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Tea Time Chat — Are You a ‘Diaosi’?

Diaosi by Samautu_Flickr
A “Diaosi” takes a puff. (Samautu/Flickr)

Welcome to Tea Time Chat, a real-time discussion between Tea Leaf Nation writers about the issues that matter to them. 

Last month, TLN‘s Claire Zhang had this to say about China’s growing ranks of so-called “Diaosi”:

“Diaosi” originated as an insult for a poor, unattractive young person who stayed at home all day playing video games, with dim prospects for the future – a “loser.” Yet as the term went viral on the Internet, Chinese youth from all backgrounds began to embrace it. It has become a self-deprecating counter to the “gaofushuai,” or the “tall-rich-handsome,” those with status, success, and bright futures. 

But how deep does “Diaosi” self-identification go in China, really? TLN queried some of its Chinese-born writers to find out.

***

CZheng_ProfileChris Zheng attended high school in Shanghai. He is now a rising senior at Yale. 

I am undoubtedly a diaosi. To me, the term is both an acknowledgement of and a subtle rebellion against a set of powerful societal values that are at once discriminating, distasteful and dispiriting.

When people ask me why I don’t want to go back to China after college, I often answer, “I wouldn’t be able to buy a house, and therefore I wouldn’t be able to get married.” And I’m not even really joking.

A recent college graduate in China, even from a top university like Peking University or Tsinghua, would never be able to purchase an apartment on his or her own. Yet society insists on defining one’s worth by materialistic standards, of which one’s ownership of property is of central importance.

Once you realize the ludicrousness of similar societal expectations — so much of which is blatantly misogynistic — you find yourself between a rock and a hard place: either you scramble to satisfy those expectations and become an unwilling accomplice of the system, or you denounce the ridiculousness of it all and risk turning into a social outcast.

That is already leaving out what is perhaps the worst option and the true depths of diaosi-hood: failure to do either.

Against societal values that often seem flat-out insane, the vast majority of people find themselves helpless. Some consider themselves diaosi because they are lacking financially. Others identify as diaosi because even though they might have reached society’s ever-rising bar of success, they are left yearning for a measuring stick that is not quite as ruthless and destructive.

The powerlessness and discomfort that I feel when I read about gender norms and societal verdicts of success in China is what makes me a diaosi. And I guess everything I’ve written above is what makes me a fenqing [angry youth] as well.

***

SSongSijia Song is a student at Yale.

I am not a diaosi.

The simplest reason is that diaosi is a strongly gendered term. Leaving aside its etymology, one of the chief aspects of diaosi-hood is its attitude towards women: I am poor. No woman wants me. Therefore they must all be materialistic gold-diggers. In this aspect, the diaosi is marked by a simultaneous desire, objectification, insecurity, and contempt towards women.

Let us imagine a stereotypical diaosi. He is a recent graduate, perhaps an engineer, working for a pittance in a dead-end position in an unexciting industry. He lives simply. He has few vices and fewer virtues. He’s not particularly talkative. He spends most of his free time playing online games. He thinks that he would maybe like a girlfriend.

Perhaps a female co-worker likes him. Perhaps she stops by to chat to him. Our diaosi has gone to middle school and high school in an environment where cross-gender friendships are suspect. He has never learned how to talk to women. He misses the signals. Exasperated, she eventually asks him out. He hesitates. He thinks her unattractive because she is not tall and slender and pale. He turns her down.

Our diaosi is attracted to a good-looking woman who lives next door to him. He tries to contact her and make overtures. She isn’t interested. She says to him that he should maybe consider dressing more fashionably and making himself more attractive. Besides, she says, he doesn’t have a house and a car, and she can do better – why should she date him?

The diaosi is offended – how can she be so materialistic as to reject him just because of his looks and his lack of money? Doesn’t she know he’s a good guy? He conveniently forgets that he is interested in her because of her appearance. It’s all for the best, he thinks. She’s probably had lovers before, and he can’t stand the thought of his future spouse having been with anyone but him. What if she finds him less attractive than whoever she used to be with?

