“When It All Comes down to It, China Has No Real ‘New Year’”

Translated and Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé

Translator’s Introduction

Li Chengpeng (李承鹏, born in 1968), also known as “Big-eyed Li,” had a successful career as a popular sports reporter in Beijing. He enjoyed early notoriety for his reporting on corruption in soccer, which is a national obsession, and his political ambitions. In recent years, Li has come to be known for social commentary and his scathing essays on current affairs. For the most part, his work circulates in China unofficially and he also publishes a column in Yibao, an independent media site operating outside the People’s Republic of China.

In late 2022, Li published “Take it from me, we are losing the war because we can salute too well,” a letter addressed to the year 2022. The title is a quotation from All Quiet on the Western Front, a famous anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque. In the letter, Li observes that:

In retrospect, a lot of the things that happened during 2022 seem ridiculous, even absurd. Upon closer inspection, however, they still reflect the irrefutable logic of power. When an organisation [like the Chinese Communist Party] is not constrained in any way and is under no pressure to respond to public opinion, it can easily claim to enjoy unquestioned moral authority. It can then go about brainwashing society and mobilizing people to go about doing evil with a sense of holy purpose, even when that evil is directed at oppressing themselves . . . [T]he upshot is to further entrench unrestrained power and enhance the belief among the power-holders that they are possessed of some kind of moral superiority. The cycle is self-perpetuating and it reinforces itself.”

The Xi Jinping era has variously been described as an “age of stagnation,” an “age of malaise,” and an “empire of tedium.” Likewise, Li Chengpeng’s abiding attitude is summed up in the letter: “when I think of 2022 I feel that even if we don’t deserve the kind of ‘red dignity’ [that the Communist Party bestows upon itself], at least we can hold on to our black humor.”

Similarly, the tenor of the letter that Li addresses to the year 2023, translated below, is suffused with black humor. The style is lapidary and Li punctuates his prose with references both to current affairs and to historical figures and incidents. Where necessary, explanatory material has been added in square brackets, although some references have required notes.

Li posted the essay online on January 2, 2024. It was widely reposted and, although scrubbed by China’s censors, PDF and other versions are still in circulation.

Geremie Barmé

Year 202X: The Devilish Details in the Big Story

According to the traditional Chinese calendar, 2023 was a “Water Rabbit” year. People who read auguries predicted that the country would be prone to flooding.1

A video shot during the Zhuozhou floods [in July-August] showed a man screaming as he desperately held onto a pillar, struggling not to be sucked into a whirlpool: “Where’s emergency rescue?” he screams. “Why aren’t they here yet. . ?” After a moment, the shouting stops as he’s swept away, and then you see him floating by a car that’s also caught in the rising floodwaters, along with tables and chairs from a restaurant. Then, he simply disappears.

Another video recorded a woman wading through the surging waters with her mother on her back. Turns out she’d been driving to the local hospital when the rising waters stalled her engine. She found shelter in a roadside shop just in time to see her car being swept away. The floodwater reaches her waist and you see her struggling to find higher ground. When the waters took the pair, her expression seemed to reflect a lifetime of indomitable struggle.

We’ll never know how many people drowned during the floods of 2023, although I’m sure no statistics would have dampened the buoyant message of the propagandists: “The will of the people is as solid as the Great Wall, love is everywhere,” was one line that they came up with. Another went: “The Heavens have opened up and the floodwaters may be a vicious beast, but the heroes fighting in Zhuozhou remain undaunted.”

They still think that by emphasizing the Big Picture, the “Grand Narrative,” they are feeding us the kind of aphrodisiac that will uplift the spirits of the suffering masses.

