When Deng Xiaoping announced “Some people should be allowed to get rich before others,” the emphasis was firmly on the rich. A lot has happened in those intervening years, especially if you’re young, and trying to make your way in the world. Some 30 years later, it’s a different word that now appears emphasized: The others.
Every country has its countercultures – sweeping subsets of dissatisfied youth – but in China, as the country’s collective wealth grows, so too has the number of people who feel marginalized by the pressures to get ahead.
According to a comprehensive report carried out by Chinese gaming company Giant this April, some 529 million young people across the country now openly consider themselves to be ‘losers’ or diaosi, with 76 percent of Shanghainese responders embracing the term. Wealthy Shanghai blogger Han Han, the once-celebrated voice of youth, even claims to be “an authentic diaosi… who started from scratch with no power or connections.”
The term diaosi (屌丝) – which literally means ‘cock wire’ – has become a catch-all to describe a generation left behind by the country’s rapid economic rise.
The term first appeared on the BBS Baidu Tieba, on a sub-forum dedicated to former football player Li Yi. Although Li is considered a mediocre player at best, with over 6.8 million members and nearly 266 million posts, the Li Yi forum holds the record as Baidu’s largest to date.
Its members were given the made-up insult in 2010 by members of a rival forum – yet rather than take offence, they incorporated it into a chant: “We are diaosi, so what? We are losers/ If you want to kick us, please bring it on!”
Former Li Yi admin Dali Zi was initially against appropriating the word. “I felt it was too insulting – it’s a slang word to do with penises,” he explains. “But after it went viral, it was out of my control – and now it’s something else entirely.”
Feng Ming, 25, salesman, originally from Heilongjiang. “In other people’s eyes, I am definitely a diaosi, although I wasn’t happy about it at first. Then people told me: ‘Hey, you guys are grabbing potential customers everyday, telling them the same bullshit. What else do you think you are?’ Then I agreed, OK, I am a diaosi!”
Chen Chao, 23, postgraduate student, originally from Zhejiang. “I’m a 23-year-old guy who’s never had any real social experience. Besides being called a diaosi, what other terms are there? Diaosi is the only one that fits.”
What is a diaosi and why do nearly 40 percent of the country identify themselves as such? According to a report by BusinessSohu.com, “Chinese diaosi are not losers in the traditional economic sense.” The report says that the majority were born between 1974 and 1990, and typically work in industries such as the media and computing.
67.64 percent are unmarried, 59.3 percent go online at least once a day, and 8.6 percent use an iPhone.
On average, a diaosi has a monthly income of between RMB6,000-8,000 – which, in most cities, would be considered decidedly middle-class.
“The first time I heard the word, I wasn’t even sure what it meant entirely, but I knew it referred to me,” recalls Ding Yi, a 31-year-old copywriter at an international ad agency. Ding appreciates the word’s self-mockery but says its definition sits on a sliding scale.
“I’m not always a diaosi, just in certain company,” Ding explains. “Like when I’m with my bosses: No matter how friendly we are, I’m still just someone below them who takes orders.”
The ambiguous meaning of diaosi – both as an insult and tribal term – is similar to the American ‘redneck,’ whose poverty and unrefined behavior can not only be a source of pride, but a culture in and of itself.
“It’s about having no money, no culture and no taste,” laughs hairdresser Liu Suhan. “You know: Girls with long nails who stand on the street listening to the latest Internet pop hit on their shanzhai [fake] phone.”
“There are diaosi of every social status,” argues Ding. “There are the guys that sit in Internet cafes, smoking all day, that have no aspirations other than chatting up a girl on QQ. Then there are the rich kids in BMWs that are diaosi compared to their friends who drive Lamborghinis.”
College students have also taken up the label. 20-year-old Chen Xiao, from Nanjing Agricultural University claims that diaosi is no longer an offensive term on campus.
“To me, a diaosi doesn’t care much about their appearance and is disorganized. As for people who call themselves diaosi, they’re just being open-minded and loving self-mockery. The original meaning has been lost,” he explains. “Of course, everybody wants to be a gaofushuai [tall, wealthy, handsome], but to some, that will always be a dream.”
