Tea Leaf Nation

Meet China's Jack Kerouac

Adventure traveler Zhang Xinyu has found fame online, inspiring a growing number of Chinese "wage slaves" to hit the road.

The portly Chinese man strolled through an open-air market, holding an AK-47 to his chest, surrounded by six gun-toting security guards. Under a crystal-blue sky sat a nightmarish urban scene: walls ridden by bullet holes, piles of garbage strewn on dirt roads, a gunshot or two ringing in the air. A 36 year-old entrepreneur from Beijing, Zhang Xinyu had spent most of 2012 traveling with his fiancée, Liang Hong. Mogadishu, the capital of war-ravaged Somalia, was his idea of a tourist destination.  

Zhang and Liang are among a growing number of Chinese who want to escape the rat race and see the world. The intense pressure of trying to get into the best school or pursuing a lucrative career has left many young Chinese hungry for freedom, romance, and adventure. Chafing under social expectations to hold down a stable job and save up to buy an apartment, they fantasize about traveling to exotic places and leaving work or school far behind. Perhaps that's why On the Road, a 15-part documentary about Zhang and Liang released in 2013, has received more than 100 million views on Youku, China's Youtube, with thousands of comments expressing encouragement and admiration.

While the vast majority of Chinese will never wander through a Somali marketplace, stories like Zhang's have stirred a sense of collective wanderlust. A group on Chinese community discussion site Douban called "Quit & Travel" has more than 200,000 members, its own iPad magazine, promotional video clip, and even a theme song, which urges followers to find "another self on the road, a self that is relaxed, free, and tolerant." Several popular comment threads on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, discuss the trend of traveling after "naked resignation," a newly-coined term referring to the practice of quitting work without lining up another job: On Weibo, the term has been mentioned almost 600,000 times. According to an infographic published by Sohu, one of China's largest Internet portals, almost half of more than 3,000 respondents to an online survey wanted to tender a naked resignation and then go traveling.

The desire to take a travel sabbatical has become so prevalent among white-collar urban Chinese that it's almost cliché. According to a viral tweet on Weibo, there are now four typical yuppie dreams: "Opening up a café in the city, quitting one's job to travel in Tibet, running a small inn in Lijiang, and biking to Lhasa." (Lijiang is a tourist town in southwest China; Lhasa is the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a popular destination for well-heeled Chinese, despite the region's severe ethnic tensions.) One Internet user posted photos in July 2013 purporting to show a traffic jam of expensive mountain bikes on the Chengdu-to-Lhasa section of Route 318, a 1,300-mile road through remote regions at altitudes as high as 16,400 feet. "It's crowded like a street market," the user claimed.

But to many young Chinese struggling to find a job or support their families, a sabbatical seems like a luxury that only the fu'erdai -- "rich second generation," which refers to the children of the wealthy and connected -- can afford. One user commented on Weibo, "I have parents to support. I can't do a 'naked resignation' without a rich daddy." Another user cautioned against such seeming indulgence: Quitting to travel, she wrote, "is wasting your best years on frivolous pursuits, not a good idea unless you are prepared to be single forever and have no family to support and be responsible for."

Some are incredulous that Zhang and Liang have the courage to step so far out of the daily grind of working to pay for mortgages, child care, and parental care that bedevils so many Chinese in their 20s and 30s. But Zhang is a self-made man, who says he never went to university and never held a desk job. Instead, after a stint in the late 1990s as a mechanic and cook in the People's Liberation Army, he worked as a kebab peddler, a street sweeper, and even the manager of a public bathroom. Zhang earned his first million renminbi (approximately $125,000) in 2002 by making tofu machines and selling them to tofu merchants.

By the mid-2000s, Zhang and Liang were running a moderately successful jewelry-store franchise. At that point, "what I thought about all day was making money, buying a house, making more money, and buying a bigger house," Zhang says in On the Road. The turning point came in May 2008, when Zhang and Liang visited Sichuan province, immediately after a Richter-scale 8.0 earthquake devastated the area. They said they were deeply touched by the ephemerality of life, and "decided to follow their dreams." In 2012, Zhang and Liang put their careers on hold and started traveling to places like Mogadishu, Chernobyl, Oymyakon in Siberia (one of the coldest places on Earth), and the Marum volcano in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. They plan to get married at the South Pole.

