Last March, shortly after Shanghai was locked down in an effort to stop an Omicron outbreak, a family friend died in a hospital. It wasn’t the virus that killed him. It was the lockdown. He had been admitted because of a chronic disease unrelated to Covid, but the hospital was thrown into chaos when the city was closed and several nurses tested positive for the virus. One night, the man, the husband of my mother’s best friend, developed a fever. The staff members apparently noticed too late, and within days, he was dead. His wife, locked down at home, never got to say goodbye.
To console her friend, my mother invoked Chinese society’s fetish for pain: We are taught that pain and suffering are inevitable and that we must stoically endure them rather than identify the source of the pain and eliminate it. “Stay positive and move on,” my mother told her. “Your husband wouldn’t want to see you crying every day.”
I seethed at this. Although raised in China, I have lived in the United States for several years. My Americanized side felt that this woman shouldn’t just let it go, that someone must be held to account.
It was thoughts like these — impatience with the self-defeating acceptance of the pain that life doles out — that helped spark remarkable demonstrations last month against the Chinese government’s now-abandoned “zero Covid” policy. Those brave citizens who took to the streets were rejecting not only the smothering pandemic restrictions they had endured but also our ingrained idolization of pain and sacrifice.
As I was growing up in Shanghai, my mother didn’t allow ibuprofen in our home; it would make me less tolerant of pain and thus weaker. When we suffered menstrual pain in school, my female friends and I never visited the infirmary. If we did, the doctor, a woman my mother’s age, would scold us for our lack of fortitude.
America, where I came in 2016 to study, couldn’t be more different. I routinely leave medical appointments in the United States with pain medication. But a lifetime of Chinese cultural indoctrination is hard to shake. I have severe pain from sciatica, but reflexively tell myself to stay strong and hold on until my next doctor’s appointment, to just live with it.
Chinese history helped shape this mentality. My grandparents’ generation endured great hardship — the bloody Japanese occupation of the 1930s and ’40s and the Chinese civil war that ended with Communist victory in 1949. Turmoil and famine under Mao Zedong followed. His Cultural Revolution threw schools into disarray or shut them entirely, disrupting my parents’ education. Millions of other young people were sent from cities to poor rural areas, where they remained for years, overworked and often malnourished. The government never took adequate responsibility.
My parents learned to simply embrace the pain and disappointment as a part of life and plod on. They accepted the reproductive tyranny of the one-child policy. Undereducated, they had few options apart from factory work but lost even those jobs in the 2000s after economic reforms caused state-owned factories to shed workers by the millions. They struggled to get by and to put me through school, but they were expected to endure it with noble grace.
In my parents’ eyes, my generation has had it relatively easy. No forced labor or hunger for us. Our pain was seen as more bearable compared with theirs, so we were pushed to embrace it even more. But it was pain nonetheless. As students, we spent almost every waking hour on our daily schoolwork or additional study for the all-important college entrance exams that dictate one’s educational path and, essentially, your destiny in life. My parents would egg me on with a Chinese idiom perhaps best translated as “no pain, no gain.”
Even those who get into a top university and land a coveted job in China’s tech sector often fall into the 996 rut — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week of high-pressure work — that has been blamed for deaths from excessive overtime and even suicide. Falter and there are millions ready to take your place. Uneducated migrant workers fare far worse, toiling away in factories for long hours at low pay.
My generation grew up assuming that such hardship was relatively common worldwide. But access to the internet and international travel showed us that is not always true. Many young Chinese now see hypercompetition in education and work as a pointless hamster wheel, even a tool of control and repression. Last year the term “tangping,”or “lying flat,” went viral on Chinese social media. It was China’s version of the Great Resignation that began in the United States around the same time. Young people were quitting the rat race with all of its pain and stress. The government began censoring the term.
The pandemic was the last straw. When Shanghai was locked down this year, many, including me, believed the government’s claims that it wouldn’t last long. It dragged on for two agonizing months, showing that even if you were willing to submit to society and work extremely hard, there was always more pain being thrust upon you.
For decades, a tacit social contract was in force in China. The people would be allowed to improve their economic lives. In return, the Communist Party would exercise total political control. We gave up our voices, rights and dignity. Government intrusion into our lives did not begin with the Covid-tracking software introduced during the pandemic; it began in the early 1980s when nearly all new mothers were required to have IUDs inserted into their bodies. Censorship did not begin with blocking negative news during Covid lockdowns; it began decades ago when the Chinese Communist Party extinguished any semblance of a free press.
Young people in China today are less willing to accept endless suffering. They want a happy life and to define “happy” on their own terms.
Yet I disagree with portrayals of last month’s street demonstrations as indicating that the Communist Party faces new political threats. The government responded to the protests by quickly abandoning an approach to Covid marked by traumatic lockdowns and harsh restrictions. But the vast majority of China’s people had meekly accepted those hardships for nearly three years, and many will simply look back on the pandemic as yet another example of the pain that we must heroically endure.
This acceptance of pain — deeply rooted in our culture — won’t change overnight. But our capacity for forbearance should not mean having to endure tyranny and injustice.
Jianan Qian is the author of “29 Letters,” which explores differences between American and Chinese culture.
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