China’s Society People

By Jesse Adler and Jing Xuanlin

English article co-researched and written by Jesse Adler and Jing Xuanlin. Chinese translation below by Jing Xuanlin.

NANJING, China — While enrolled in a language school in southern China this past summer, I encountered a new kind of Mandarin slang. On an otherwise typical midsummer day, after having just been out shopping, I walked into class wearing a newly purchased pair of sunglasses and a T-shirt with a graphic vaguely reminiscent of the Louis Vuitton logo. Immediately, my teacher commented that I looked exactly like a shè huì rén, or “society person.” What was that supposed to mean, I wondered? Thus began my investigation into the trending Chinese subculture known as the shè huì rén.

The origin of the term shè huì rén can be traced to the term hēi shè huì, or “black society,” which refers to China’s secretive criminal underworld. Membership within the hēi shè huì often entails heavy involvement in drug trade, extreme violence and a rigorous initiation process. In contrast with hēi shè huì, the shè huì rén culture is largely based on the online activities of Chinese millennials. There is no formal organizational structure. The culture mostly revolves around ironic and self-deprecatory humor, visual memes and fashion.

Beginning in late 2017, videos featuring Chinese millennials wearing gold chains, sunglasses and full-body tattoos began going viral on popular social media sites. In comment sections and on message boards, users were quick to classify this group as shè huì rén. There is an irony here: While the phrase “society person” may hint at someone living up to society’s expectations, many shè huì rén come from the lower classes of Chinese society. They have relatively poor educational backgrounds and lack stable work lives. Furthermore, while they may put on airs of living a gangster lifestyle, shè huì rén have no real association with China’s criminal underworld.

One factor that may have contributed to the emergence of shè huì rén culture is rising income inequality in China. Looking at the country’s Gini coefficient, according to the International Monetary Fund, China’s income inequality has increased more in the past decade than any other country. On top of high income inequality, young Chinese are experiencing a decline in social mobility. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies study shows that while 70% of the college-aged population in Shanghai are pursuing postsecondary education, just 19% of residents in the Guangxi autonomous region are doing so. With increased demand for highly-skilled labor in China, those who lack college degrees will likely face difficulties in bridging the income gap. This economic reality may cause some young people to seek out an alternative form of social recognition and identity, which is where the shè huì rén culture offers its appeal.

Essential to shè huì rén identity is the appropriation of a British cartoon character called Peppa Pig. Despite Peppa Pig’s cute and friendly appearance, the cartoon has become symbolic of shè huì rén culture and, more broadly, of anti-establishment sentiment across Chinese youth culture. It is increasingly common to see shè huì rén with Peppa Pig tattoos or apparel hanging out and riding motorcycles together, or chain-smoking and drinking cheap alcohol. By identifying with an innocent and “cute” icon such as Peppa Pig while at the same time mimicking elements of gangster culture, the shè huì rén have established themselves as a subversive force within Chinese society, unique in their sense of humor and their rejection of mainstream societal expectations and values.

Interestingly, the fashion associated with shè huì rén has grown in mainstream popularity, as many ordinary students, office workers and even celebrities have embraced Peppa-Pig-branded clothing and accessories. Perhaps, by donning a Peppa Pig T-shirt or wristwatch, anyone can believe for a moment that they are a shè huì rén themselves, especially when posting photos on social media platforms and receiving praise for adopting a shè huì rén style. Corporations have caught on to the trend. The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is currently producing a full-length Peppa Pig motion picture. Meanwhile, in Beijing and Shanghai, Peppa Pig theme parks are scheduled to open in 2019 — just in time for the Chinese year of the pig. However, even as the shè huì rén culture and lifestyle gains popular momentum, it is also receiving criticism and pushback. For instance, the Global Times, a state-owned Chinese newspaper with links to the ruling Communist Party, accused shè huì rén of being nothing more than “unruly slackers roaming around, and the antithesis of the young generation the Party tries to cultivate.”

Like all fads, Peppa Pig and the shè huì rén moniker will fade from popularity. But what will become of the people that make up the core of the shè huì rén culture? They are of the millennial generation born in the mid-1990s. They come from the lower tiers of Chinese society and lack both education and job prospects. While they enjoy widespread cultural appeal today, there will be a time when the attention dissipates, as the mainstream generation settles into their busy lives and forgets about their shè huì rén contemporaries. Moreover, the culture has already drawn some ire from the Communist Party, perhaps foreshadowing even more troubles in its future. For now, though, stock up on the Peppa Pig merchandise while supplies last!