The gaofushuai (高富帅) is the polar opposite of diaosi, an imagined Prince Charming-type with lots of money and family connections. But how big is the gap between gaofushuai and diaosi?
“Girls always say, ‘I like gaofushai because they have good taste.’ But all these ‘good’ traits come from the fact that they were born into rich families. Any man born in a rich family could be a gaofushuai, assuming he’s not too ugly,” complains masters graduate Simon Wei.
“Many young people today feel helpless. They’re not satisfied with their current situation, and don’t know how to change it. They created the word to lower expectations and escape societal pressures,” says Wei. “Diaosi is an identity that lets young people escape from the disappointments of unbroken class barriers.”
Xiao Bin, 24, software engineer, originally from Tianjin. “They say software engineers have the largest number of diaosi. We are also called “code peasants,” working all day and night on the same codes – true diaosi.” Xiao is going to Europe to begin a postgraduate degree next year.
Jia jia, 22, programmer, originally from Shanxi. “I don’t have noble ambitions, or any elegant habits. Being a programmer is not all that bad. If I do well, at least I will be middle class in terms of money, but at the same time, I’ll always be a diaosi. It has nothing to do with how much money I earn.”
For centuries, education has been considered the only means of breaking through China’s many glass ceilings. Throughout much of the country’s history, processes such as the famed imperial examination theoretically allowed anyone, no matter their background, to become a government minister.
But the economic reforms of the 1990s had the unexpected effect of eroding longstanding policies aimed at providing open access to top institutions: specifically, the introduction of tuition fees for higher education, and the slow disappearance of the graduate’s iron rice bowl.
Today, it is common to hear people argue that it’s virtually impossible for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain entry to the country’s upper echelons.
Statistics appear to support these claims. In 2012, less than one of every seven students at Tsinghua University had a rural hukou (traditionally rural areas have been associated with lower levels of economic mobility). Statistics from Peking University (PKU) are even more disappointing. From 1978 to 1998, around 30 percent of PKU students were from rural backgrounds; however, since the year 2000, that figure has dropped to less than 10 percent.
“Diaosi are different from your average guy from the countryside; they know more. Many of them have access to the Internet, possess college degrees and pay attention to the latest fashions and current affairs. But they’re also aware that they lack social resources and well-connected family backgrounds,” said Li Yi forum editor Dali Zi. “It doesn’t mater that a farmer’s son graduates from a good university – his future will still be restricted, because ultimately he’ll always be a farmer’s son.”
Or daughter. Just as the gaofushuai have the equally-idealized female equivalent, baifumei (白富美, white-skinned, wealthy, beautiful), the term nüdiaosi (女屌丝, female diaosi) is now an equally important part of the loser lexicon.
Chen Zhen, 24, Canada tourism consultant, originally from Beijing. “I am nüdiaosi; I am not ashamed of it. Girls who are not baifumei are nüdiaosi – it’s very simple. But I won’t always be a diaosi.” Chen is planning to apply for postgraduate study at Renmin University, the so-called “cradle of gaofushuai and baifumei.”
Peng Xuejie, 22, property agent, originally from Henan.“My financial situation makes me a diaosi. I earn between RMB2000 to 3000 each month. I work 12 hours a day, six days a week. The first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning is, how many apartments will I rent out today and how much commission will I get this month?”
“All the girls in my dormitory happily call themselves that,” 23-year-old Dong Hui, a student at the Central University of Finance and Economics, says with a smile.
“Today, who even cares about inner beauty? As long as you’re pretty, even if you get all your money for nice clothes and make-up from your sugar daddy, nobody cares.”
The nüdiaosi found an unlikely home in 2011 with a German sitcom. The sketch show Knallerfrauen, originally geared for a German audience, exploded online here in large part due to the work of two Chinese students, who translated the comedy while studying computer science in Dortmund, Germany.
For the translation of Knallerfrauen, a largely positive term used to describe a young woman who is hot, outgoing and quirky, translators Xu Jianshuang and Wang Jing went with Diaosi Lady (Diaosi Nushi).
