A question: Who are China’s most downtrodden social group? Are they the country’s legions of migrant workers, its villages of left-behind elderly, its women? Perhaps you would say they are the social activists, the LGBT community, or the disabled. One group you probably wouldn’t mention, though, would be well-off, middle-aged Chinese men. And yet, if you’ve followed the country’s social media discussions over the past week or so, you could be forgiven for thinking that car-driving, homeowning, slightly thick-around-the-middle males have it worse than anyone else.
At the center of the flare-up is an essay by author Feng Tang, a dyed-in-the-wool member of the abovementioned tribe with a somewhat perplexing penchant for online self-flagellation. The article, provocatively titled “How to Avoid Becoming a Greasy, Dirty Middle-Aged Man,” calls out his contemporaries for being youni — “greasy” — and lambasts them for being overweight, becoming academically lazy, talking about sex in public, disrespecting younger generations, and failing to maintain personal hygiene. Feng, incidentally, is a doctor-cum-writer whose more salacious works have drawn the ire of social media users in the past.
Admittedly, Feng’s piece seems to acknowledge that not everyone becomes one of the weisuonan, or “sleazy men,” he so derides. He excludes those living on the fringes of society — the street cleaners, the construction workers, the factory drudges — claiming that China’s greasiest are most likely men with power, social status, and money.
Yet Feng is a relative newcomer to the debate. The Chinese public — particularly feminists — have been calling out middle-aged men for such behavior for years. It’s just that recently, they’ve had their hands even fuller than usual.
A day or two before Feng published his essay, another piece made the rounds online, satirically listing 20 signs that a man has entered “greasy” middle age. Its depictions of Chinese “dad fashion” blended with a hint of nouveau riche kitsch resonated with many readers who shared a laugh at 40-something men who wear strings of Buddhist rosary beads on their wrists, have a proclivity for carrying thermoses of hot water mixed with red dates and goji berries, grow their fingernails long, pack a bulging paunch, and don “statement” golden neck chains.
Back in May, the Chinese edition of men’s lifestyle magazine GQ — a style reference for many of China’s male metropolitan elites — published an article on its public account on social media app WeChat titled “Is a Dinner Without Ladies Really Dinner At All?” In the piece, the author, who went by the pseudonym Xiao Kuan, expressed their belief that even if the table sags with delicious dishes, the meal will still feel “vegetarian” unless there is a woman present. Further crude metaphors compared women to vases and foodstuffs, suggesting that they exist solely for the delectation of their successful, if unfortunately vacuous, male companions. Feminist readers raged against the article’s spiritual superficiality and its objectification of women. The piece has since been deleted.
And back in October 2016, the online commentator “Wuyuesanren” — a relatively well-off middle-aged man himself with over 2 million followers on microblogging site Weibo — made his own ill-fated contribution to the subject. The thrust of his piece, so to speak, was that any woman was attainable for older men such as himself, men with life experience and solid financial footing. He also stated that spoiled women, or those who rely on their good looks, “have no value other than as arm candy or in bed.”
Media caricatures of greasy middle-aged men frequently depict 40- or 50-somethings as having a grubby appearance, a stereotype further buoyed by reports of marital infidelity and sexual harassment involving younger women. In the public mindset, then, these tropes indicate the spiritual vacuum in which men of a certain age are thought to live. When you factor in this group’s supposed personality traits — emotionally unfulfilled, nostalgic for their fading youth, lusting after money, comfort, and power — then the overall picture becomes one that Western readers will also find familiar: midlife crisis, albeit with Chinese characteristics.
In China, though, the tribulations of middle age are also pre-emptively discussed by those born in the 1980s and ’90s, many of whom now see their middle years on the horizon but have yet to establish themselves in life.
Self-deprecating youngsters joke online about their so-called pre-midlife crises. In March, the viral article “’90s Kids, Your Midlife Crisis Has Already Begun” described the mind-numbing drudgery of the millennial experience: You do nothing at work, yet are constantly exhausted; you live alone, with no romantic partner to keep you company. Your body is showing signs of age, indicating that you’re moving past your physical peak.
Yet the younger generation’s concerns ultimately have little in common with the “greasy” culture prevalent among their elder counterparts. The former worry that middle age is looming before they have established a firm foothold in life. The latter are fighting the feelings of spiritual emptiness that come with material comfort and social status. When young people joke that they feel “middle-aged,” they are talking about the pressures that are prematurely aging them; when the middle-aged talk about it, they’re referring to the depression and indignity of rushing through life without stopping to enjoy it.
The term “midlife crisis” first appeared in a 1965 journal article penned by the psychologist Elliott Jaques, who noted how as individuals enter middle age — a period he defined as stretching from roughly 40 to 55 years old — they become acutely aware of their own mortality. Next to the crushing inevitability of death, our whole lives to date can seem insignificant, leading to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear. During this period, middle-aged individuals lose their sense of self and come to lack confidence in their life choices, values, and beliefs. In an attempt to escape from these feelings of meaninglessness, people often seek out entirely different value systems by which to live.
In a sense, the Western concept of midlife crisis is not all that different from what Chinese people talk about when they discuss “greasy middle-aged men.” The only real difference is that in China, more of these men seem to think the cure to their ills lies in philandering.
In reality, there are still comparatively few “greasy” men in China. While many young and middle-aged Chinese may wish they could lead such privileged lives, few have the means to do so. The majority of greasy men are probably drawn from the wealthiest 10 percent or so of China’s total population, those to whom China’s rapidly growing economy has brought material wealth at the expense of spiritual fulfillment. But the younger generation’s pre-midlife crises are in fact much more ominous, for while their elders restlessly embrace excess in search of meaning, young people are left scrounging for fulfillment amid unexpected poverty and the threat of failure.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Wang Jian/VCG)