Ant Tribe: Sociology with Chinese characteristics

Written by Julen Madariaga on March 22nd, 2010

yizuI just finished reading that book 蚁族 (Ant Tribe) that is all over the place on the Chinese internet. I was curious why it was becoming so hot here while Western media covered it only briefly. I think I know the answer now, but let me introduce the book first and more on this later.

蚁族 (Ant Tribe) is a term coined by the authors to refer to the masses of young university graduates from the provinces that struggle to survive in the Chinese big cities, living in cramped “Ant nests” in the outskirts, and taking unstable and underpaid jobs that are often not related to their studies.

This social group has sometimes caught international attention, especially during the 2009 crisis, when many papers sent their correspondents to interview jobless students, and pundits even saw there the seeds of a new Tiananmen. But it is Beijing Uni doctorate Lian Si who directed in 2008/09 the first comprehensive study, and “Ant Tribe” is a collection of some of his most interesting results, repackaged for the big public.

I have quite strong opinions on this book that I want to write about. In particular these opinions are two, and they are opposite, so I will divide the review in two parts: First Sociology, then the Chinese characteristics.

1- Sociology: A great piece of pop science

For any non-specialist [1] interested in Chinese social problems, this book does a great job of explaining the phenomenon of the Ant Tribes. Lian Si is a talented researcher, able to push an original idea through the minefield of Chinese academia, and to motivate a team of 15 odd postgrads of different disciplines to work for him for free, performing an impressive research effort spanning various cities.

The book has two clearly differentiated parts. The first chapter is the scientific one, where Lian Si presents and analyzes the main data obtained in the visits to the Ant Nests. Although it is only a summarized version of his study, it goes quite deep into details, including the internet surfing habits or even stats on how much sex the Ants actually have (if you need to know, the answer is not enough!)

That first part is conveniently brief and light, and starting in Chapter 2 “Tales of the Ant Tribe” the book goes on to tell the life of a few selected Ants, including some touching anecdotes. The next chapters follow in the same spirit, telling the adventures of the team during the research and explaining the backstage process of the book. I suspect it is these chapters that are making the book so popular among Chinese post-80s, although it hardly contains anything that students here don’t know.

The anecdotes included are relatively tame, and the impression we get is that it is indeed a vulnerable group that we should watch, but it is still better off than the migrant workers or the miners. Most of the students live in relatively OK apartments and have jobs, some even have a room of their own. The only slightly scary anecdote is the one about thugs regularly asking for the “water fee” in Tangjialing, and beating anyone who refuses to pay 10 RMB. Lian even shows some pictures of the receipts issued by those thugs, which, believe you me, come with cute little pictures of the Fuwas and of Mickey Mouse!

The weak point here is that all the stories are taken from the Beijing “Ant Nests” like Xiaoyuehe and Tangjialing, in spite of the prologue announcing research in other major cities. From what I have seen, this phenomenon is not really restricted to the Nests, and in Shanghai there are Ants living in crammed apartments and old houses all over the place, like my old neighbours in Beijing Road. As a Shanghai resident, I was disappointed that the book didn’t cover those Ants.

The problem of the Graduate Students

The book gives more comprehensive explanations for the origin of the Ants problem, but a main point seems to be the state policy of popularizing higher education.  This 扩招 process started in 1998 and it pushed the proportion of university graduates from an exclusive minority to 21% in just a few years. The final objective is set at 40% , taken from statistics of some developed countries.

Ant Tribe mostly sticks to the field of sociology, and I missed some wider conclusions from a political and economic perspective. It seems clear that at the root there is an economic problem: a country selling cheap labour and imitation electronics will never need 40% of higher graduates in its work force. Unless China manages to move its products one step up the ladder and develop some international creative companies, the problem of the Ants can only get worse in the years to come.

In fact, many in the West may be familiar with this problem because in its source it is not unique to China: a similar phenomenon of university graduates exceeding demand happens in Western countries, where history graduates end up working as office receptionists. The main difference between the Chinese and Western situation is due to cultural factors, related to traditional family values and the immense prestige traditionally attached in China to university studies, especially in the less developed countryside where most of the Ants come from.

In this respect, some anecdotes in the book are telling, like the guy who got highest marks in his hometown and gave lots of face to his parents by going to Uni in Beijing, only to find that 5 years later his small brother is thriving with business back home and he is stuck with low-paying menial jobs: how can he have face to go back to his hometown?