The diaosi meets a girl in the library. She’s grown up overseas, and went to university in Europe. She has a masters in philosophy. She likes to talk about Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. She thinks he’s nice because he doesn’t talk to her while she’s reading. She asks him if they should date each other.

The diaosi is hesitant. He usually can’t understand a word of what she’s saying once she gets into academics. He pretends to understand, and sometimes interjects just so he doesn’t seem stupid. But the thought of his girlfriend being better educated than him bothers him. Besides, although she’s pretty, she’s older than him. What would people think of him if he was with a woman who’s already thirty-one? He turns her down.

The diaosi goes home and goes back to playing his online games, occasionally pausing to post on an online forum wondering why women won’t date him. Maybe if he got a raise. Maybe if he had a house and car. Maybe if he finds a girl who’s just graduated from college, she’ll give him the appropriate regard. It’s a shame women are so materialistic.

I am not a diaosi. But I am limited by the diaosi and the mainstream values of diaosi-hood. I am troubled knowing that if I decide to search for a significant other back home, he would most likely come from the diaosi crowd. And if I were to successfully date a diaosi, I may well need to make myself seem smaller, less interesting, less threatening. I might have to stop talking about social justice and fantasy novels and World War I memoirs. I might have to stop worrying about my writing and start worrying about my makeup. I might have to learn to sajiao [throw temper tantrums].

It might be too high a price to pay.

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  • Chris Zheng

    Sijia hit the nail on the head with the gender implications of diaosi-hood. While both women and men are ultimately victims of highly dysfunctional gender norms in China, it is undeniable that women are in a much more vulnerable position.

    In a society that judges men by their wallets and women by their looks, even those who appear to be “winning the game” are ultimately losers, because they are measured against an arbitrary set of criteria that they have zero control over.

    If you refuse to be measured by society, if you refuse to play by its rules, you soon find yourself alienated by it.

    Furthermore, how should you approach those that lack the option to bail out of the system? How should you approach those struggling every day to cope with societal expectations that come in all forms: phone calls from parents, TV ads, magazine covers, not to mention the Internet?

    Instead of asking who are the diaosi, we might ask who are the gaofushuai, or the anti-diaosi: the gaofushuai are those who played according to society’s rules and won.

    As for those who lost, they are unquestionably diaosi.

    From the perspective of the system, those who opted out didn’t have the balls to play the game in the first place, and thus they must be losers as well.

    • Sijia Song

      tl;dr: China’s version of the Nice Guy™.

      Edit: Also, I’ve never found a satisfactory translation for sajiao, except actually showing people videos…

      • Bob Newman

        It means to act cute and coquettish. It’s absolutely hilarious to see Chinese women in their late 30s doing it.

        • Michael

          If you’re going to discuss this matter in such an infantile and disrespectful manner, you’re the one acting younger than your age, no matter what your age is. Either be more respectful in your words and tone, or leave this conversation.

          • Bob Newman

            Who am I disrespecting again? I am stating a well-known observation.

          • Archie

            I suspect Michael was trying to be funny or something, because that comment just makes no sense at all.

            I’d disagree that it is hilarious Bob, I think it is one of the most off-putting things to see a grown woman want to act like a child. Sickening actually.

          • Michael

            To imply that all 30s-aged Chinese women engage in behavior which portrays them as children, and to refer to it as “absolutely hilarious” betrays a lack of respect for women from China, and in particular, a lack of maturity by conflating a large group of people into a single stereotype.

          • Bob Newman

            You know, one of the things I have come to understand being a “very” cross-cultural person — for disclosure purposes, I grew up mostly in the U.S., with most family in China and worked on many deals in both countries etc., but a mainland Chinese person would never know that unless I purposefully disclosed it (I play the game well) — is that it is “much much easier” to stereotype Chinese people than Westerners. The cultural uniformity is at a level a typical American could never come close to comprehending, given the individualistic tendencies of the American people. And there’s a solid chunk of Chinese women, regardless of age, that 撒娇. I don’t find it sickening like Archie, because I know those women act that way because there is “market demand” for that type of behavior.

