Editor’s note: On July 23, the writer Zhang Wumao published an essay called “In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live” to his public WeChat account. As of the following morning, it had accumulated more than 5 million views and nearly 20,000 comments.
Of course, the article was removed that very afternoon.
But by then, the essay had attracted thousands of responses. As our correspondent Megan Pan wrote for Radii:
Though the hubbub online has died down, the essay, a meditation on varying facets of life in Beijing, has since spawned over a hundred thousand countering essays in response. Titles include plays on the original essay’s title, such as “In Beijing, 20 Million People and “In Beijing, 20 Million People are Bravely Living,” and even direct digs at the author, such as “Mr. Zhang, You Aren’t Even a Beijing Kid So Why Are You Acting Like a Know-it-all.” The original essay has been lambasted as “making a fuss over nothing.”
But “In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live” resists easy summarization – it’s framed as a series of Zhang’s loosely related reflections on living in Beijing, heavily supported by anecdotes. He touches on a variety of topics that hit close to home: the everyday absurdities of urban sprawl, the never-ending struggle to buy a house, and alienation from home. As a nonlocal from Shaanxi who has been living in Beijing for the past eleven years, he also attempts to negotiate the tensions and differences between locals and nonlocals.
What follows is Megan Pan’s translation of that now-censored essay.
In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live
Beijing has no human warmth.
I am often criticized by nonlocal friends: Beijingers have a lot of money and act unfriendly. We’ve all made it to the same city, why don’t we get together? A few decades of friendship, and you won’t even send me to the airport? In reality, it is hard for Beijingers to be as friendly as outsiders – picking up and dropping off, accompanying all the way, these things truly are hard for Beijingers to do.
Beijingers are very busy, busy all the way until 11 o’clock at night, and even then they are still stuck in traffic on the Third Ring Road; the time cost of socializing in Beijing is too high, so high that it is faster to go to Tianjin than it is to go from Shijingshan to Tongzhou to eat; Beijing is really too big, so big that it isn’t like a city at all.
How big is Beijing? It is equivalent to 2.5 Shanghais, 8.4 Shenzhens, 15 Hong Kongs, 21 New Yorks, and 27 Seouls. In 2006, when Mr. Zhang [referring to himself] came to Beijing, the subway only had Lines 1, 2, and 13; if I didn’t use Baidu, I really wouldn’t be able to remember just how many lines the Beijing subway has now. Ten years ago, I took the bus to look for work and refused to go beyond the Fourth Ring for job interviews. Now, big companies like JD, Tencent, and Baidu are all outside of the Fifth Ring.
When nonlocal friends came to Beijing, they thought we were closer, but we weren’t actually in the same city, we may have been in a number of cities: they are Haidian, China; Guomao, China; Tongzhou, China; Shijingshan, China… If we use time as a measure, then someone from Tongzhou dating someone from Shijingshan would count as long-distance, and going from North Fifth Ring to Yizhuang can be called a business trip.
For the last ten years, Beijing has been controlling housing, controlling cars, and controlling population, but this large flatbread continues to sprawl and grow larger, to the point where my Xi’an classmate called me and said he was also in Beijing, and when I asked where in Beijing he was, he said: I’m in Beijing’s Thirteenth Ring.
Beijing is a tumor, whose speed of development no one can control; Beijing is a river, whose boundaries no one can draw. Beijing is a disciple, and only Xiongan can release it from purgatory. [Editor's note: Xiongan is a recently established state-level development hub in nearby Hebei province.]
Beijing’s coldness is directed not only at nonlocal friends, it is also similarly applied to Beijing friends who live in the same city. Every time a nonlocal classmate comes to Beijing, when we all get together the classmate will say, you guys in Beijing often meet up, right? And I will say, however many times you guys come to Beijing is about how many times we meet up.
In Beijing, exchanging business cards counts as recognition; calling a couple times a year counts as best friends; if someone is willing to go from the east to the west side to have a meal with you without talking business, then you could be called friends for life; as for the people you see every day, eat lunch with every day, they are only coworkers.
Beijing is actually the outsider’s Beijing.
If you let Chinese choose their must-go cities in this lifetime, I believe that most people would pick Beijing. Because here is the capital, here is Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the hundreds of theaters, big and small. Drama, opera, traditional drama, crosstalk, two-person skits, whether you like highbrow or popular art, you can always find what your spirit needs in Beijing. But these things actually do not have much to do with Beijingers.
Walking into Beijing’s various big theaters, I see that among ten people, six are outsiders with differing accents, three are young literary types that have just arrived in Beijing and haven’t gotten enough of the novelty, and the last remaining one is the local guide sitting in the corner, playing with his phone to kill time.
In the 11 years since arriving in Beijing, I have gone to the Great Wall 11 times, the Forbidden City 12 times, the Summer Palace nine times, and the Bird’s Nest 20 times. I feel complete indifference for this city’s awesome structures and long history. Climbing the Great Wall, I only think of Lady Meng Jiang, finding it difficult to stir up that lofty pride for the wonders of the world once more; walking into the Forbidden Palace, I see only one empty building after another, which is even less lively and interesting than my hometown’s pigpen.
[Lady Meng Jiang, according to folklore, wept bitterly at the Great Wall for her dead husband, who helped build it.]
When bringing up Beijing, so many people think first of the Forbidden City, Houhai, and 798 [Art Zone], of how Beijing has history and culture and high-rises. Are these things good? They are good! Am I proud? I am proud! But these things cannot be what we live off. What Beijingers experience more deeply is the congestion, the smog, the high housing prices; it is how, when leaving the house, you cannot move, and when at home, you cannot breathe.
