Can the Chinese Still Eat Bitterness? Hardship and Personal Crisis in Modern China

Can the Chinese Still Eat Bitterness? Hardship and Personal Crisis in Modern China
May 21, 2012 By Micah Steffes ,

My mother and my alma mater taught me that travelling is like reading—it's one of the best ways to "expand your horizons" and to learn about the "wider world." With this in mind, I came to China intending to learn about Chinese culture, to ask my own questions and to discover new values and new ways of doing things.

Because I had an impression of Chinese people as generally able to endure burdens and crises of all kinds, I found myself asking the question that inspired this piece: "How do Chinese people respond to personal crisis and what can I learn from them in that regard?" But I found myself coming upon the same theme, one that I had previously associated only with hard labour—eating bitterness (吃苦). This, I discovered, was the theme I'd have to explore to get my answer. Luckily I don't live in Shanghai.

I live in Chongqing, land of the Bangbangs, migrants named after the bamboo poles they use to carry heavy loads on their shoulders.

Mr. Zhou eats bitterness

"Where are you going?" a bangbang shouts after us in Chinese.

"Sanxia Guangchang."

We are making our way under the highway bridge toward the district shopping centre. Trotting up alongside us, the bangbang says that's where he's going as well. Refreshingly (if not surprisingly) omitting to ask us which country we were from or to remark upon the fact that we speak Chinese, he explains to my boyfriend that he likes to make friends and distributes his business card. I flip his card over a few times. One side has a few pictures of himself and the other a description of his services. I eye his bangbang stick.

"How much does one of those cost?" I ask, suspiciously. I've never met a bangbang with a business card.

Mr. Zhou pats his stick proudly and explains that he bought his bamboo stick for 10 RMB and a rope for a few more kuai in 2010. He wears fatigues, which fit him poorly and make him look shorter than he already is. I decide I believe him.

Like most bangbangs, Zhou spends his days in the city playing cards, joking, smoking, hustling, and on a good day hauling equipment, breaking down buildings, bringing produce to and from stores, helping people move and doing other kinds of hard manual labour. He is special in that he has also appeared as "Bangbang actor" in a few local television productions. He tells me that in his best month, he pulled in an astounding 8000 RMB. Additionally, by working and hustling really hard last year he averaged 3000 RMB monthly, some months being better than others. So far, he doesn't expect 2012 to be quite so successful since he's been ill since January. He rubs his stomach with a put-on frown and laments that he hasn't been able to perform more difficult, high-paying jobs. As he mourns his luck, I note that, like his non-movie-star peers, his face is lightly etched with 44 years of hardship. But he's quick to smile as he explains almost proudly, "Bangbangs have to be able to eat bitterness."

Dignity and pride when the going gets tough

Strolling along with Zhou reminds me of something important: among all of the Chinese folk I've met, it is the working class that smiles, laughs, jokes and teases more readily than any group I've encountered yet. Although they'd be the first to tell you about eating bitterness, bangbangs and the working poor are not downtrodden workhorses.

Seeing the country side, chats with migrants and working people, hearing about difficulties in times past, hopes for the future – all of these I thought would help me understand more profoundly something I thought that I, albeit superficially, already understood – why the Chinese endure where others would falter (or turn to a psychiatrist). And for the most part, it has.

One illumination: eating bitterness is undertaken not with a fatalistic resignation to a horrible life but with active striving to make life better. Eating bitterness is pride – the honour of being esteemed by self and others not by the nature of your work but by your own nature of being hard-working in spite of the work. And it goes beyond work. Eating bitterness is an attitude. It's not the stuff of a pitiful cheerfulness, but the stuff of strength through acceptance. It is a kind of dignity, a way to be proud and respectable and strong in the eyes of yourself and your peers, even in hardship, crisis and suffering. But its true strength is its class-blindness. 

Well, almost.

Can Chinese still eat bitterness?

Zhou reassures me when I express my doubts as to the ability of foreigners to eat bitterness as well as Chinese do. "It has nothing to do with China," he asserts.

I think he's right. Eating bitterness is just the Chinese term for a psychological tool that the Chinese have taken collective advantage of in their long years of labour, hardship, national and personal crises. The only truly cultural element of eating bitterness is how widespread its value has been in Chinese society. At its core, however, "eating bitterness" is made of the same stuff as "bucking up," "grinning and bearing it," having "grit," and even "keeping your chin up." The ability to do so is psychological, not cultural.  