            Most Chinese men marry spouses younger in age and find mistresses “at least” a generation younger. Girls learn the behavior when they’re just kids to curry favor with their fathers, and then do the same thing to get things from their 情父 or older significant others. Some of my friends love it, because it feels like they have a girl who “needs protecting.” The other day, my mom’s friend in her early 50s, did it. That actually did make me kind of queasy, but then I realized earlier that day, my friend from Shanghai did it too, but…he was male.

          • Michael

            The use of stereotypes, no matter how justified you may think they are, merely shows your own prejudice and refusal to treat them as individuals. While general trends may exist within groups, your insistence on clinging to stereotypes and applying them to every member of a group, reeks of privileged ignorance at best, outright bigotry at worst. The thing about feminism is that if you actually believe in it, you have to apply it in all cases. You can’t be amused by women forced by a society to act in a manner at men’s insistence, at women having their agency taken away. You can’t be pro-women, and at the same time be amused by women acting in a seemingly childish manner out of cultural pressure. This cultural pressure is inherently problematic if it forces women to act in a certain manner without their consent, or even if it forces them to change anything about who they are because of the expectations of men. Seeing men forcing women to act childishly, and then being amused by it, is the definition of trying to hold back the progress of feminism worldwide.

          • Bob Newman

            I never said I believed in feminism. I’m probably ambivalent at best. I make note of things, and I file them away. I actually “don’t care” in the least if some women act childishly, and I’m free to react to it any way I choose. It’s a woman’s prerogative to 撒娇 if they think that turns on their sugar daddies. You could say the male-dominated society may be forcing that behavior on them or even a step further in that thinking, an attractive peasant girl is being forced into prostitution and mistresshood because of the easy monetization of their looks while they still have it, especially when the alternative is borderline slave labor in factories, and I wouldn’t strongly disagree. But in the end, there’s still an element of the path of least resistance, and it’s being chosen at a mass scale.

            One of the things I always wonder, though, is does the thousands of years of 世袭制度 the Chinese civilization has been inured to, have any kind of genetic ramifications. Some people may think concepts such as feminism and individuality are universal concepts that can copy and pasted onto societies, but I’m not so sure.

          • Michael

            To imply that people have a desire to be servants or slavelike through DNA imprinting and evolution reeks of racial superiority, and looks like a weak justification to consider yourself above people of another race merely because “it’s natural” and “in their DNA, so it must be right” to consider them below you. Your last paragraph is everything that is wrong with the field of evolutionary psychology as applied to races of people.

          • Bob Newman

            I’m actually talking about individuals/groups within the same race, so “racial superiority” doesn’t exactly apply. As the old adage goes, Chinese family wealth never lasts 3 generations, so obviously there exists some social mobility, but “wealth” in it of itself wasn’t the primary attribute for power/status during the dynastic era. Appointment by imperial edict was, and this was a hereditary system that is making a comeback with a vengeance not only in civil service but in commerce. This also isn’t a system where excess variance in power structure will occur. Families can be in prominence for centuries.

            So logic dictates, there is probably a large swath of Chinese population that have always been the “ruled class” through centuries/millennia. If you know anything about Qing Dynasty history and juxtapose the level of upheaval that occurred in the mid-19th century (2 Opium War losses, Taiping and Nien rebellions — human life loss in the tens of millions) against similar level of turmoil in Europe (say the French Revolution), you would probably be wondering why the Qing Dynasty didn’t fall until the 20th century as opposed to the 1860s. The Aisin Goro family surely F’d up enough and completely ravaged the country with their supercilious rule and downright incompetence. There are also other earlier dynasties that were beyond the state of decay that lingered many decades more than they should have. My theory is, the Chinese people’s 奴性 is very very special. The threshold of abuse that Chinese people are able to take and not strike back is astounding and very different from the Caucasian capacity. It’s often cited as a virtue, the ability to absorb hardship, and it’s also the reason why multiple generations and the extended family are willing to pool their resources together just so a post-80s couple can afford some bare 80 sq. meter condo in Shanghai that is atrociously priced clearly due to collusion between developers and the local government.