Xu explains that, while his choice for translation was met with some resistance among fans online, at the same time the title helped the show resonate with millions immediately.
“The lead actress [Martina Mull] plays so many real women you see in everyday life: a mother, a single young woman, someone’s girlfriend, an office worker. But she resorts to the most absurd solutions to her problems, as if she’s her own worst enemy. You just want to laugh,” says Xu.
“As a woman, social skills are really something that can separate you from diaosi,” says Dong. “A woman who is able to socialize and network must have had a pretty good education. It shows she has confidence in her looks and taste.”
Social networking is an important and unavoidable part of modern Chinese life.
In Mycos’ 2009 Employment Report, unemployment among college graduates whose parents were migrant workers was shown to be 20 percent higher than graduates who came from families where at least one parent worked in upper management.
“Why is it that a top university graduate from a low-earning family will earn much less than a KTV girl? In the past, a child from a lower-class family was able to achieve a higher social standing through education, but how about today? Maybe through cheating and by opportunism,” wrote economist Lang Xianping in the magazine IT Time Weekly.
Lang claims it is impossible that someone from a non-connected family could emulate Chinese-Americans such as US Ambassador Gary Locke or Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “What is the American Dream? It doesn’t mean an increased salary, but hope and aspiration,” wrote Lang.
With no hope of being China’s own Gary Locke or Steven Chu, diaosi are spending their free time surfing the Internet, according to Dali Zi. “Most diaosi gather together online to talk about issues like social news, emotional life and entertainment... rarely about politics or international issues – it’s too heavy for them,” he says.
Although the term diaosi has been accepted into mainstream culture, some people, such as well-known movie director Feng Xiaogang, are beginning to reject the expression. “It’s a word used to scorn people who are going through a bad period. [Using the word] is confusing shame as praise,” wrote Feng on a recent Weibo post.
Liu Shuxian, 25, postgraduate student, originally from Shandong. “Car, house, good family, money, high social status: these are the things that provide happiness, but they are too far from me right now. I have no income. When most of the people around you [at university] are diaosi, it’s not a shameful thing.”
Lan Tian, 35, auto company middle manager, originally from Tianjin. “Diaosi is a relative term. I am a diaosi compared to fuerdai or guanerdai, but I want my son to be a gaofushuai. It’s the goal I am fighting for.” Lan plans to send his son to an international school.
Many conservatives have also argued that the popularity of the word, and the culture it represents, is in fact indicative of a broader societal decline. “The development of mass media like television, newspaper and the Internet has had a big impact on traditional cultures. Diaosi is vulgar and shallow, and represents cultural degeneration; the word directs particular venom at elite culture. Diaosi are trying to subvert old rules while enjoying their insignificant existence,” claims Zhang Meng, a post-graduate student at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
But psychologist Wei Guangzhou takes an opposing view. “How do you determine whether a culture is mainstream or not? I think the Internet provides people with another possibility, one that’s neither mainstream or a subculture – it’s more emotional on a human level.”
Mr Wei likens this to toilet graffiti. “I don’t think people have changed. In the past, they liked to write inflammatory sentences they wouldn’t dare say in public on toilet walls. Is that any different to online forums today? It doesn’t mean that in the past, the toilet graffiti was of any significance – it was just kids letting off steam.”
Most self-defining diaosi, however, feel differently. Beyond superficial differences in musical taste or style, many see themselves as members of a ‘lost generation’: children who had grown up during the economy’s great transition during the late 80s and 90s, where social values changed overnight. Others see themselves as a generation free from parental oversight, as mothers and fathers migrated to cities for jobs, leaving a great many children to grow up as latch-key kids.
Beyond the different theories, there is no doubt that diaosi are also the product of invisible social elements, colliding at accelerated speeds, who, in self-preservation, collect to embrace their insignificance as ‘progress’ happens around them.
“A diaosi finds power in powerlessness,” says Ding. “It’s just a psychological victory for those who are tired of reality.”
// Additional reporting by James Tiscione