China's underdog youth find success in 'diaosi' - or 'loser' - identity

The phrase meaning 'loser' is used by young Chinese to poke fun at their own low status. Many, particularly those who have found fame and fortune, wear it as a badge of honour

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 May, 2013, 3:14pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 May, 2013, 5:01pm

When a large Diaosi billboard appeared in New York's Times Square last month advertising the new online game, onlookers who know the meaning of the Chinese words were suprised.

Diaosi, which has a crude translation, was originally used to curse someone as a loser. But the phrase has gone mainstream since 2011 and is widely used by young Chinese as a trendy way to describe and poke fun at their own low status.

An estimated 526 million identify with the term, or 40 per cent of the Chinese population, said a survey recently released by online game developer Giant Interactive Group and, an IT market analysis website.

The survey reflects the rise of a particular generation mostly born in the post-1980s and just starting their careers. They largely live on online, where they are able to unleash their frustrations and play out fantasy scenarios. In real life, their diaosi identity is worn as a badge of honour, especially for those who have made it big.

Linhai Tingtao, from fantasy to fame

“I’m one of the diaosi,” said Lin Hai. “We are common Chinese who are fighting for our dreams.”

Lin, 31, a popular online novelist, said their dreams were practical: buying a house and getting married. Even if prospects at attaining their goals are low, diaosi can always find a way - “even if it is in a virtual world”, he said.     

Lin is an example of a diaosi who has found success. Once an unknown designer in advertising, he is now a popular online sports fiction writer who has hundreds of thousands of fans. 

Using the pen name Linhai Tingtao, or "waves of the forest ocean", he signed with Qidianwenxue, China’s largest online novel platform with paid services, in 2004. He earned 1,500 yuan (HK$1,862) with his first online novel, Do You Care That I Play Soccer?, in the first month alone. Previously, his full-time job paid him only 700 yuan a month.

He threw out his plans to devote himself to advertising, which he studied at the University of Science and Technology Beijing.

“I quit my job. Why not give writing fiction online a try?" he said. "I also love soccer." 

Lin is one of hundreds in Qidianwenxue's army of writers. The website, whose name roughly translates as "literature's starting point", developed in late 2003 from an online society selling fantasy fiction that focused on myth and magic.

The site's popularity snowballed as new writers continued to be discovered and signed, and readers continued to return and pay for the content. The website made a breakthrough in late 2005: it paid its writers 15 million yuan in total. In 2006, Qidianwenxue was attracting 100 million page views a day. 

Lin's own rise followed Qidianwenxue's. He now earns 15 times more than when he started out. But he could be an exception. Not many novelists write about soccer.

"Once you can write about the topic, it could be a hit," he said. 

Lin's first novel received a record 740,000 web hits, gaining him the name “No 1 sports writer” on Qidianwenxue. His most popular work, We Are the Champions, attracted more than 9.6 million clicks by readers.

“The reason my works are popular is because my writing reflects the diaosi generation's dreams. They may be unrealised in real life, but they can come true in my novels. Diaosi can be rich, famous and even have many girlfriends,” he said. “It sounds shallow, but those are their dreams. Everyone needs hope to survive and bear the burden of life.”   

Lin’s portrayal of diaosi seems to ring true. According to the recent survey, these youths are eager to improve their lives financially and personally. On average, they earn 6,000 yuan a month; two-thirds of them are single; and more than 94 per cent spend long hours online, shopping for products and otherwise killing time so they are not so lonely.

Momo, drawn 'like a magnet' to hope

“I spent a few thousand yuan to read online novels by Lin Hai,” said Momo, a 27-year-old from Mianyang city in southwestern China’s Sichuan province.

A soccer fan, she once felt defeated in 2002 when China's national team failed miserably in its only appearance at the World Cup. “It is not just me. Many Chinese dream that China’s soccer can bloom,” she said.

“It is like being doused by cold water again and again when we see the Chinese team lose,” she said. “Reading Lin’s novels is different. You feel the blood running faster in your veins, you feel the power of being young and of finally winning a game and succeeding in life.”

Momo has followed Lin's writing since 2004. She met Lin once last year at a fan-club event in Chengdu. “Something in his novels draws me to them like a magnet. It’s the positive attitude to life, bringing hope so you can keep fighting in everyday life," she said.