            The Chinese people can take a beating…until they clearly can’t.

          • Michael

            To find it “exciting” when an entire race “can’t take a beating” merely proves that you believe you are from a race that you consider superior to theirs. The racial superiority I pointed out you believing in was not a comparison within the Chinese, but rather that you believe yourself to be of a race superior to them, as evidenced by the way you continually stereotype and belittle the entire race.

          • James Harkins

            Am I missing something? The post in question doesn’t say anything about “all” thirty-something women. My first read of it was that SOME do it, and when they do, it’s funny-sad. Seems to me that the entire following vitriolic debate stems from a simple misreading?

          • Dick Leigh

            Thankfully I scrolled down and read this comment, because I was about the post the exact same thing!

        • Dick Leigh

          It’s not so hilarious to see twenty-something gay guys doing it.

      • Kanifer

        There is no exact term as far as I know. Just explain it by saying: “acting cute and mushy almost to a childish extent to get a loved one’s attention”.

      • Bob Spencer

        Please see my comment, above!!

    • Bob Newman

      I honestly have never met a 高帅富 in person before. They must be more rare than the South China Tiger. I mean, I’ve met a ton of male 富人 before who would like to consider themselves that, but they’re usually missing one or two of the other qualities. Many times, both.

      It almost seem like rich Chinese men are nearly all universally ugly. Maybe it’s a necessary quality? The initial self-loathing that is necessary to push yourself to do the things you need, sometimes base deeds, to do to change yourself and climb that societal ladder?

    • Bob Spencer

      Please see my comment, above.

  • Bob Newman

    “Exasperated, she eventually asks him out. He hesitates. He thinks her unattractive because she is not tall and slender and pale. He turns her down.”

    This statement basically exemplifies the whole male culture in China — from top to bottom, young to old. “Every single heterosexual male,” even the borderline homosexual probably still get 二奶 if they can afford it, just to fit in, in China wants to gun for the top 5-10 percentile women in terms of physical attractiveness and ages range 18-24. The 22-year old poor as dirt college grad. The 65-year old corrupt provincial official. The 30-year old migrant worker that never got past middle school (义务教育). It doesn’t matter what the males themselves look like. They could look like a radioactive toad and still think they “deserve” those women if they can “somehow” get the money. And there is “no bottom” to the moral depravity of that “somehow.” Not saying women are the “only” object of desire, cars/houses/material things in general of course are also part of the package.

    This is a society that is going to implode in just a handful of years, because the sheer number of disenfranchised males is just staggering. You can conquer the world with the number of permanent 光棍 and the real 屌丝 (probably 50 million+) who have no real hope, unlike Chris Zheng, who is just calling himself that as a “rebel without a cause.”

    • Hengchu Zhang

      I guess I’m kind of off point here but why is 孙中山 an opportunist?

      • Bob Newman

        Where was he when the 武昌起义 happened? In San Francisco. 黄兴did all the heavy lifting. Another Hunanese that eventually did nothing in ensuring his province’s prominence. 蒋介石 was serving in the Imperial Japanese army at the time.

    • Dick Leigh

      Even gay guys in China have er nai. They get married to women and have children thus relieving them of their cultural duties, but keep boys on the side.

  • ghormax

    While I agree with Sijia’s point that it is a gendered term, I do think her story is not quite so realistic. In reality, all guys want a girl that is pretty. There is no doubt about it. However, guys do not only choose based on those stereotyped forms of beauty. In fact, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, I do think that many guys do not meet those other girls in her story. If he is the guy she describes at the beginning, he won’t find any girl because it is still expected that guys approach girls and not the other way around. Even if the guy only believes that he cannot find a girl due to those societal values and he is shy, then the problem is not that he is too choosy.