During the Tang dynasty, the commander Zhang Xun, in his efforts to feed the troops under his command who were protecting the capital Chang’an from a rebellion, sacrificed his beloved concubine. The wrenching decision was praised as a demonstration of loyalty to the court. This time around, so that the Xiong’an New Area could be kept safe, it didn’t matter that a few ants ended up being drowned.2

The newspaper Southern Weekly used to be classy like Lin Dayu [a melancholic yet thoughtful female character in the Qing novel Dream of the Red Chamber], but over time it turned into Pan Jinlian [a notoriously lascivious and opportunistic figure in the Ming novel The Plum in the Golden Vase]. That was bad enough, but today that paper is little better than Yu Dan [the author of soppy interpretations of traditional Chinese thought]. Its New Year’s Message this year went: “May the first rays of the new year’s sun well up in your depths, protect your inner well being, vouchsafe your lifestyle, and ensure you maintain your unwavering bottom lines. Even if the way ahead appears unclear, you should still choose to be the best you. You should be proactive in what you think and do and be open to what comes your way.”

It’s all pretty grubby.3

Given the fact that so many people had died [during the year] I thought that it was ill-judged for Southern Weekly to issue a call for its readers to “protect their inner well being.” It was also pretty rich to enjoin people to “vouchsafe your lifestyle and ensure you maintain your unwavering bottom lines,” as the economy was tanking. Other end-of-year retrospectives and essays that talked about the upcoming year were even more thoroughly Chicken Soup for the Soul in tone. They [the state media] talk about the [emotional and economic] scars that we’re covered in as though they are nothing more than decorative tattoos; they celebrate the trials and tribulations that people have experienced as though they are medals that we are supposed to wear with pride.

If you really want to put a positive spin on all of this, the best you could say is that it’s a kind of “spiritual massage therapy.” Unfortunately, a far more distasteful style of propaganda prose has reared its ugly head once more. It’s the kind of thing we saw back in the early 1990s and it was known as “embracing the positivity of the sun.” According to such boosterism, no matter how beaten down you were by hard work, you were always supposed to hold on tight to “the beam of sunlight” in your core being. The propagandists are like the eunuch scribes of dynastic China who, even before the emperor had an orgasm, were groaning in anticipation.

Since the zero-COVID restrictions were lifted [in late 2022], things haven’t really improved that much. The grim reality of our everyday lives has been laid bare and COVID can no longer be used as an excuse to cover it up. People see no reason to be hopeful. What’s even worse is that they have given up on the idea of hope itself. Confronted by all of the lies, they cooperate, collaborate, and even participate in planning for the next stage of [our national] wreckage. Even though everyone has a countdown clock ticking away in their heads, the only part that can be said out loud is summed up in that trite slogan “May the Fatherland Prosper, the Nation be Peaceful, and the People Content.” On the surface, friend groups are all harmonious and ideal. Whether it be in the corridors of power, in the theaters, or in the bars, it’s impossible to gauge just who is fooling whom.

But there I go giving in to my own “meta narrative.” Forgive me.

When it comes down to it, 2023 was also a year made for the dead.

Suddenly,Jiang Yanyong [the physician who exposed the official coverup of the 2003 SARS crisis] passed away. It never occurred to me that he might leave us; he was a permanent fixture at the 301 Hospital. He might not have been able to shine in his own right, but after a major snowfall, that lump you saw in the bland landscape reminded you that he was still there. At the end of 2020, before the pandemic was over, a nephew of his told me over a meal in Hangzhou that: “My uncle is doing okay. . .” After that big snow, people raised a glass to West Lake and also expressed their respects for that honorable man, a solitary hero like Wu Liuqi [of the Qing dynasty who is celebrated in literature].

It’s been so long now that not many people know about Jiang Yanyong anymore. They don’t know that 20 years ago he withstood tremendous official pressure and revealed the truth about SARS to the international media. His actions taken in the face of all of the official lies helped prevent that epidemic from spreading out of control. It also resulted in his spending his remaining years condemned to a form of “locked-in syndrome.”

Then, just as suddenly, Gao Yaojie [a gynecologist and AIDS activist who had called out provincial Party authorities for repressing information about the spread of AIDS through tainted blood supplies] also left us. For all intents and purposes, she’d been forced into exile and people were grieved to learn that she’d died in a dingy apartment in the suburbs of New York. They didn’t need to feel sorry about her denouement since, back in the day, Gao had suffered far worse in China. After all, back in the day the authorities had made her live in a mortuary for eight months. Then, her 13-year-old son had also been implicated [in her early work] and although he was too young to be put on trial, the authorities, ever mindful of legal niceties, devised an ingenious workaround: they added three years to his statutory age. As a 16-year-old, he was deemed to be legally culpable for his actions and so they meted out the punishment that he so richly deserved.

