One of the most influential books came out in China in 2009 was “Ant Tribe,” a study of the difficulties faced by recent graduates of “second-tier” universities forced by poor job prospects to live together in teeming squalor on the outskirts of Beijing. In a country where a quarter to a third of new college graduates can expect to go jobless in their first year out of school, the book struck an instant chord. The term “ant tribe” — meant to describe a group of smart but individually insignificant young people who draw strength by gathering together in large communities — spread like wildfire through local media and the man who coined it, Lian Si, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, became an overnight academic celebrity.
A sequel, “Ant Tribe II: Whose Era Is It?,” hit Chinese bookshelves in 2011, just a few weeks after China’s Ministry of Education predicted the number of new graduates would rise by 300,000 to 6.6 million. In the book, based on interviews with roughly 7000 college graduates conducted between March and August in 2011, Mr. Lian extends his research beyond Beijing to other major cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Nanjing in an attempt to push understanding of the ant tribe phenomenon both wider and deeper.
The “Ant Tribe” is, as its name implies, a group of young people living in ant colony-like conditions in China’s major cities. These young people are college graduates who, after graduating university, chose to stay in or move to the city in hopes of finding a good job. Many of them are unable to find fulfilling or well-paying jobs. They often live in small communities, usually underground, where rent is cheap. The term is usually also used by the Chinese mainland press to refer to young people in similar situations in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
They share every similarity with ants. They live in colonies in cramped areas. They’re intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid.
To save on rent, the “ants” often find themselves living in a less-than-desirable place with one or more of the following attributes:
• Suburban location away from city center
• Windowless basement rooms
• 8 or more bunks to a room
• Shared kitchen space
• Communal bathroom
• Constantly rotating strangers for roommates
A typical day for an “ant” consists of getting up at 5 am to prepare for a two-hour commute on crowded public transportation. Their survival jobs may differ week by week, ranging from passing fliers on the street corner, delivering fast food, or if they are lucky, grinding their way through a grueling trial period at an entry-level position in their field. In short, the “ants” face high pressure to find success in the city in order to justify their decision to stay.
Although the ant-tribe’s conditions may sound grim, the “ants” remain optimistic. After all, big cities offer much to young people in terms of glamour, entertainment, and most importantly, career prospects. Being able to find success in the big city is a source of pride for the “ants” and for their families back home.
Many “ants” end up finding jobs in their chosen field, proudly climbing up the first rung of their career ladders. Perhaps many will even go on to become homeowners in the cities that they labored to dig their roots in, transforming into a member of the “mortgage slave” (房奴 fáng nú) tribe, yet another ubiquitous socio-cultural phenomenon in urban China.
We hope the hardworking “ants” will find luck, success, and even love in their time in the big city. Effort and perseverance shall pave the way to success!