A man has face like a tree has a bark, the old phrase goes, and indeed these people don’t want to live without honour. I can only admire the pride and determination of the young village Chinese who go through the harsh competitive system of Chinese education, and still find energies afterwards to continue the struggle in the “Ants Nests”. I can’t avoid comparing with many in my own country who would just happily go back to live on their parents and enjoy a life of beach and clubbing.

Next time I hear a China expert ramble about the spoilt post-80s generation I will point him to this book for some seriously needed clue.

2- The Chinese characteristics

I leave this part for the end because I liked the book and I didn’t want to pollute the review with the same old political discussion. But a review cannot be complete without mentioning this point that Western media have ignored.

Brave and determined as Lian Si sounds, from very early on he has counted with the support of the Beijing Political Committee and the central organs of the party, which explain why he is getting so much coverage in official media, or why he was was even granted authorization in the first place to publish on this thorny subject. A large part of Ant Tribe’s success in China is unquestionably due to this support.

What really bothers me here is not the support of the party, but the absurdly smug stance that Lian adopts from the beginning. In fact, a single phrase in the prologue spoilt the book for me. When he was looking for initial funding for his research, some  colleagues suggested that Lian apply for some of the wealthy Western programs, but he rejected them because it was “very clear for him that foreign funds have ulterior motives”. This phrase echoes the classic CCP line applied to all democracy movements, “别有用心”, and speaks clearly of how comfy Lian is with the establishment.

To be completely fair, I agree with Lian that many of the Western funds are given as much for the political content of the research as for its intrinsically  scientific value. But what I find inacceptable is that he so proudly declares his independence from foreign funding, only to openly show its complete subservience to party interests. Is admirable to be independent, Lian Si, but this only works when you are independent from both sides.

Indeed, the shadow of the party is heavy along the book. All anecdotes are devoid of any disharmonious content, the Ants have no political opinions, and there is no serious questioning of party policies that might have lead to the situation. Perhaps the most obvious is the section about  the internet behaviour of the Ants, stating that internet users tend to show a loss of personality and responsibility (去个性化与责任分散), and focusing on the risks to stability from these groups that may be prone to “believe internet rumours” and “stir trouble”.

Fortunately, most of the content in the book is not directly related to politics, so it can be consumed safely.  But when you compare Lian’s accommodating work with the brave investigations of Xu Zhiyong on the Black Jails, which went unknown to the Chinese post-80s public, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that there is something very wrong with the Chinese publishing system.

The problem here is not with Ant Tribe, which is a fine piece of work, but rather with the dozens of other books that should have been published and never made it through the party’s filter. Many of those books would have reached an ever larger success and significance among the Chinese public than this party supported, politically neutered work.

If government control affects so seriously a scientific book, how can it not affect other branches of literature? I will leave this discussion for some other day, but Ant Tribe has just reconfirmed my initial idea: that we will not see any great work of literature coming from China until the country gets rid of the absurd CCP surveillance.

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  1. I am not a sociologist, and I am not evaluating the methods used for the research, although they look good enough. I would suggest any serious sociologist to get a copy of the original study instead of this science popularization book, and give me a break in comments. []

Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar

    Sounds really interesting, one of the topics I´m more interested about China, especially because many of my friends have the same problems. As you mention, the problem is not only that there are too many graduates, but especially that the economy is not ready to give them good jobs and salaries.

    Great post, you convince me to check it out.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Mar
    Julen Madariaga

    Thanks Dani. Go for it, it is quite an easy book to read for us foreigners, most of the authors use relatively simple language, and the stories are amusing enough. Not the greatest read, but it is good to have at home for the data it contains.

    Anyway if you are in China it costs just 2 Euros to get a book at your place by tomorrow, through Dangdang or This is one of the things I like most of living in China :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Mar

    Did you read it in chinese ?
    - Woods

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Mar

    OK I will look for it

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Mar
    Julen Madariaga

    Yeah, I read it in Chinese, I don’t think it is available in English. If you want you should be able to find it easily on the internet, these hot books always get pirated, just look for 蚁族 廉思。

    On the other hand, I always think that it’s easier to read it from a paper copy, and anyway it is so cheap in China that it is worth getting a copy. See dangdang and links above.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Nov
    Michael A. Robson

    Love it. Getting it. Thanks for the great review

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Dec

    Hey Julen, interesting review of the book. You’ve got me interested in this ant tribe social phenomenon haha. I know you wrote this post a while ago, but do you have any other thoughts about it?

    [Reply to this comment]

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