There’s often a dark elegance in the way they resolve things.

There were similar examples of such dark elegance in 2023, particularly in the way that the authorities dealt with other deaths and legal cases. Their mopping-up operations were finely wrought, akin to the craftsmanship of a traditional artisan, or the mastery of a chocolatier. To avoid the taboo of talking directly about the dead, let me just say that their machinations were as seamless as something produced by a cyborg.

Officially, no one paid any attention to Jiang Yanyong, a man of monumental stature, nor did they care about Gao Yaojie, even though she shone like a star. Instead, with their heads bowed, people continued to scrounge in the muck. Looking up at those exemplars might have proved to be far too costly.

So those deaths passed by in silence, and in China silent deaths don’t really count at all. Other deaths didn’t register either. There was Zhu Ling, the student at Tsinghua University, who didn’t really die from thallium poisoning, nor was that high-school student Hu Xinyu strangled with a shoelace. Nor, for that matter, was that other student at Shangqiu in Ningling county—they didn’t have their hands and feet broken, nor was their body punctured by numerous holes before they “fell” from a rooftop. As for the 11 members of the volleyball team buried alive when that gymnasium in that northeastern city collapsed on them, well, they didn’t count either. . .

I’ve always gotten Qiqihar and Jiamusi [two cities in Heilongjiang province] mixed up, and now I’m even more confused. Speaking of which, I’m also damned befuddled by the details of all of those “dead ants,” A-B-C-D, one-two-three-four—the list goes on. This year, the statistics included people at the pinnacle of the system [a reference to the death of former premier Li Keqiang] as well as those mired in the dust below. . . Then again, there’s really no need to work out who’s who. We’re all just digits, the carbohydrate underbelly of their digital currency.

By 2023, it really didn’t seem as though things could get any more absurd. But then, gradually, I got the feeling I was actually living in an AI-generated virtual world. Take this, for example: In May, a student in Wuhan was run over and killed by a teacher. When the grief-stricken mother went to the school demanding to know what had happened, the overwhelming tenor of online comments focused on the bereft woman’s appearance: she was criticized for wearing a Burberry heritage trench coat which “cost over 10,000 yuan,” for one thing, and people wrote things like “You’ve really gotta wonder how she makes her money, and how come she’s caked her face in so much makeup?” Then there was this line of attack: “She’s probably trying to extort money [out of the school].” Overwhelmed by the online abuse, the grieving mother killed herself by jumping off a building.

Human nature, human beings. . . Daresay every vile individual in Sodom also found a way to justify their appalling behavior. And appalling behavior is so commonplace these days that, ultimately, there’s simply no room for basic decency, no standard by which to judge moral behavior. The last shreds of humanity have been stripped away by the phony high dudgeon [of the official media]. That’s why so many people fled our Sodom during 2023. They “rùn” overseas without looking back, afraid that if they do [like the wife of Lot] they might turn into a pillar of salt.4

I’ll never forget that old aunty who chose to “walk the line,” and that determined expression on her face as she cast her luggage into the river before jumping in herself. She swam so desperately that it looked as though something or someone was chasing her. I couldn’t tell if the river was in Ecuador or Chile.5 Either way, I guess there weren’t any crocodiles in it, though I do know why she was so desperate to escape: She was fleeing her old life in China.

When she finally made it to the other shore, lots of people who saw the video on their phones let out a roar of celebration. She was no longer a desperate refugee, and that’s because she’d realized a dream that so many people secretly harbor, one that in the context of the Official Big China Story is a totemic representation of our piddling existence. There was an epic quality about it.

2023 really was a year marked by death in other ways. Apart from the ant-like commoners that I touched on in the above, there were also people like that premier [Li Keqiang] who’d famously said that the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers would never flow backward [that is, China’s economic reforms were unstoppable]. It’s hard to know just how the waters are flowing these days, though one thing is certain: that premier has been swept away.