Employers and the elderly often complain that young, urban Chinese "don't know how to eat bitterness." They seem right enough. Recent articles indicate that young working people are refusing to put up with less than desirable circumstances as they seek to etch out a new vision of a respectable existence. Phenomena like "naked quitting" (quitting before you have a new job to take the place of your hated old one) is a new trump. Having an iPad but no job increasingly confers more respect than endurance in the face of hardship.

Young people along with the emerging urban middle and upper classes no longer seem to regard the ability to eat bitterness with respect. And they themselves don't want to eat bitterness, able or not. But is that a bad thing?

The vacuum of values

A friend once remarked sadly that she wants the day when the bangbangs disappear to come quickly. In Chongqing, the growing middle class points to the bangbang as a feature of local culture in the same breath that they praise their famously spicy hotpot. But the disappearance of the bangbang is considered a welcome long-term inevitability. "Why?" I challenged friends. But they answer tenuously, if not evasively.

My answer? The bangbang represents the hardships that city people perceive themselves to be moving away from, and the fact that he still exists is testament to how far they have yet to go.

In this respect, among the rural and working poor the transition from communism to capitalism doesn't seem quite so monumental. People work hard, tough stuff happens but for the most part, life goes on like it always has (only with a bit more fortune and less famine).

It's among the young and the urban that the fall out of change in the years since the reform and opening has had its greatest side effects. In young China especially we see how this change has generated a morality vacuum, the damages of which many Chinese themselves are quick to point out. But the morality vacuum is only the offshoot of the black hole that I call the values vacuum. That is, the values of Confucius and Mao are no longer appropriate in the context of global capitalism—a system which, with respect to both the poor and the past, the urban young are in greatest contact with.

The collapse of values has a direct effect on the ability to eat bitterness. The catch is: the young and the urban embrace change without actively fighting to retain or reframe old values. As a result, they have culturally neutered eating bitterness. And in doing so, they only make themselves psychologically vulnerable.

In this respect, young and urban Chinese increasingly resemble their American and European counterparts. In giving up the value of eating bitterness without replacing it with new and helpful values, what tools do young people and urban people have to combat the perils of personal crisis?

Family? Faith? Pharmaceuticals?


Passers-by nervously laugh at and remark upon Zhou as they realise he is engaging some foreigners in conversation. This continues as he kneels with my boyfriend's copy of the Old Man and the Sea balanced on his knee, carefully writing some information upon the back sleeve regarding his next television appearance. I ask him what the attitude of city folk is toward people like him and he smiles wryly at me as he finishes and stands up, handing the book back to us.

"They want to eradicate us," he whispers conspiratorially.

A final note

I've discovered that learning about culture is less akin to reading a thought-provoking book and more like seeing a film with an ambiguous ending, the kind that, upon leaving the movie theatre, you're not quite sure that you "got" or even liked. But you keep thinking about it, because you keep telling yourself that there must be some important insight that you're supposed to piece together, some value or moral to be discovered. So what does contemporary China have to teach me?

I'll have to keep reckoning with that.

Related links
Man in the Mirror: What "White Collar" Means in China
Rich Man, Poor Man: China's Widening Wealth Gap
A Need for Change? China's Aging Population and the One Child Policy

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Keywords: eating bitterness china dealing with hardship China social divide China young Chinese generation bangbang China


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Great article.

May 24, 2012 00:10 Report Abuse



Very thoughtful and empathetic piece. Like most of the author's articles, it announces a depth of understanding that only a real willingness to understand a rapidly changing city such as Chongqing can express so fluently.

Some of the themes here are universal, like she says, in the working classes being more willing to laugh, share and shrug off adversity. It's the same in my own country: those closer to the bottom of the economic scale are typically much more likely to go out of their way for others and chuckle more freely at life's problems.

The note of the eradication of the bangbangs is also interesting. If, as it is suggested, they represent an older world of disadvantage it is only natural to wish to see an end to the need for such a system. Optimistially, one could say that this is due to a collective desire to see such people attain higher living standards. Conversely, maybe they simply make those you have 'achieved' uncomfortable; they represent a falling back whose very existence reminds people of the precarious nature of their own success.

Lots here to ruminate on...

May 23, 2012 21:18 Report Abuse