Beijing, in the end, is the Beijingers’ Beijing.
If Beijing is said to have that hint of the smell of smoke, then that smell of smoke belongs to the old Beijingers who have been living in this city for generations. This smell of smoke curls out of old Beijingers’ birdcages, fans out from the leisurely palm-leaf fan after dinner, is pulled out from the taxi driver’s haughty tone of voice…
Old Beijingers are currently trying to preserve a bit of breath of life for this city, in order to make this city look like a place where humans live.
This breath of life that old Beijingers have is passed down through genes, and also rises up from the five houses underneath their asses. When Xicheng’s [Beijing district to the west] financial white-collars are absorbed in the excitement of their year-end bonuses, Nancheng’s [district to the south] Beijing tuhao [Chinese term for people of wealth/nouveau riche] will leisurely say, I have five houses; when Haidian’s manong [coders] finish typing out a string of code, looking at pictures of milk tea* and fantasizing about when they will become a Richard Liu [founder of JD.com], Nancheng’s Beijing tuhao will leisurely say, I have five houses; when Chaoyang [District]’s media elite finish signing a large order, standing in front of the CBD’s [Central Business District] floor-to-ceiling windows forecasting life, they will still hear Nancheng’s tuhao leisurely saying, I have five houses.
* ["Milk tea" is a reference to JD.com founder Richard Liu's wife, Zhang Zetian, whose nickname is "milk tea sister."]
If you don’t have five houses, on what basis can you act leisurely? On what basis can you feel that breath of life? On what basis can you be like an old Beijing uncle, playing with birds, playing chess, listening to operas, and drinking tea?
In Beijing, this generation of migrants without inherited property are destined to be trapped within the housing system their whole lives. They struggle for decades to buy a house the size of a birdcage, then struggle a few more decades to swap it out for a slightly bigger second house, and if you make strides, congratulations, you can now consider school district housing.
It is as though if you have school district housing, your kids will be able to go to Tsinghua and Peking University, but kids that graduate from Tsinghua and Peking still can’t afford to buy a house. Then, they will come live with us in that shabby old house, or start all over again, struggling to buy a house.
In 2015, Mr. Six was popular in theaters, and on my Wechat Moments were many people complaining about Mr. Six’s Beijing flavor. I felt very much the same way.
Having been in Beijing for 10 or so years, I refuse to go to Wukesong to see the Beijing Ducks [basketball team] and to go to the Workers’ Stadium to see Beijing Guoan [soccer team], as I have no love for it from the bottom of my heart and I can’t learn Beijing-style cursing. But if you stay in Beijing for a while, you will reach a kind of understanding with the old Beijingers. Once you have a richer understanding of them, there is no way to stereotype them.
In reality, not all Beijingers oppose outsiders, many of my friends are Beijing natives themselves, and not all young Beijingers are idle and only enjoy what they already have. Most young Beijingers are just as assiduous as we are.
You can dislike Mr. Six, dislike Beijingers’ swaggering style of cursing and bragging, but you must respect them, just like you respect Dongbei [northeastern] people wearing gold chains and Shandong people eating scallions. These are people’s culture and habits, and if you can’t do as the Romans do, you must at least respect them from a distance.
The first time I took a taxi to Lincui Road, I was worried the taxi driver wouldn’t know the way, so I opened up my navigation app to help guide him. The driver said he didn’t need it, I know that place, 30 years ago it was a flour factory, 10 years ago the flour factory was torn down and turned into affordable housing. I said, how do you know so much? With a face full of sorrow, the driver said, That was my old home.
I could hear in his words a hint of nostalgia and resentment; to new migrants, Beijing is the distant place where they cannot stay, to old Beijingers, it is the home to where they cannot return.
We outsiders complain about Beijing while missing our homes. In reality, we can still go back to our homes. They still exist, it is only that they fall increasingly behind day by day and we cannot adjust anymore. But for old Beijingers, they truly cannot go back to their home, their home is now undergoing a physical change at an unprecedented speed. We can still find grandpa’s house from back then, but many Beijingers can only search for their own home by the earth’s coordinates.
Some people say, it is we outsiders who built up Beijing, if there were no outsiders, Beijingers wouldn’t even be able to have breakfast; it is because the migrant population has raised Beijing’s housing prices, creating Beijing’s prosperity. But have you ever thought about it? Perhaps old Beijingers don’t need this prosperity and don’t need us to raise housing prices. They are just like us, only needing a home with idyllic scenery, with few cars and less people.
This year, Beijing’s core city area has begun to clean up “holes in the wall.” More and more small shops, restaurants, and hotels are being forced to close, more and more people working in low-end sectors are being forced to leave. This kind of shed-clothing-to-lose-weight style of management has allowed Beijing to hurtle down the road to sophistication, but it draws further away from the livable city, further away from the open and inclusive spirit of the city.
Those who have successfully achieved their dreams are currently fleeing to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the west coast of America. Those who have chased their dreams in vain are also fleeing, they are returning to Hebei, Dongbei, and their hometowns.
And in this city remain 20 million people, pretending to live. In reality, there is no life in this city. Here, there are only the dreams of few and the work of many.
Megan Pan is a writer and undergraduate at Northwestern University majoring in Philosophy and double-minoring in Poetry and Chinese.