His death made me think of some of China’s other famous historian premiers like Li Si [a brilliant courtier who served the First Emperor and was executed by his successor], Wang Anshi [the failed reformer of the Song dynasty], as well as Yu Qian and Zhang Juzheng [both of the Ming dynasty]. In my mind’s eye, it was as though I could see Zhang Juzheng [the famous reformist of the Wanli reign of the late-Ming] in a palanquin born aloft by 32 bearers [for which he was accused of hypocrisy, since he had imposed harsh austerity measures on the court] and I wondered if he ever wondered how things might turn out for him. [After his death, Zhang’s reforms were undone and his family fortune was confiscated.] The Empire remains unchanged, and today the rules of the game are just as they were. What’s different is that it’s all being done in the name of a different cause.

During the year, any perceived atmospheric change [in the nation’s political life] inspired revolutionary dreamers to imagine that perhaps this or that incident might have some significant impact on the future. All I have to say to those fantasists is no way and not a chance. The [party-state’s] fundamentals are solid and people are keeping their heads down and going about their business without concerning themselves with when the next deluge may hit.

To die in silence and unknown barely even counts as a death these days. But there’s another kind of death; it’s called “living death.”

I’m thinking of that video that circulated online that showed a group of ride-hailing drivers in Shanghai who, exhausted after having worked 16 hours straight, came up with a novel solution. They realized that going home after the last fare would not only be a waste of gas, it also ate into the limited time they had to sleep. If, say, their last fare was in Hongqiao, in the far west of the city, and they lived in Pudong, over in the east, the driver calculated that just to make it back home was the equivalent of two full fares. So, this one driver prepared his overnight gear—quilt, water kettle, and so on—and when he clocked out he found a parking lot so he could sleep in his car. . . Some drivers worked out that they were better off doing food delivery since it allowed them more free time. When you hit your middle years, to have more time to do what you want really matters. The focus on freedom was really unsettling. There’s been a 120 percent increase in the number of ride-hailing drivers. Before, they mostly had factory jobs and a middle-class income of a few hundred thousand; now, they’re little more than modern-day Rickshaw Boys. In reality, they’d always been like coolies, the only difference is that instead of running a computer with a keyboard, they find themselves behind a steering wheel.

Elon Musk claims that with advances in AI, human evolution will soon result in silicon-based life forms. In my opinion, that’s a fairly simplistic view. Here in China we have Marx, so we don’t need Musk; we’re already a highly evolved carbon-based AI life form—China has 1.4 billion obedient robots that follow orders, work 24/7, and dutifully pay their taxes. Because we take care of ourselves and don’t require maintenance, we are superior in every way to Musk’s silicon robots. We are also self-replicating and autonomously bring up the future generations that will replace us.

I have some good news, too. After his gym business went under, Hank, a buddy from my home town in Chengdu, lived off his wife for a while. He was a talented physicist and, back in the day, he’d even come second place in a bodybuilding competition at college. Now, overnight, he was unemployed. I told him not to take it to heart because he could always teach physics and tell his wife what E=mc2 really meant, that is to say: no matter how hard you try to outstrip the speed of light matter remains a constant, and no matter how hard the average shit-kicker works they can’t outstrip their lowly social status.

My knowledge of economics doesn’t extend beyond memorizing my bank card number and even then I can’t always remember it. In 2023, you could ask [the reformist economist] Wu Jinglian what he thought about China’s macro economic environment. There was also Zhang Weiying and Xu Xiaonian [both of whom were liberal economists with a public profile]. Or you could check out the statistics produced by Lao Man.He Jiangbing wasn’t too bad, either.

In retrospect, 2023 really was a year of trivial odds and ends, the devilish details in the Big Story that is China:

Three years ago, I repeatedly urged my buddy Haotao to sell off the property he has in Tongzhou [east of Beijing], but he wanted to hang on until he was sure he could make an extra 500,000 yuan profit. In 2023, even though he’d dropped his asking price by a million yuan, no one was interested. When he came running to me full of complaints, all I could say was that he’d been an “utter shit-head.” That hurt. “Hey, Peng,” he said, “when did you literary types start bad-mouthing people like me?” Weird, since although I’d been right all along he somehow thought that the onus was on me to “act in a civilized and uplifting manner” just like the propagandists tell us. But I’ll leave that kind of good behavior to the people in commercial real estate. Anyway, I’ve decided that from now on I’m not going to tell it like it is. Instead, I’ll applaud and support friends like Haotao at every turn and reassure them that every decision they make is correct.