“社会人”在中国

(艾智杰,敬璇琳)

中国,南京——今年夏天,美国学生Jesse到中国南方一所语言培训学校学习,一次偶然,他学会了一句时下流行的中国俚语。仲夏一日,Jesse在外购物后返回学校,当时他戴着一副新墨镜,穿着一件印有类似“Louis Vuitton”标志的T恤,学校老师一遇见他就说:“你看起来简直就是个社会人!”这句话令Jesse百思不得其解,但也正因此次机缘巧合,Jesse开始了对中国“社会人”亚文化的探索之旅。

“社会人”一词起源于“黑社会”,特指中国地下秘密犯罪组织,该团体的成员需要通过严格的入会程序,常常带有极端暴力的特征。但与此相反,“社会人”文化在很大程度是植根于中国千禧一代的线上活动,且并未形成任何正式的组织结构。这种文化通常伴有讽刺、自嘲、幽默的意味,成为一种可视化的“梗”风行一时。

2017年底开始,中国各大社交媒体平台开始疯传一些视频,视频里的千禧一代戴着金项链、墨镜、且满身纹身。在相关视频的评论区和留言板里,网友们迅速地把这个群体归类为“社会人”。但讽刺的是,虽然“社会人”一词可能暗示符合社会期望的某类人,但大多数真正的“社会人”都来自中国社会底层,教育背景相对较差,并且缺乏稳定的工作和生活来源。此外,尽管他们总是以一副流氓地痞的样子装腔作势,但他们与中国的地下犯罪团伙并没有实质联系。

不断加剧的收入不均问题可能是推动中国“社会人”亚文化兴起的一大因素。据国际货币基金组织(IMF)公布的国家基尼系数来看,近十年,中国收入不均的严重程度超越了其他任何国家。在此基础上,中国年轻人还面临着社会流动性减弱的局面。据战略与国际研究中心(CSIC)的近期研究显示,在上海,70%的大学学龄人口正在接受高等教育,而广西壮族自治区的比例仅为17%。随中国对高技能劳动力需求的增多,那些没有大学文凭的人将面临与其他人收入差距更为严峻的挑战。此番经济现状使得一些年轻人开始寻找除收入水平以外的社会认同和身份定位方式,这也正是“社会人”的魅力所在。

事实上,“社会人”这一身份构建还借用了英国儿童动画片“小猪佩琦”的卡通形象。尽管小猪佩琦的外表可爱友善,但它仍然成为“社会人”文化的代言人,从更广泛的视角来看,它代表了中国青年文化中的一股反正统情绪。这些“社会人”越来越多的出现在人们视野中:他们纹着小猪佩琦纹身,穿着小猪佩琦衣服四处游玩,有时候骑着摩托车结伴而行,有时候烟不离手、酒不离口。总之,他们一边将自己刻画成无辜可爱的小猪佩奇形象,一边又模仿黑帮文化的某些元素,在幽默感和反主流价值观与期望中独树一帜,从而将自己所属的这一群体塑造为中国社会的颠覆性力量。

有趣的是,“社会人”这一时尚元素愈发受到主流热捧,无论是普通学生、上班族还是社会名人,都身穿小猪佩琦衣服,佩戴小猪佩琦饰品。在穿上小猪佩琦衣服、带上小猪佩琦手表的一瞬间,任何人都相信自己就是名副其实的“社会人”,尤其把这样的照片上传社交网络,又得到大家一致好评的时候。各大企业在追赶潮流上也不甘落后。中国电商巨头阿里巴巴目前正在制作一部完整的小猪佩琦电影。北京和上海的小猪佩琦主题公园也在筹备当中,并计划于2019年即中国农历“猪年”正式开幕。尽管“社会人”的文化与生活方式受到时尚主流的青睐,但也免不了遭受批评和抵制。比如,由中国共产党主办的国家级新闻报刊《环球时报》就批评他们是“松散无纪律、游手好闲的懒惰者,与中国共产党努力培育的年轻一代格格不入”。

与所有流行元素一样,“小猪佩琦”和“社会人”终将慢慢淡出人们的视线,但是,组成“社会人”文化的核心群体又会面临怎样的未来呢?他们是90年代中期出生的千禧一代,来自中国社会底层,缺乏教育背景,就业前途渺茫。尽管他们现在享受着蹿红的乐趣,但随着主流一代重新投入忙碌生活,并忘记了所属同时代的“社会人”时,这一文化的吸引力自然就会减弱。此外,“社会人”文化已遭致中国共产党的不满,这可能预示着其未来发展的困境吧。就目前来看,在小猪佩琦商品还没有被抢购一空的时候,大家赶紧囤货吧!

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Screenshot from Taobao.com, a popular Chinese online shopping website