  • Chris Sawyer

    Thank you Bob Newman for your anecdotal evidence, gross generalizations, and made up statistics. You have added a lot of bullshit to the discussion.

    Since the discussion of what a diaosi is has been hijacked to address why diaosi exist, I will add my piece. First, let us ignore that the standards of beauty that many Chinese men hold Chinese women to are European standard of beauty. In a globalized society that China found itself behind in, a eurocentric standard may have been unavoidable. As ghormax said, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but beauty is also a societal construct, isolated societies find different things beautiful (as evidenced by African neck-stretching or the foot bindings of old).

    Let us address the point that Chris Zheng alluded to and try to distill it to its essence. Inequality of opportunity led to the rise of the diaosi movement. Many men, be they short, poor, or less physically attractive are not given the same chance to “succeed” (by the material definition of success) as other men born of different circumstance. I realize that this problem exists everywhere, including in the United States, but I believe we can agree that inequality of opportunity is particularly abhorrent in China, especially for a society formerly based in the equality of Communism.

    The solutions to this problem are to find a way to achieve more social mobility, level out the playing field, or redefine what it means to be a successful man in China.

    The interesting question should not be “What is a diaosi?” rather, “What conditions cause men to identify as diaosi?”

    Gender inequality is a topic that deserves its own focus. It does not deserve to be lumped into the diaosi conversation as an afterthought.

    • Bob Newman

      What are you supposed to be — some under-qualified English teacher that is in Beijing right now on 午休?

      The current standard of beauty is “not” based on the European standard. That’s some serious unadulterated bullshit. Most Chinese people, even to this day, are still not used to the sight of a Caucasian in person. It would be very hard to have for Chinese civilization to ever have internalized that standard as you claim. And beauty is not a random walk data point when you average out what is considered attractive characteristics over large sample sizes.

      I’m really glad you managed to boil down the solution to “find a way to achieve more social mobility.” How do you do that exactly when you have totalitarianism mixed with crony capitalism? Does ice melt in a nuclear winter? The CCP operates exactly like a mafia. They operate a turf where normal people are subjects, and they extract economic rent from them. It’s good practice, even for a criminal syndicate, to say they operate for the sake of the people, but the people are just a means to an end, and serving them is not the purpose of the organization’s existence.

      People analyze China the same way they analyze a “normal” democratic country, and that’s the completely wrong angle. Everything has to be framed through a political perspective — i.e. will the CCP allow some measure to pass that could lead to more social mobility, because the risk of not doing so could result in unrest is to the point they can’t tolerate? But could this relaxation also cause them to feel they are on a slippery slope to future power loss? In 1989, the latter question was more important.

      • Chris Sawyer

        Firstly, my employment is none of your business. Although I am not an “under-qualified English teacher,” I would assume that those gainfully employeed in that profession would take offense to your condescending tone. I called you out on fallacious arguments, you immaturely responded with ad hominem. That’s unbecoming, Bobby, why you so mad?

        With regard to your second paragraph, would you agree that the current standard of beauty in China for women is white skin, a narrow face, a less obtuse nose, tall, and slender? That seems pretty European to me. I am having trouble arguing with the second half of that paragraph, as it is not really written using the standards of conventional English (please edit so I can respond properly), but it appears you once again tried to use made up statistics. Please give some data. I offered two examples of how standards of beauty can be dramatically different across separate cultures. There is no objective standard of beauty, yet you insist there is.

        With regard to “How do you do that exactly when you have totalitarianism mixed with crony capitalism?” I have no idea. I did not offer a solution. I do not know who you are arguing with in your last two paragraphs. You just wander down a tangent, as irrelevant fogies tend to do (I can use ad hominem too it turn out).

        Please do not put words in my mouth or fight a straw man.