Another friend, Tuode, is from Shenyang. He said his barber told him that people used to get their haircut around 10 times a year but now they’re letting go and getting it cut six or maybe seven times a year tops. Dye jobs and perms are even less popular. Having your hair cut is a necessity. Hair is just likegarlic chives, it grows back after each harvest. . . If people really want to cut back on expenses, there are lots of things they can do. After all, if you let your hair grow out for say three to five years, you’ll have it long enough to braid into a queue, just like in the Qing dynasty [when men were required to grow queues as a sign of submission to the emperor].

One online post says that fortune tellers suffered a major loss in income during 2023. People just weren’t interested in having someone foretell their fate because they’d decided simply to give in to fate. Having said that, fortune-telling has been enjoying a wave of popularity among younger people. Apart from a new fad for reading Tarot cards, the thing youngsters do is “seek the advice of one’s Spirit Guide.” According to this belief, we all have a Spirit Guide who follows us through life. When you can’t find a job or earn a living it’s because you’ve lost your Spirit Guide, but if you seek out an adept, they can help invite them back into your life—whether it be the Huang Daxian, the Green or White Dragon Sages, or a Great Fox Spirit. Business is booming among spiritualists and you have to make a booking even to get a reading. It’s about as popular as going to the hospital to deal with minor ailments.

It would appear that when you’ve lost faith in the state, you seek solace in the realm of spirits. That’s how the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice school of Taoism appeared in the first place [during the Three Kingdoms period of the 2nd century CE].

Of course, the state still has some big tricks up its own sleeve. When the Hebei district government in Tianjin ran out of money to pay its civil servants, it approached the Chan Temple of Great Compassion for a large loan. Although it kept the city going until July, they had to go back for more. This time the abbot complained: “Over the centuries, I’ve never heard of the government begging for alms from a temple.” That abbot had better watch his tongue, if you ask me. I’m pretty sure that it’s only a matter of time before the state decides to re-nationalize the finances of all the temples. When Wutai Shan [a sacred Buddhist site that includes one of the most holy Buddhist temple complexes in China and is also a major tourist attraction] is forced to hand over their offering box, the national budget will probably get a 440 percent shot in the arm.

Ultimately, it’s all in the planning: We live in a society where life is planned, as is death; we have a planned economy and planned beliefs. If you really want me to say what I think about the prospects for the year 2024, I’d venture the following:

In the old days, when they made a statue of the Buddha, they placed various propitious objects inside it, like the five grains or silver and gold ingots. In the future, I think they’ll put a Party membership card in the Buddha’s belly, so that devotees can both avoid making political errors and be confident that the Enlightened One will lead them on the correct path to salvation.

Anyway, I don’t see that there was all that much difference between 1949 and 1979, nor for that matter can I detect how 1962 and 2022 were different.

I’ve written all of this because friends urged me to offer some reflections on the year gone by and jot down a few thoughts for the upcoming year. But I didn’t want to waste my time looking up data points. Anyway, I don’t see that there was all that much difference between 1949 and 1979, nor for that matter can I detect how 1962 and 2022 were different.

My advice as this new year begins is, don’t just stand out on your balcony chanting “Embrace the New Year, a New Year and New Beginning.” And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because it’s a new year you’ll be paying off your mortgage any time soon, or you’ll be elevated to some new social status. You’re not passing the new year as much as the new year is already passing you by. It’s speeding along as if it were a runner in a relay race and, as the baton is passed on, you’re going to find yourself struggling between the pumping legs of the racers. What you have to do is “remember your mission and hold true to your original intentions” [the Party’s slogan for a national education campaign in 2019]—regardless of the year, people like you and me are just like a bunch of garlic chives; we are all “huminerals”! And, I know that no matter what university my kids end up studying at, in the end it is just another “mining college” [for the training of exploitable “huminerals”].6

My buddy Brother Hai has this architectural firm that employed a particularly energetic and ambitious young architect. A few years after graduating, he went on to establish his own business, which got to work on quite a few big projects with the support of the Evergrande property developers. It was all going gangbusters until Evergrande imploded, leaving them with a pile of debts. Now, this young fellow’s company was little more than a holding operation. To keep the show on the road he took out some high-interest loans, but before long he found himself in a vicious cycle of debt that landed him on the list of untrustworthy investments. Now he’s working in security down in Shenzhen.

