Socially Dead Laborers of Versailles: China’s 2020 in Memes
Say what you will about 2020: It was undeniably a year for the meme-makers and slang-slingers of China.
With months of time on their hands because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese people had plenty of hours to stew in contemplation. Even as the country swiftly brought its outbreak to heel, anxieties about demanding work conditions and a hyper-competitive job market reared their ugly heads.
At the same time, however, those in the country have been inspired by various acts of micro-activism, from a grassroots feminist campaign to eliminate period poverty to a student-led petition against an abusive professor’s proposed reinstatement.
To revisit the highs and lows of 2020, Sixth Tone has compiled a list of memes and buzzwords that best sum up a year that has practically memed itself. Some are borrowed from literary magazine Yaowen Jiaozi, which releases an authoritative annual list; others are our own selections.
We hope you’ll enjoy our summary of this seemingly eternal year in eight words, encapsulating a modicum of the exhaustion, frustration, and liberation China experienced in 2020.
Counter-Marchers (nìxíng zhě, 逆行者)
During China’s COVID-19 outbreak, “counter-marchers” was used to describe the dauntless medical workers who, unlike the vast majority who remained safely indoors, would march to the front lines of battle against the coronavirus, day after day, despite the risks of becoming infected. The term can refer to nurses and doctors, as well as volunteers and community workers.
However, “counter-marchers” took on a more negative association thanks to a controversial TV series called “Heroes in Harm’s Way.” The show — whose Chinese title literally translates to “the most beautiful counter-marchers” — was criticized for depicting female medical workers as reluctant to heed the call to help.
Next Wave (hòulàng, 后浪)
To commemorate China’s Youth Day on May 4, streaming platform Bilibili released a video titled “Houlang,” or “Next Wave.” In a montage of people dancing, cosplaying, and traveling, middle-aged actor He Bing addresses the country’s youth, urging them to acknowledge and appreciate their privilege. “You are fortunate to meet such an era, and this era is even more fortunate to meet you,” he says in the video.
The clip garnered millions of views within hours of its release. While some people felt encouraged by the paternalistic message, others slammed it as tone-deaf, even patronizing. “In real life, such a cool and exciting lifestyle can only happen to a small percentage of people,” one person wrote on Q&A platform Zhihu. “Most young people … just hope to lessen some pressure, and that life can be a little smoother, a little better.”
NetEase Depression Cloud (wǎng yì yún, 网抑云)
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Netease Cloud Music, one of China’s most popular music-streaming services, became inundated with depressing messages in its songs’ comment sections. People told stories about their failed exams, doomed relationships, and shattered dreams. Eventually, the negativity and unavoidable doomscrolling became so pervasive that users dubbed the platform “NetEase Depression Cloud,” or “NetEmo.”
While some felt empathetic toward the people leaving these messages, others developed an aversion to the dramatic language, dismissing the raw anecdotes as attention-seeking hyperbole. To counteract the trend, NetEase Cloud Music announced in August that it would crack down on “fabricated” user comments, as well as provide free psychological counseling to those dealing with depression.
Period Poverty (yuèjīng pínkùn, 月经贫困)
In September, a comment under an image of sanitary pads being sold in bulk — and at a suspiciously low price — on e-commerce site Taobao sparked wide discussion about the affordability of menstrual products in China. In response to the question of why anyone would use cheap, off-brand pads of dubious quality for their most sensitive body parts, one customer simply replied, “It’s difficult for me.”
The phenomenon led to a grassroots campaign to alleviate “period poverty” the following month, with female students at over 300 high schools, colleges, and universities placing sanitary pad dispensers in campus restrooms.
The campaign faced some criticism and mockery, mostly from men. Sophomoric students at a university in Beijing put their own spin on the campaign by offering “communal tissues” in men’s bathrooms — a move aimed at eliminating the supposed stigma surrounding masturbation.
Social Death (shèsǐ, 社死)
“Social death” refers to the mortifying embarrassment felt by those who have behaved awkwardly in public. The term became ubiquitous in April thanks to an eponymous group on social platform Douban, wherein users shared their self-deprecating stories of accidentally sending flirtatious memes to their bosses, performing an entire song in the wrong karaoke room, or having their dictionary software, apropos of nothing, read the word “poop” aloud during class.
Victims of doxxing and cyberbullying have also described their sometimes harrowing experiences as “social death.” In November, a female student at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing accused a man of sexually assaulting her, threatening to release his personal information online. However, the allegation was later proved to be false.
Laborers (dǎgōng rén, 打工人)
The term dagong ren, meaning “laborers” or “working people” in China, started circulating online in September. But everything changed when a viral cartoon conveying a satirical, even positive, message about China’s often grueling work culture entered public consciousness the following month. The Chinese internet quickly embraced the wryly self-deprecating expression, immortalizing it in myriad memes.
While dagong ren once primarily referred to young migrant workers in labor-intensive industries, the term has since been appropriated by well-educated white-collar city workers, who use it to joke about their still less-than-ideal jobs. “Eighty percent 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,” one self-named dagong ren lamented online.
Involution (nèi juǎn, 内卷)
American anthropologist Clifford Geertz coined the term “involution” in the 1960s to describe the curious dearth of technological breakthroughs in agrarian societies. The once-esoteric term resurfaced this year when college students began invoking it to lament the extreme academic pressure and cutthroat job markets they’re facing.
The word is now used by people from all walks of life — programmers, delivery workers, housewives, and more — to express their physical and mental exhaustion from endlessly vying for advancement while making only marginal progress.
In an interview with Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper, anthropologist Xiang Biao attributed the sociocultural phenomenon to the lack of an “exit mechanism” in Chinese society. “(Bowing out from competition is) an emotional and moral issue, as if it was some kind of betrayal,” Xiang said, alluding to the burnout people experience from being continuously subjected to competition.
Versailles (fán’ěrsài, 凡尔赛)
In November, a blogger’s posts that at first glance read like complaints but, upon closer inspection, appear solely intended to flaunt her luxurious lifestyle sparked heated discussion online. Such writing — the Chinese equivalent to humblebragging — came to be known as “Versailles literature,” a term coined by another blogger earlier this year. That blogger described the ostentatious online art as “expressing superiority, but with an unassuming delivery.”
Many have since imitated the style online. But when yet another wealthy, popular lifestyle vlogger uploaded a Versailles-style video of her spending a day “working” at a construction site, it prompted a wave of backlash, with some viewers accusing her of shamelessly appropriating dagong ren culture.
Contributions: Zhang Wanqing and Du Xinyu; editor: David Paulk.
(Icons: Iconscout/People Visual)
(Header image: Visual elements from People Visual and Weibo, edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)