2020 is a year like no other. It would be a total understatement to say that it is the least favourite of my 35 years’ life. Like everyone else, I cannot wait to bid it farewell and usher in a new year with more positivity.
Before closing the chapter of 2020, reflecting on its ups and downs, resilience and frustration, I feel there is no better way to capture the mood of the people than recapping the top trending buzzwords created by China’s ingenious netizens.
Counter-marcher is a literal translation of people who go against the tide. In the extraordinary months since the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan (武汉), tens of thousands of healthcare workers were roped in from across the country to help combat the virus in the epicentre.
Hence the phrase was invented to commend these frontline doctors and nurses, together with volunteers and community workers, for their immense courage and unflinching commitment.
So much so that a high profile government sponsored drama “Heroes in Harm’s Way” (最美逆行者) was speedily produced to honour their achievement. Regrettably, despite the fanfare, the show turned out to be the biggest anti-climax of the year.
Audience, myself included, was simply appalled by the ever-present sexism and gender stereotype exuding from the scenes: women were invariably portrayed as submissive, more junior and in some cases even reluctant to step up to help, whereas all characters doing the heavy lifting were males.
Alas, this can’t be further from the truth where according to official statistics, more than two thirds of the frontline medical workers were actually females including half of the doctors! So now you understand the outrage. (“China’s first drama on fighting Covid-19 hits roadblock”, Think China)
On another note, medical professionals in China often find themselves in a surreal situation, straddling two distinct realities. On the one hand, there is enormous gratitude for their work in time of crisis such as this one. On the other hand, they are scarred by widespread violence in their day to day work life. And I witness this struggle first hand as my mother has been working tirelessly as a doctor for the last 30 years.
The sad situation is deep rooted in a variety of factors, from inadequate primary care, poor doctor remuneration to lack of public trust and understanding of treatments (which is nicely summed up in The New York Times’ earlier piece “China’s Health Care Crisis: Lines Before Dawn, Violence and No Trust”).
I’m afraid that a new law passed post the pandemic to protect the doctors only scratches the surface and is unlikely to be sufficient to address the heart of the issue. If I get to name just one new year’s wish, I hope in earnest that it won’t take another pandemic for China to appreciate and take care of their “counter-marchers”
Involution (内卷) & Working Man (打工人)
In China, being good is never enough. You need to be better and faster than another 1.4 billion people, whether you are a delivery driver or a software engineer.
This relentless drive is steroid to the country’s economic miracle but a poisoned chalice to the people, who constantly grapple with a fear of being left behind by the high speed train of China Inc. What makes it worse is that, if everyone else around you is doing the same, you are left with no choice but to take up the fight head on.
If you have ever lived in China, you can feel and touch this endless insecurity among cut throat competition almost everywhere. Starting right from the kids’ playground. In places like Shanghai and Beijing, bringing up kids nowadays is an arms race (with its own meme dubbed 鸡娃) which would put most New York Upper East side tiger parents to shame.
It is this universal sense of exhaustion and helplessness, without too much to gain or look forward to but also no way out, that gives birth to the buzzword “involution”.
The term originates from agriculture involution in the work of the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. It describes what he observed in agriculture society in Indonesia back in 1960s, where increasing labour intensity in the rice paddies no longer produce more output.
A fragile economy and tough job market exacerbates the strain in a post pandemic world. Along a similar theme, weary white-collar workers turn to the buzzword “working man” to rail against a gruelling work environment and bleak career prospect.
The phrase used to refer to rural migrant works seeking opportunities in China’s big cities in the earlier era of manufacturing boom. Today, with a bit of self-deprecating dark humour, everyone who suffer from the infamous 996 (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) working culture readily embrace it for themselves.
And a brilliant satirical animation “Cheer up, working man (加油!打工人)” from video sharing site BiliBili soon makes it viral. It is tricky to capture the clip’s witty sarcasm in English but here are my best attempts.
“I always work over time – I have no time for dating!” “Love is not the only thing you have in life. Work is.”
“I have not seen sunlight for a long while because of working long hours.” “The world has two types of bright radiance. One comes from the sun and the other from the glowing diligence of working man.”
“80% of the pain in my life comes from working, but I know with certainty that if I don’t work, 100% of my pain will come from having no income.”
“It is not work that need me. It is me who need to work.”
“As long as I work hard, my boss will eventually live his dream life.”
Socialite (名媛) & Versailles Literature (凡尔赛文学)
Who would have thought that the word “socialite” can take on an entirely different meaning in China, after an exposé revealing how wannabe socialites from so-called “Shanghai lady socialite WeChat group” (上海名媛群) fake wealth to became the talk of the day?