Speaking of Evergrande, people seem to be obsessed with stories about Bai Shanshan, the lissome impresario in charge of Evergrande’s controversial performing arts troupe. She’s a celebrated beauty who is also noted for her acrobatic talent.7 You could say that she is a femme fatale in the mode of other traditional beauties. Remember, after all, the Ming dynasty was brought low by the concubine Chen Yuanyuan, and that beautiful women always seem to be involved in the end of empires.8 Nowadays, no one dares take on the state banks that gave Hui Ka Yan, the director of Evergrande, to task. Instead, they focus their smutty gossip on a woman who can do the splits. It’s really pathetic.

So many people crowded into commercial plazas in Shenzhen to watch the New Year’s shows on the massive LED screens that a few operators shut it all down [because they feared large gatherings might spark a mass disturbance]. Everyone was left to celebrate in the dark, and still no one wanted to go home. They chanted the countdown to midnight while making their New Year’s resolutions. Maybe they believed that under the cloak of darkness they had a better chance of attracting good fortune. Some people in the crowds prayed that real estate prices would rebound to pre-COVID levels; others prayed equally fervently for them to drop even further. Despite everyone’s wildly different hopes, they all gathered in front of the massive blank LED screens, all living in the same world but with vastly disparate dreams. I wonder if the failed young architect who now works in security in Shenzhen was in the crowd.

The year 2023 started out with a Grand Narrative [about economic recovery], but it ended up mired in trivial details—and the devil is in just such details. They say that back when the feel-good film “Amazing China” was all the rage [in 2018 when people felt that China had finally “made it” as a preeminent economic power], in aggregate the tech companies Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Meituan had a market valuation in excess of Apple’s 50 billion USD. Today, however, if you combine the total value of the top 100 or so Chinese tech companies, you’ll realize that the figure doesn’t even match Apple. That’s the kind of devilish detail that I’m talking about.

Well may people ask: So what’s gone on over these last few years that’s landed us all here?

Forgive me if I quote that clichéd line from [the tragic character] Cheng Dieyi in the 1993 film Farewell My Concubine: “You just think that those vile types have brought disaster raining down on us? That’s not it, no. No way! We’ve done it to ourselves, bit by bit, step by step.”

It’s stagnation, or worse, rigor mortis. People are no longer confident that things can be resuscitated. Even worse, they don’t particularly care if it really is “game over.” It’s like when a skydiver jumps out of a plane only to discover that instead of carrying a parachute on their back, all they’ve got is a school satchel. That’s the way it is. So don’t go imagining that there’s going to be some “historical inflection point.” The inflection point came back in 1949, that’s when they wrote the final script for this particular production.

I just watched the New Year message [by Xi Jinping in which he admitted, among other things, that “Along the way, we are bound to encounter headwinds”]. When I did an online search, I found that this key message was a reworking of a famous line by Mo Yan, the Nobel Laureate:

“In life, storms are the normal state of affairs. A positive mental attitude will allow you to weather them with equanimity. The way you should approach things is to advance regardless of the conditions.”

I accept that winds and rain are the norm, but my advice and my wish is that things might be better if they don’t actually go around seeding the clouds.

Maybe we can gauge the direction the winds are blowing in China from those young people in Hunan [in Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong]. On the night of Christmas Day [the eve of Mao’s birthday on 26 December] they marched with banners held high, chanting slogans like “Down with the Capitalists!” and “We Want to Return to the Mao Era!” I’d advise you to face the fact that they are by no means a small minority. They are giving voice to the sentiments of a large swathe of enthusiastic young people in China today. Back in the day, their parents celebrated the new year by marching around with red flags. And I get the feeling that these young people today want to fulfill the unfinished mission of their parent’s generation.