Zhang's story is not the only one that has fired up China's collective imagination. A family from Yanzhou, a small city in Shandong province, made headlines in Oct. 2012 after they sold their apartment and took their eight-year old daughter out of school to sail the world in a $55,000 boat. China's media has reported on many anecdotes of young urbanites leaving their jobs to travel: One woman received breathless local media coverage for traveling around China in an RV in the fall of 2012. "Sometimes if you don't do what you really want to do now," the woman told the local newspaper Ningbo Daily, "you probably won't have a chance to do it later in life."

Sure, Ningbo isn't Mogadishu. But it's a start. 

Fair Use/Youku

Tea Leaf Nation

China's Favorite Villainess

Why Chinese TV viewers can't get enough of a fictitious, Qing-era concubine.

Many U.S. viewers identify with serial killer Dexter Morgan of Dexter, inveterate womanizer Don Draper of Mad Men, or family man turned meth kingpin Walter White of Breaking Bad -- however morally bankrupt they may be. Now, China has its own anti-hero, one that citizens love -- and authorities merely tolerate. Concubine-turned empress Zhen Huan is the protagonist of Empress in the Palace, a fictitious television drama series set during the Qing dynasty reign of emperor Yong Zheng, who assumed the throne in 1722. The show is a hit; not only has it set viewership records for some of the many local networks that broadcast it, it's also a web sensation, with over 4.4 billion total views on Letv, a Chinese video-streaming site.

While China's leaders have sought to promote an optimistic worldview with slogans like the "Chinese Dream" and an emphasis on "positive energy," Zhen epitomizes everything but. Her rise to power is nasty, brutish, and rapid. In the first episode, which aired in Nov. 2011, the 17-year-old Zhen is uninterested in politics, and does not even wish to join the emperor's retinue; nonetheless, she is eventually selected as a concubine because of her beauty. Over the course of the 76-episode series, now complete, Zhen's outlook darkens, and she ascends the palace hierarchy by destroying those who stand in her way. Zhen poisons a friend-turned-enemy, causing the woman to miscarry. Later in the show, she frames the empress for causing Zhen herself to miscarry -- and uses that to usurp the empress's throne.

The show's web-savvy viewers have taken Zhen's machinations to heart. Many feel the series reflects contemporary Chinese society, in which the unwritten rules of a system based more on connections and corruption than merit often force a choice between success and integrity. And Zhen has taught them that the quickest path to success is a willingness and ability to be more manipulative than anyone else. Zhen's journey, one web user wrote, "makes people aware that society is dark, a society that makes bad people worse, and good people bad."  

Television antiheros have been popular in places like the United States for decades, but in China, where the government sits in final judgment on the moral correctness of television content, Zhen is something new and potentially threatening. Chinese censors have not moved to quash Empress in the Palace: the show is an "historical drama," a permitted typology unlike "time travel" dramas, which are banned for their "frivolous" treatment of history.

Zhen is anything but frivolous -- but to a Communist Party trying to promote positivity, she may simply be too nasty. On Sept. 19, the newspaper People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, published a widely discussed op-ed by Tao Dongfeng, a professor of cultural studies at Beijing's Capital Normal University, critiquing Empress in the Palace for its potential to negatively impact social mores. Tao maintained that television should serve as a "vehicle" by which to bolster a culture of integrity. "Artistic works should be superior to reality," he wrote. "They should not simply copy it."

Many Chinese, or at least those with an Internet connection, disagree. In an ongoing survey conducted by Sina, one of China's largest Internet portals, only about 29 percent of 219,000 respondents thus far agree that "shows and movies should transmit positive energy; Empress in the Palace, which encourages an ethical race to the bottom," is not worthy of promotion. The majority, about 68 percent, felt that "a gap between art and reality" leads to "fake and monotonous" work. The masses have spoken, and they want their anti-heroes.  

Fair Use/Weibo