As traditional family lifestyle breaks down, more youngsters are living solo than ever before

By Ren Yaoti Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/1 20:28:39

The phenomenon of young people living by themselves has led to the development of some products tailored to these singletons like live broadcasts of people eating and books about this lifestyle. Though many enjoy their quiet, independent lives, there are some who miss sharing their homes with others.

Watching live broadcasts or broadcasting oneself are popular among young Chinese who live by themselves. Photo: IC

More and more of China's young people are living lives reminiscent of the protagonist of the film Life of Pi.

But instead of being adrift on a small boat with a fierce Bengal tiger in the middle of the ocean, they are living with pussycats in the country's concrete jungles, far away from their families.

Wu Yan (pseudonym) from icy Harbin, capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, is now the sole human resident of the flat just outside Beijing's Fifth Ring Road that he shares with his British Shorthair moggy. Asked to describe his life, he answers "a boring routine."

Though the 27-year-old's job at an academic institute is challenging and intense, he insists on going to the gym for an hour every day, so he can spend more time out of his quiet home.

However, his social life usually begins at home around 9 pm. Wu usually watches live streaming shows online for company until he is too tired to keep his eyes open in the wee hours.

Wu feels lonely, but he is not alone.

Rising numbers 

Nearly 60 million people live alone in China, a third of whom are between 20 and 39 years old.

Studies have shown that the number of one-person households correlates with a country's overall level of development. The rate of solo living has risen dramatically in recent decades in countries like the US (27%), Sweden (47%), Japan (32%) and Canada (28%), according to a 2013 CBS News report.

While in 1990 just 6 percent of Chinese households had only one person, by 2013 that rate had risen to 14.6 percent, according to official data.

It is estimated that 132 million Chinese will live alone by 2050, Jean Yeung, director of the Center for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Some people looking to explain this rise point to the fact that Chinese are marrying later than in previous decades, while others blame the country's family planning policies which have shrunk the size of the family in China and allowed people to get used to spending less time with others.

"Today's young singletons actively reframe living alone as a mark of distinction and success, not social failure," US sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote in his book Going Solo.

Noting that most young people who live alone have chosen this lifestyle, Klinenberg also argues that living alone allows people to embrace "modern values - individual freedom, personal control and self-realization… It allows us to do what we want, when we want, on our own terms."

Baibai (pseudonym) loves living alone. The 22-year-old lived alone since her parents sent her to a British high school when she was 16.

"Living alone is a lifestyle that people need time to get used to," Baibai told the Global Times. "It depends on not only one's personality but also his or her life experiences."

Baibai has traveled alone to destinations including Thailand, Hong Kong and a number of places in northern England near her former university.

Instead of using the word alone, people like Baibai prefer to describe themselves as independent and don't see themselves as bucking as social norms.

Li Xiaoke, freelancer for the travel guide series Lonely Planet, once said that traveling alone is not ostentatious but fulfills the mental need for solitude.

"When alone, I don't have to care too much about others, so I can entirely relax myself, and living alone can provide you a chance to talk to yourself, this is something that you can rarely do when living with other people, and it helps you to get to know yourself better." Baibai told the Global Times on August 25.

Living alone. Photo: IC

Culture of solitude

As this lifestyle grows more common, it has found expression in books, videos, and movies.

These kinds of cultural products, which mainly discuss the positive side of living alone, have become massively popular. Many are imported from countries with cultural similarities to China, like Japan and South Korea.

Midnight Diner, a Japanese comic book series, which takes a look at the lonely lives of the patrons of a restaurant open only at night, has been a hit in this genre. The comic books were made into a soap opera in Japan in 2009 and the Chinese version of the show is set to hit screens within the year. Chinese books like Longterm Singletons Will Be Killed and How to Marry a Man After You're 25 have also proven popular.

Cai Yani is seen by many as a leading voice of the solo-living community in China.

After quitting her well-paying media job, she filmed 12 videos which showed viewers how to cook delicious meals for one. Her series Eating Alone has been viewed over 11 million times on Youku, one of China's biggest online video platforms. Her book of the same name sold 70,000 copies in six months.

"I left Shanghai because I couldn't find anybody to talk to, but I came back here in the end, because I suddenly realized that I really enjoy such loneliness," Cai told the Southern Weekly.

Unsurprisingly, this topic is regularly discussed online. The "traveling alone" section on Baidu Tieba, an online forum, has more than a million followers and 3.2 million posts. Similarly, on question and answer site Zhihu, the question "How does traveling alone feel?" has received over 3,846 answers.

The South Korean idea of mukbang, or live broadcasting oneself eating a meal, has also taken China by storm.

A 22-year-old girl from Fuzhou, East China's Fujian Province, earns around 600 yuan every time she broadcasts herself eating breakfast, lunch or dinner to an audience of thousands, according to a 2013 China Newsweek report. Most of her viewers live alone and simply want some company when they eat, virtual or not.

Wu said that he often watches such live streaming shows, though he prefers watching people play video games to watching strangers eat.

Live streaming platforms have become some of the most popular apps on the market.

According to statistics published on August 3 by the China Internet Network Information Center, 325 million Chinese watch live-streamed broadcasts, almost half of all netizens.

Yizhibo (which means "keep broadcasting" in Chinese) is a rising platform. Founded this May, the webcast app hosts hundreds of shows and often has over 3 million people watching at the same time.

"Three million is a very common number for us, it happens maybe every other day," said He Yi, vice president of Yizhibo.

"Few days ago, a Chinese American who uses the screen name US Not Serious said he would visit the LA villa of Wang Baoqiang [a Chinese actor in the midst of a divorce scandal]. He drove for an hour to get there, and audience just watched him driving for an hour and talking," She said. And this 65-minute show had over 50 million viewers in total.

Mental help

While some people love living alone and the freedom it brings, others find that being outside of their comfort zone is, well, uncomfortable.

Ji Peilei, who just got her master's degree this summer, is now working for a State-owned company and lives alone near her office. Though she and Baibai live similar lifestyles, Ji talks more about the negative side of being alone.

"I feel quite lonely myself. Being alone full times sometimes means you are lacking mental care and company when in need. And actually the living standards of some solo-dwellers is quite low," Ji told the Global Times on August 28.

Young people living alone, a fairly recent phenomena in China, is the result of fundamental changes in Chinese society in recent decades.

As the size of the average family has shrunk from 5.3 people in the 1950s to 3.02 in 2012, the total number of one-person households has grown accordingly.

For centuries, Chinese people usually lived surrounded by their extended family. Now as families shrink and people move away from their hometowns, this family support network is falling apart.

"Population mobility motivates the change from big families and clans, which have lasted for over thousand years in Chinese history, to small family structures," Professor Wang Zhongwu from Shandong University told the Xinhua News Agency.

 "This phenomenon may also affect elderly parents, I think they are lacking care. I've been too tired to go out with friends recently as my air-conditioner, TV and water pipes have all had problems. I have to spend the whole weekend to fix them, such a life tempo is way beyond me," Ji told the Global Times.

When asked about the increasing number of publications advocating one-person living, she is critical.

"Those are just 'chicken soup for the soul,' they have no other way to make themselves feel better but to write or read these comforting stories," Ji said.

While it is true that many people have embraced this independent lifestyle, there are undoubtedly people who feel they have fallen into this life rather than choosing it.

 "Who would ever want to be alone if he or she can find someone to stay with?" Ji asked.

Newspaper headline: Home alone

Posted in: In-Depth

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