        • Bob Newman

          I took an educated guess at your profession based on your knowledge level. I still don’t think I’m far off. Ok…you can stop with the Latin terminology debate fallacies routine. I did the same thing when I was 14.

          White skin is because of status. People that work in the sun get tanned. You can google or wikipedia the rest. The rest of the characteristics you listed isn’t necessarily endemic to Caucasian features. Hell, white skin isn’t even necessarily a characteristic.

          Sorry, you’re a little below my intellectual level and I got bored with the rest of your post. This will be my last response to you.

          • Chris Sawyer

            Hahaha. God you’re so smart. I hope one day I can be just as pretentious as you. Thank you for even taking the time from your day to enlighten us in the comments section of TLN. Your books as juvenile, contribute no original thoughts, and no academic takes them seriously.

          • something to prove

            Looks like TLN has its first troll. And this guy’s all over every article, too. Ugh.

          • Bob Newman

            Despite my best efforts, it’s actually pretty hard to troll a ghost town.

  • Paul Schoe

    Wow Sijia, what an articulate description of a stereotypical Diaosi. An enjoyment to read.

    On a sideline: Don’t forget that China is big, and that there are many interesting things happening, done by many interesting people. Yes, the Diaosi crowd is large, but nowadays China has so much more to offer. And with your skills, your opinions might be exactly what the Chinese people are looking and longing for. In China, your opinions might be like nectar for the bees.

  • Kanifer

    Sajiao isn’t throwing a temper tantrum (which is an expression of anger), it’s acting cute and mushy to get her loved one’s attention (it sometimes appears childish, but there is a child in all of us). There is nothing wrong with it. My Chinese fiancée does it all the time. I happen to like it.

    As for Diaosi, it’s all in the attitude. Change your attitude and change your life. Regardless of society or any other influence.

  • Bob Spencer

    I’m just wondering where “Chris” Zheng and Song Sijia are from. The level of English in the pieces is of exceptional quality. Are you both Chinese-Americans? Or did you move to North America (or an English-speaking nation) at an early age, or only for tertiary-level study?

  • James

    First of all, it is important to note that these two writers have completely different understandings of what it means to be diaosi. Turning to Sujia’s post:
    Of course men, like women, would prefer to date/have sex with more attractive partners. Sijia, however, poses the absurd scenario of an unattractive, unsuccessful, socially awkward man being asked out twice with absolutely no participation by him. This could only happen in a fantasy world. It is extremely unlikely that a self-loathing diaosi would have the confidence to then ask out a very successful woman. In all, Sujia’s attempt to turn an essentially self-deprecating, even dangerously self-loathing personal label into a general indicator of deep-rooted misogyny, is offensive in itself, not to mention ridiculous. Perhaps she hasn’t considered – or doesn’t care – that the men who fit the diaosi definition she envisions are likely to be clinically depressed?

  • cactus

    This article is old by the time I’m writing this, but I just came across it and felt like speaking my mind regardless of when it was written.

    Song’s analysis is laughable at best. At worst, it is unfounded and unrealistic. She paints a depressing sad clown caricature of what she -believes- a diaosi is like, at the same time conveniently ignoring that the term diaosi does not encompass a singular entity. It is unlikely she has ever met a diaosi (understandably, considering her conviction that they all lack social skills), or at least attempted to connect with one or spent time with different diaosi. And as stated by another poster, her picture is highly illogical. I can’t imagine many young male individuals who are too timid to connect with a “normal” woman would then suddenly muster up the courage to ask out a tall-rich-beautiful icon of dreamlike perfection. It just doesn’t make sense, and her piece reads like it is driven more by personal agenda than social analysis. Zheng also uses diaosi as an all-encompassing term, but provides more grounded examples of the kinds of social systems that many diaosi believe wrong them.

    Overall, Song’s article sounds the conjecture of a concerned mother lecturing her teenage son. Which, funnily enough, is one of the few constants that diaosi reject.