of writing about “migrant workers + Beijing + real estate + state of life” = indeed one that is bound to attract wide attention and debate on social media. Although it is also a recurring topic in China’s official media, those channels prefer to focus on the idea of hardworking people who pursue their (Chinese) dreams, rather than to spread a narrative about people living “fake lives” in a cold city.

One commenter says: “Whether you fake it or you try hard, it’s all okay: this is Beijing. It’s not livable, but you sure can make a living.”

By Manya Koetse

Special thanks to Diandian Guo.

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Books & Literature

Why Is Kindle Leaving China?

Many netizens are not happy over Kindle exiting the Chinese market: “We never know when the online services we use suddenly stop working.”

Manya Koetse

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Amazon announced on Thursday that it has stopped supplying retailers in China with its Kindle e-readers and that it will discontinue its Kindle e-bookstore in the Chinese market on June 30, 2023.

Amazon announced its Kindle exit in a statement on its official WeChat account, saying it was because of a shift in the strategic focus of its company’s operations.

For Chinese customers who have purchased e-books through Kindle, they will be able to continue downloading them until June 30 of 2024. Customers who would rather return the Kindle devices they bought in 2022 can get a refund.

On Weibo, the hashtags “Kindle Will Be Discontinued in China Next Year” (#Kindle中国明年停止电子书运营#) and “Why Wasn’t Kindle Able to Make It in China?” (#为什么Kindle在中国活不下去#) were hot topics on Thursday and Friday.

Some commenters said they were upset about Kindle being discontinued in China: “Why why why!! I really like Kindle and their e-bookstore, I check for interesting and new books on sale on a weekly basis. Which e-reader and e-bookstore are suitable substitutes?”

“Zhangyue, Hisense, Huawei, Onyx Boox, Tencent, Readmoo,.. there are actually a lot of brands,” one person responded, but some others said they still preferred Kindle.

“What do I do with my Kindle now? Just use it to cover my noodles?”

In 2021, Amazon’s Kindle was among the most popular e-book brands in China. Besides Amazon’s Kindle, China’s most popular e-reader brands include Onyx Boox, iFlytech, Zhangyue, Xiaomi, Hanvon, Tencent, Boyue, Obook, and Sony (see list).

Some commenters wrote that they understand that companies such as Amazon have to make some tough choices after facing pandemic-related setbacks in China, while there were also many netizens who blamed Kindle’s China exit on Chinese consumers illegally downloading pirated books instead of buying them at the Kindle store.

Others said that Kindle e-bookstore prices were often about the same as paper book prices, making the latter more appealing to people who like to read, especially if they also like to make notes in their books. In other words, they say the Kindle e-bookstore is simply too expensive for the Chinese market, where consumers can find many other options, both paper and digital ones.

“It’s not so complicated,” one Weibo user wrote: “It’s all because of market competition reasons. Kindle is facing the impact of Tencent’s influence on the e-reading market.”

Some people are really disappointed that the books they have bought through Kindle will become unavailable to them, and some wondered if this was legal with regards to consumer rights.

One popular economic blogger wrote: “Kindle has now withdrawn [from China]. Many years ago, when different kinds of online storage spaces starting closing down, I learned one thing: never fully trust internet storage services. Your study material, the things you wrote, your video records, you need to back them up. We never know when the online services we use suddenly stop working.”

By Manya Koetse

Image via Weibo

Featured images by Weibo blogger @钟文泽.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Elementary School Textbook Triggers Controversy for Being “Tragically Ugly”

This elementary schoolbook by the People’s Education Press went viral for being ugly.

Manya Koetse

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The illustrations in a Chinese schoolbook series for children have triggered controversy on social media platform Weibo, where the hashtag “People’s Education Press Math Teaching Material” (#人教版数学教材#) attracted over 860 million views by Thursday afternoon, with the “People’s Education Press Mathbook Illustration Controversy” (#人教版数学教材插图引争议#) garnering over 190 million views.

The illustrations went viral after some netizens spotted that the quality of the design in one math textbook series stood out from other books in how ‘aesthetically displeasing’ it is.

The children depicted in the teaching material have small, droopy eyes and big foreheads. Some commenters think their clothing also looks weird and that the overall design is just strange and “tragically ugly.”

Some images depicting little boys also drew controversy for allegedly showing a bulge in the pants. Adding girls sticking out their tongues, boys grabbing girls, a reversed Chinese flag, and some depictions of children’s clothing in the American flag colors, many people think the books are not just ugly but also have “evil intentions.”

Besides the people who think the design of the textbook series is so ugly that it must have been purposely drawn like this, there are also those who are angry, suggesting China has thousands of talented art students who would welcome a project like this and do it much better.

Some parents are also concerned that such poor quality design will negatively influence the aesthetic appreciation of the children using the books.

Fueling the controversy is the fact that the textbook in question has been published and designed by a team of relatively influential and experienced designers and publishers.

The design was done by, among others, Lu Min (吕旻) and Zheng Wenjuan (郑文娟) of the Beijing Wuyong Design Studio (北京吴勇设计工作室). The book is published by the People’s Education Press.

The People’s Education Press (PEP) is a major publishing house directly under the leadership of the Ministry of Education. Founded in 1950, it is responsible for compiling and publishing all kinds of teaching material for elementary education.

The textbook already caught the attention of some parents in early May. One parent shared photos of the textbook illustration on Q&A site Zhihu.com, writing: “This textbook is so ugly! How did it ever pass the review?”

The ugly textbook design has made many netizens look back on their own childhood textbooks, suggesting that more traditional Chinese design is much better than what is being produced nowadays.

Old textbook design shared online for comparison.

On May 26, the People’s Education Press responded to the controversy on Weibo. In its statement, the publishing house said it would reevaluate its elementary school mathematics textbooks illustrations and improve the quality of the design. In doing so, the publishing house said it would welcome feedback from the public. The statement soon received over 600,000 likes.

Professional graphic design artist Wuheqilin also weighed in on the discussion (read more about Wuheqilin here). In a lengthy Weibo post, Wuheqilin argues it is too easy for people to share their old textbook covers and images to show how much better they used to be, blaming poor design on the quality of illustrators in modern times.

According to Wuheqilin, it is not so much a matter of illustrators who have become worse, but of publishing houses saving more money on illustrations. Publishers do not prioritize design and are still offering the same prices to illustrators as they did a decade ago.

“The market has expanded, illustrators’ prices have gone up, but the philosophy of publishing houses hasn’t kept up with the times. This has led to them not really raising their budgets. When I entered the industry some 12 years ago, publishers could still a good artist for 500-800 RMB [$75-$120] to do a fine cover illustration, but now it would be difficult to find an artist to do it for 8000 RMB [$1188]. Around 2015 I was asked by a publishing house to do the cover of a sci-fi novel series they produced, and the process of our talks all went smoothly, but when I quoted my price they looked displeased and told me that even if they would do their best to give me the highest budget possible, it would still only be one-tenth of my quoted price. The price I quoted was just the normal price for a game poster illustration at the time. I never spoke to that publisher again afterward. And this was 2015, let alone how the situation is nowadays.”

This is not the first time Chinese school textbooks trigger controversy online. In 2017, an elementary school sexual education textbook caused a stir for being “too explicit” (read here).

UPDATE TO THIS STORY HERE.

Read more about (controversial) Chinese children’s books here.

By Manya Koetse

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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