Rise of the underdogs

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-1 19:53:01

Young people play video games in an Internet cafe in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Playing games online is a popular hobby among many <em>diaosi</em>, who use Internet cafes to evade reality and develop a sense of achievement in online worlds. Photo: CFP

Young people play video games in an Internet cafe in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Playing games online is a popular hobby among many diaosi, who use Internet cafes to evade reality and develop a sense of achievement in online worlds. Photo: CFP


Let's see if you fit the profile. Are you young, single and not good-looking? Do you have no car, no house and no useful social networks? Do you only smoke cigarettes that cost less than 20 yuan ($3.2) and drink beer? If you find yourself nodding to all these, then congratulations, you might be a diaosi.

Diaosi, loosely translated as "unprivileged loser," is an Internet term referring to single young men from humble backgrounds who find themselves at a disadvantage in today's competitive society.

The slang term emerged on online forums two years ago as an insult. But like many insults, it has become widespread and caused huge discussion. Soon many young people, even celebrities, adopted the term, referring to themselves as diaosi.

A recent survey conducted by online game developer Giant Interactive Group found that up to a majority of Chinese people aged between 20 and 30 identified themselves as diaosi, a phenomenon that many experts see as a reflection of frustration and anxiety of today's youth.

Yin Hong, executive vice dean of the school of journalism and communication at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times that the popularity of the diaosi phenomenon is no coincidence.

"Many Chinese people in the middle class find themselves in a society that is all about keeping up with the Joneses. People compare their parents and their connections. They worry everything they have worked for will ultimately be meaningless," said Yin. 

Origins online

The term first appeared on the online fan club of soccer player Li Yi whose fans often moan about their lives. They were nicknamed diaosi by some critics.

The buzzword was soon picked up by many Internet users and transferred to real life. One of their examples is German actress Martina Hill who played in the popular online German sitcom, Knaller Frauen, translated in Chinese as Diaosi Lady. The show was so popular among young people that some Chinese actors soon made a Chinese version, Diaosi Men last year.

The Diplomat magazine asked whether diaosi could be China's latest youth movement in a story published in March. With "a rising degree of gender mismatch that is making it harder to get married, contemporary China has many of the ingredients we associate with political uprisings like the Arab Spring," it said.

Experts say the word is so popular because it was created by common people as a way to relieve pressure.

Interestingly, those who typically labeled themselves diaosi are not really "unprivileged loser." The survey found out men with an income of 6,000-8,000 yuan and women with an income of 3,000-6,000 yuan, are more likely to identify themselves as diaosi, despite the average salary for a Beijing resident being 3,000 yuan. 

The survey also found out that programmers and media industry professionals made up the highest percentage of self-identified diaosi, at 97 and 96 percent respectively.

This underdog feeling stems from the insecurity and anxiety. This year, seven million fresh graduates hit the competitive job market, the highest number in history. Those who have failed to land a job, usually essential to starting a family, typically express a deep sense of loss.

"I have no car, no house, and no job, who wants to marry me?" asked Li Lei, a fresh graduate in Beijing. "I am proud of being a diaosi, what's wrong with making fun of myself?"

Even Han Han, 31, a popular blogger and writer, labeled himself as a "pure rural diaosi from Shanghai's suburbs" as he said he had no power or connections.

Diaosi is not just a youth movement but also a social problem, according to experts. The reasons why the term resonates with such a huge group is because it reflects the pressures and confusions that they are facing: problems in a relationship and at work, unfair competition and uncertainty about the future.

Many diaosi have realized their income is out of step with rising living costs and increasing house prices, and no matter how hard they work, they will remain underdogs against upper-class competitors who have influential social network and power, Yin explained.

Therefore labeling themselves as underdogs helps to relieve these pressures. They make a serious situation less bleak. Diaosi also make fun of other losers to make themselves feel better.

Ke Qianting, an associate professor in gender studies at Sun Yat-sen University, told the Global Times that this label shows the younger generation is losing hope for their future.

"These well-educated and talented young men who have humble background are living under great pressure to get married and have a career. Therefore, they suffer from low self-esteem and have little hope for the future."

"But it doesn't mean they are giving up, many of them are optimistic, they just want to mock themselves for fun," she continued.

The opposite of the diaosi concept is gaofushuai, literally translated as rich, tall and handsome, for men, or baifumei, pale, rich and beautiful, for women. Many of these are children of the rich, famous and powerful classes.

Diaosi use their own non-violent way to fight against upper class. They make fun of gaofushuai and their girlfriends, or they mock the political elite. 

They also laugh at using violence. They often say "I was forced to kneel down for it", an allusion at how a powerless person might react when helpless in the face of a powerful figure. 

Many diaosi harbor aspirations of one day belonging to these superior appellations. Self-identified diaosi Sun Lianxin, 23, a fresh graduate in Shanghai, believes his efforts will eventually pay off.

After rounds of interviews, Sun finally landed a job at a private company this summer with a monthly salary of 3,500 yuan. However, his girlfriend broke up with him two months ago because she said she could not see a future together.

"I am a diaosi, I have nothing to lose so I am not afraid of failure," said Sun.

Ke suggests society should offer more channels for young people with humble family backgrounds to succeed.

"A well-functioning society should offer youth enough opportunities and pay more attention to their talent," Ke said.

Generation gap

Not all young people like the term though, some find it humiliating, while the older generation views it as vulgar.

Feng Xiaogang, a well-known film director, criticized self-identified diaosi as being"brainless." Many diaosi stood up to defend themselves, with the "father" of the term, Li Yi, saying that while its original connotation might have been negative, there is nothing wrong with self-deprecation.

"I used to be a short ugly poor guy, I experienced more failures than many young people nowadays. But I made it through hard work," Li told the Chinese media.

Yin explains it is understandable why the older generation finds the diaosi phenomenon unacceptable.

"It is because they can't understand why young people are willing to be an underdog," Yin explained. "The lost generation in the US is actually more or less like the Chinese diaosi, it is part of the journey young people take to find themselves."

A recent diaosi comedy movie Lost in Thailand that depicts two businessmen fight over a business deal as they travel to Thailand to find their boss, unexpectedly became a hit. At the box office, it beat the historical blockbusters, Back to 1942, that depicts about a deadly famine that left three million dead in China, as well as James Cameron's Titanic 3D.

Zhang Yiwu, a famous Chinese culture professor at Peking University, commented that the success of the movie lies in its representation of the struggle between diaosi and gaofushuai.

However, the word received a setback in the United States. In April, an advert for Giant Interactive, a Chinese online game publisher that uses the word diaosi, was pulled from digital billboards in New York's Times Square, according to Xinhua News Agency.

The reason was because the word violates the regulations of using indecent language in broadcasting. The Chinese-language content needed to be re-examined, it said.

The company explained this was to draw attention to China's Internet subculture. They are still communicating with Times Square authorities, but it is unknown if the ad will go up again.

The photo of that advertisement was greatly hailed among the diaosi community as many saw it as them gaining global reorganization. But critics joked that the US is joining China in its campaign to stamp out vulgarity.

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