Momo graduated as an architecture major and works as an administrator at a construction company. “Maybe one day I can become somebody, just like the characters in Lin’s novels,” she said.

Lin acknowledges that he manipulates reality. In his most popular novel, he changed the Chinese national team's destiny by letting them win the World Cup.

The Chinese soccer team's hardships are a lesson for us all, he said. “You expect so much in life, but you cannot buy a house nor afford a car. Still, you struggle to live better each day. In that sense, every single diaosi’s dream makes up the whole Chinese dream.”

Another online fiction writer, Geng Xin, disagreed however. Geng, 38, based in Zhengzhou city in central China's Henan province, said diaosi were more cynics than dreamers.

In Geng’s eyes, they talk more than they act. They don’t have bigger life goals. When they are not eating or working, they are online, reading fantasy fiction or playing video games.

Geng writes historical fantasies, which are always widely popular, such as the classics Legend of Deification and Journey to the West.

He compares diaosi with the Chinese Everyman, who can be found in literature, such as Wei Xiaobao in Jin Yong's The Deer and the Cauldron and Ah Q in Lu Xun's The True Story of Ah Q.

But Lin contends that Wei Xiaobao and Ah Q are typical diaosi. "Their spirit goes beyond being cynical. They were bitter because they were broke, but they had a thirst for life like common Chinese today,” he said.

Diaosi are more or less today's Everyman, Lin argued.

Echo Brother, the real deal

Online fiction is not the only way to feed diaosi’s dreams and desires. An audio service website called YY Yuyin, or YY Voice, has emerged as a favourite in the community. Started in 2005, it was designed for chatting and messaging related to the video game World of Warcraft. Its use soon spread mostly in secondary and smaller Chinese cities among music and entertainment enthusiats. 

On YY’s website, hundreds of amateur DJs host chat rooms where they play songs requested by YY members. Some play videos of themselves singing. The operation is similar to Qidianwenxue's website: members pay for a service that will connect them with their favourite DJs.

One of YY's biggest celebrities calls himself a diaosi. Selected as a star by members of the website, his stage name is Hui Yin, or Echo Brother, and no one knows his real name - or what he even looks like. The 26-year-old from Chengdu in southwest China wears a mask when he performs. Still, his fans are drawn to his voice.

“It is rich, deep and so sincere,” said a fan, Duan Leimin, 21.

Lu Wenhan, 20, agreed: “It is an unforgettable, rich voice.”

Both women spoke to the South China Morning Post at Echo Brother’s first commercial concert at Chaoyang No 9 theatre in Beijing on March 24. A few hundred young Chinese, mostly girls in their early 20s, had gathered in front of the theatre an hour before the show began. As an homage to their idol, some wore large black masks etched with his name in white Chinese characters.

Lu, a slim girl with long, black hair, was wearing light make-up and a pink outfit. She said she came a long way by train from Shandong province, east of Beijing. A freshman at university, she said she started to listen to Echo Brother's music not long ago. She fell in love with his voice almost immediately.

“He sounds so real, as if he is one of us,” she said. 

One event involving Echo Brother stands out in particular for Lu. It was a five-minute audio clip that spread widely online and made Echo Brother a hit. In it, he talks to one of his male fans, Picasso, in Putonghua with a Sichuan accent. He articulately and comedically rejected Picasso's advances. 

Nothing like it had ever appeared online before. Local accents are commonly made fun of in movies and on television. The humour and Sichuan accent endeared Echo Brother to many. 

"We like that he is different from other superstars who are more commercial," Lu said.

Concert organiser and music label Blay Music agreed that Echo Brother was not a typical musician. “His talent is that he is so real. Diaosi is also about being real,” said manager Peng Huan.

On the day of the concert, Lu and Duan had a long wait before Echo Brother appeared onstage. Eventually he came out in a black mask, a black tuxedo and a black hat. His fans screamed and waved flashlights. “I love you,” someone shouted.

Pink and white neon lights shined behind him like shooting stars. His voice was the same deep tone, but this time, he acted like a real star. “He touches my heart, and he feels so close to me,” said Duan.

Duan is studying accounting. She just moved from central China to look for job opportunities in Beijing.

“Who says your dreams won’t come true in a big city?” she said. “Look at Echo Brother!”