Well, it is certainly an eye-opener for me. One jaw-dropping example uncovered include splitting the cost of a Ritz Carlton afternoon tea among six people (which were only meant for two). Everyone takes turn to show up at the Ritz to take their pictures. But no one is allowed to touch the food so as not to spoil others’ perfect photo on social media. Other shocking practices include sharing a Gucci pantyhose and renting one designer handbag between four people, passing them on to each other to wear on a date. (“The ‘Fake Rich’ of Shanghai: Peeking Inside a Wannabe Socialite WeChat Group”, What’s on Weibo).
Shrewd netizens soon pointed out that there is actually a whole industry dedicated to creating an illusion of wealth, with services ranging from photoshoot (yes, the studio may well be in a dingy basement but at a small cost you can look like jet-setting around the world) to customised videos. (“China Has an Industry for Flaunting Fake Wealth”, Sixth Tone)
Allegedly the girls went to such lengths to fabricate their affluent background so that they could find a rich husband (not the best news for everyone else who is fighting hard against entrenched sexism and discrimination in the country). But anyway, with a heavy heart, my advice is to think twice before you refer yourself or anyone else as socialite in China!
While in your face kind of wealth flaunting no longer easily impress people, those who do it in a more subtle way, also known as humble-bragging, also get on people’s nerve, bringing enormous popularity to buzzword like “Versailles literature”.
In case you are wondering, the bizarre sounding phrase actually has nothing to do with the actual Versailles palace or France. It comes from a Japanese manga series “The Rose of Versailles” based on the life of French queen Marie Antoinette. Chinese netizen coined in the term to depict a boast disguised as a complaint.
To illustrate, the following post would be considered a mastery of “Versailles literature”.
“My boyfriend gave me a pink Lamborghini as a gift, this colour is such a terrible choice. How can I tell him that I actually don’t like the colour?”
Many imitations (in a mocking fashion of course) soon flooded on social media. With a rather poor taste, a well-known lifestyle vlogger Cao Yi Wen (曹译文) who also happens to be the daughter of a wealthy business tycoon, uploaded a Versailles-style video of her spending a day “working” at a construction site owned by her father. No surprise that this has attracted strong backlash from viewers including some of her own followers as people were enraged of her making fun of the hardship of working man. (“High-Horse Vlogger Bashed for Talking Down to Construction Workers”, Sixth Tone). Well, I can’t say I have much sympathy for her.
Live-streaming shopping (直播带货)
If you have no idea what live-streaming shopping is, you should. From lipstick and oranges, to Louis Vuitton bags and online classes, or even foreclosed real estate, anything goes in this USD 70 billion (and soon to be doubled) industry in China.
“Buy it! Buy it! Buy it!” is the familiar battle call of “King of Lipstick” Li Jiaqi (李佳琦), who holds the record of selling 15,000 tubes of lipstick in just five minutes and generated USD 145 million sales on Singles’ Day.
Viya (薇娅), another superhost dubbed by Bloomberg “The world’s livestream queen can sell anything”, sold a whopping USD 2.8 billion worth of goods in 2019. Mind you, this is equivalent to more than USD 5,000 per minute! Thanks to her wizardry, Kim Kardashian sold out all 15,000 bottles of her perfume in one minute in her debut appearance.
So what is the magic of live-streaming shopping? In short, it is a bit like a Tik Tok-esque interactive version of TV shopping channel QVC. Charming hosts give their viewers discounts and flash deals in real time who can then make their purchase in a simple click while chatting and engaged with everyone else in the streaming session. Blending entertainment and e-commerce, it hits the right spot of hot tech trends from influencers, social to streaming.
And the Covid pandemic has brought the trend to new heights. From CEOs to celerities, you start to wonder who is not doing livestream shopping in 2020.
About 600 corporate executives jumped on the bandwagon to tout their products during Alibaba’s mid-year sale event “618”. High profile CEOs, including chairwoman of Gree Electric Appliances Dong Ming Zhu (董明珠) and executive chairman of Ctrip James Liang (梁建章), all hosted their own highly successful live-streaming sales events this year.
So embrace it if you have business in China as it is certainly here to stay.
The bigger question though, is whether the trend will take off in the west especially in the context of the pandemic. The views are so far mixed among experts – if you are interested, I recommend a read of GGV Capital’s “Is Live-streaming the new frontier of e-commerce?” for further insight.
So this is my personal review of the top trending China 2020 buzzwords. What would your selection look like? And what’s your prediction for 2021? I look forward to hear your thoughts and comments.
Last but not least, Flying Sesame wish you a happy new year and a healthy 2021 ahead!