So, when it all comes down to it, China has no real “new year.” Every new year now passes by just like all the old years that have come before. As such, there’s never been any real “renewal of life,” and that’s why what I have written here is not really a summation of the year 2023, nor a prospectus for the year 2024. Moreover, I believe that from here on in, many new years in China’s future will be pretty much a repetition of the same old year. That’s why I’ve titled this essay “202X,” meaning “the year 202-whatever.”

In a New Year’s essay that [the celebrated novelist and essayist] Wang Xiaobo wrote in 1997, he said: “I hope in the new year all manner of odd things will pass us by and that everyone will be able to realize the full extent of their humanity.” Wang surprised everyone with this statement, but he wrote it because he was himself a fully realized human being. We, however, long ago became an integral part of all of the oddities of our age, and the most we can hope for is to be a little kinder to our families, even if only a little bit. The previous generation, our present generation, and the next generation might all have been born into the Grand Narrative, but ultimately we’ll end up mired in the myriad devilish details behind the Big Story.

Or, maybe we’ll all be like that old auntie in the all-weather jacket who cast her luggage into the river before diving in to swim “over the line,” desperate for another life. Her situation was completely different from that of the guy who was swept away by the flood waters of Zhuozhou, along with all of the tables and chairs of that restaurant. Poor bastard, he didn’t even count as a statistic.

—Li Chengpeng, January 2, 202X

  1. An old adage says that “If the coming year is the Water Rabbit, you won’t see the sky from spring to autumn” 明年迎水兔,春秋不见天.
  2. Xiong’an was created in 2017 as a “city of the future.” It is a hi-tech government town southwest of Beijing. Built on reclaimed marshlands, the area is prone to flooding. In the summer of 2023, a coordinated government effort to protect the Area only exacerbated the disastrous flooding in rural Hebei province. “Ants” (蝼蚁, lóu yǐ) is a widely used unofficial term for workers and average people.
  3. Founded in the 1980s, Southern Weekly was once the most liberal newspaper in China and its annual New Year’s Message was regarded as being something of a political bellwether. It was also one of the first victims of the Xi Jinping era. In 2013, the paper’s Message addressed Xi Jinping’s keynote theme of “The China Dream” by controversially declaring that the nation was actually dreaming of constitutional rule, first promoted by the Republic of China in 1912 and realized in Taiwan starting in 1996. Reflecting the aspirations of liberal activists and professionals, this was a direct challenge to the Communist Party and Xi Jinping. At the last minute, the paper’s New Year’s Message was replaced by a bland editorial composed by the local propaganda authorities. This in turn led to many of the journalists going on strike. After the controversy died down, most members of the rebellious editorial staff of the newspaper were fired.
  4. The term “rùn” (润) is a homophone for “run,” or to flee, a common term used to describe people who feel that they have no prospects in China and have relocated overseas.
  5. Many immigrants to the U.S. pass through the Darién Gap in Panama. In Chinese, the journey is known as “zǒu xiàn” (走线), or “walking the line.” Most of these illegal immigrants come from a lower middle-class background.
  6. Garlic chives” (韭菜, jiǔcài) is a vegetable that continues growing after each harvest. It is a popular term used to describe the boundlessly renewable resource of young men and women of working age. In 2022, another old sardonic term for “The People” enjoyed renewed currency. Rén kuàng (人矿), literally “human mine”—also Huminerals, Renmine, Humine, and Humore—first coined in the early 1980s, was widely used to describe the expendable nature of working people.
  7. The troupe is controversial, as is Bai Shanshan, because its creation was unrelated to the core real estate business of Evergrande and it was seen as an “influence operation” used by the company to curry favor with local Party bureaucrats.
  8. Chen Yuanyuan was the concubine of the late-Ming-dynasty general Wu Sangui, who was in charge of the defenses at the Great Wall. Wu’s obsession with Chen led him to allow the invading Manchu troops through the Great Wall after which they occupied the Ming capital, Beijing.