On July 23, writer Zhang Wumao published an essay on his public WeChat account, Mr. Zhang Says (张先生说), that spread like wildfire on Chinese social media. As of the morning of July 24, the controversial essay, titled “In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live” (在北京，有2000万人假装在生活), had already racked up over five million views and nearly twenty thousand comments on WeChat.
The WeChat article was censored later that afternoon. Weibo users report that many of their posts in the topic “In Beijing 20 Million People Pretend to Live” have also been mysteriously removed.
Though the hubbub online has died down, the essay, a meditation on varying facets of life in Beijing, has since spawned over a hundred thousand countering essays in response. Titles include plays on the original essay’s title, such as “In Beijing, 20 Million People are Waiting for Your Apology” and “In Beijing, 20 Million People are Bravely Living,” and even direct digs at the author, such as “Mr. Zhang, You Aren’t Even a Beijing Kid So Why Are You Acting Like a Know-it-all.” The original essay has been lambasted as “making a fuss over nothing.”
But “In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live” resists easy summarization – it’s framed as a series of Zhang’s loosely related reflections on living in Beijing, heavily supported by anecdotes. He touches on a variety of topics that hit close to home: the everyday absurdities of urban sprawl, the never-ending struggle to buy a house, and alienation from home. As a nonlocal from Shaanxi who has been living in Beijing for the past eleven years, he also attempts to negotiate the tensions and differences between locals and nonlocals.
Zhang told Recording Pen, “I wanted to express the idea that everyone who lives in this city is actually really tired, really exhausted, and they live without ease, they don’t truly enjoy the goodness they deserve.”
In the first section, Zhang writes pithily on Beijing’s coldness: “In Beijing, exchanging business cards counts as recognition; calling a couple times in a year counts as best friends; if someone is willing to go from the east to the west side to have a meal with you without talking business, then you could be called friends for life; as for the people you see every day, eat lunch with every day, they are only coworkers.”
In another section, Zhang describes the disconnect between the nonlocals’ imagined Beijing and the locals’ experience: “When bringing up Beijing, so many people think first of the Forbidden City, Houhai, and 798, of how Beijing has history and culture and high-rises… What Beijingers experience more deeply is the congestion, the smog, the high housing prices; it is how, when leaving the house, you cannot move, and when at home you cannot breathe.”
And in one of the more controversial sections, Zhang contrasts the leisurely lifestyle of native Beijing tuhao — people of wealth — who own five houses with the “generation of migrants without inherited property… destined to be trapped within the housing system their whole lives.” Many have slammed his unrealistic depiction of native Beijingers, insisting that many of them don’t actually own five houses or inherit property and lead easy lives. One critic wrote an essay titled, “You Owe Every Beijing Kid Five Houses Each,” which demanded just that.
By far the most controversial part is the essay’s ending: “Those who have successfully achieved their dreams are currently fleeing to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the west coast of America. Those who have chased their dreams in vain are also fleeing, they are returning to Hebei, Dongbei, and their hometowns.
And in this city remain 20 million people, pretending to live. In reality, there is no life in this city. Here, there are only the dreams of few and the work of many.”
The line about “20 million people, pretending to live” struck a nerve with many netizens for its sweeping generalizations. One netizen, a beipiao — “Beijing floater,” i.e. nonlocal — wrote, “We complain about the smog, the traffic, and the housing prices, but the one thing we don’t complain about are the people here who try hard to live bravely! The author probably searched for the top ten things to complain about in Beijing and thought he was speaking for Beijingers, if you really know 20 million people, then you can dare to say that they’re pretending to live; if you’re a loser in life, don’t assume everyone else is just like you.”
In his interview with Recording Pen, Zhang admits that “pretending to live” is an exaggeration. But he stands by his original intent: “‘Pretending to live’ refers to pretending to live happily… this kind of state is a bit like the people on WeChat Moments, who always let us see what they want us to see, but only they themselves and people living in the same environments will know the real them.
“The real life as I understand it should be easygoing and flavorful. The reason why I say Beijing has 20 million people pretending to live is because this city, through its development until now, has already gone beyond the functions of life that an ordinary city can provide. Beijing carries too many things, so much so that it is a kind of overload. And the pressure of this kind of city overload will be passed on to the overwhelming majority of the people living in this city, turning their lives into a kind of survival, and yet they still must pretend that they have the contentment and satisfaction of life.”
Illustration by Marjorie Wang