China’s single laddies: bare branches, losers and Buddha men
But what about men?
Thanks to the lingering effects of the one-child policy and a cultural preference for sons, China is experiencing a bachelor explosion, with some 30 million surplus men, called guanggun or “bare branches.” Yet there’s very little media outcry over this issue. There’s also no official state policy on the matter.
Why not? It’s usually single men who cause problems, not women. Elsewhere in the world, there’s plenty of evidence showing how young men are more prone to violence, social instability, radicalization.
Theories that the country’s male hordes could cause global instability, maybe even war, are still in the realm of possibility, not actuality.
Enter some new theories. What if some of China’s men will turn not into violent, sex-hungry mobs, but instead become passive, almost asexual geeks, like next-door Japan’s “herbivore men”? What if they are coping with the female shortage by withdrawing, sublimating their desires in virtual reality?
Sociologist Siyang Cao, who has researched the diaosi phenomenon, describes them as primarily low-income workers, “masseurs, waiters, assistants in hair salons,” who “know how difficult it is to be a traditional Chinese man, the man of the household, the breadwinner.”
China’s one-child generation came of age in the time of social media and online gaming. “It makes them different from the older generation, who are more actively seeking to fulfill their desires in real life,” says Hao Wu, who made “People’s Republic of Desire,” an award-winning documentary on China’s addiction to live streaming.
In his film, performers of mediocre talent get rich broadcasting themselves performing mundane tasks, such as singing karaoke. It’s cheap entertainment targeting lonely young men who need only “spend a little money to get the women you worship to pay a little attention to you, in a way they would never do in real life,” says Wu.
In 2014, I met a young man called Tian Qingeng while researching my book on the one-child policy. Tian and his parents had spent more than they could afford to buy an apartment. As a factory worker without a college education, he felt he needed this extra boost to attract a wife.
But the pressure to service the mortgage, find a bride and deal with his mother’s nagging made him retreat to his room and play computer games. He couldn’t deal. He calls himself a zhai nan – literally, “house male,” or geek.
Zhai nan, diaosi, Buddhist youth, bare branches--these self-labels are all coping mechanisms that help China’s men deal with crushing pressures. “It admits, ‘Yes, we are losers, but we are happy the way we are,” says sociologist Siyang Cao.
But beneath the playful parody lies pain. Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of “The Demise of Guys,” cautions this coping method is negative, a kind of learned helplessness. “It doesn’t make life better for you. It just makes it bearable.”
Sadly, it may be the only feasible solution. Unless China’s single men cause major disruption, they will likely be left to languish with little help.
China’s lonely men, writes Harvard professor Susan Greenhalgh, are “one of the barely mentionable social costs of the one-child policy.” These bare branches aren’t growing leaves any time soon.