Life After Zero Covid: Two Chinese Anthropologists Reflect
"If the point of life is to hide, or to build some kind of safe harbor, then it’s already been redefined by fear. What I’m afraid of the most is being redefined by it."
The following is an abridged transcript of the November 3, 2022 episode of Stochastic Volatility 随机波动, a popular Mandarin podcast hosted by journalists Fu Shiye, Zhang Zhiqi, and Leng Jianguo.
In this episode, they interview Yuan Changgeng 袁长庚 and An Mengzhu 安孟竹, a couple who moved from Shenzhen to Kunming, Yunnan this year. Both are anthropologists. Yuan was previously at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST), and now teaches at Yunnan University. An earned her PhD from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Recorded weeks before the end of Zero Covid, the conversation is a wide-ranging and evocative look into a post-pandemic future, and tries to make sense of how to live after three years of trauma. They explore:
What it’s like to leave the big city;
Yunnan’s unique local culture;
Why do anthropology in these times;
Making art, love, and life in spite of a “politics of fear”.
The World From Kunming
Fu Shiye: I remember reading Dr. Yuan’s Douban post about moving from Shenzhen to Kunming with three cats and 7000 books. What was that like? Why did you make this decision, and was it hard to decide to migrate?
Yuan Changgeng: Yeah, I honestly think that it’s hard to point to a specific point in time when we decided to migrate, but maybe in the past two or three years — likely related to the pandemic. Shenzhen was never truly hit hard by the pandemic except for a few tougher weeks earlier this year; it was never the front line. But for whatever reason, we felt that life in Shenzhen became very uncomfortable. Maybe some things were magnified by the pandemic. So we reflected upon the question of where we wanted to spend the next period of our lives. Then a work opportunity came up [in Yunnan.
Both of us grew up with similar life trajectories. We’ve both studied in megacities since the beginning of our educational careers, but both of us are also from Shandong and have always been told to go higher — aim for the buzziest and most resource-rich places. We’re both anthropologists and implicitly resent this kind of logic, but we’ve also internalized these rhetorics countless times when making decisions about our own lives. So we thought, “Why not go somewhere with a very different environment and approach to living.”
My wife had actually never been to Yunnan, but I had done dissertation research and fieldwork here, as well as attending conferences and activities. I could picture [living here] at the very least. I don’t think of it as a place of healing, but it does provide some things that are very different from our old life. I can’t say whether this is some kind of voluntary retreat or escape; I think you should be very careful about saying these kinds of things in Kunming. Because when you frame it as a retreat or escape, you’re imagining where you used to live as the “center” or the “front line”.
An Mengzhu: For me, it was more about following [Yuan], but the opportunity to migrate also allowed me to say goodbye to who I was. I had a few other job opportunities come up a while ago, but hesitated to decide where the next focal point of my life should be. But with the larger social environment being so uncertain, [I thought it was] a nice opportunity to experience something. I also thought it was really important that we stay together because life itself was already so fragile. Yunnan has actually always interested me, from its history as a place of retreat for intellectuals during the war to the incredibly dynamic group of contemporary artists living here today, as well as the multi-ethnic, multi-species way of life here (which I knew little about before, but was very curious about). I looked forward to this kind of colourful, diverse life.
The other thing is that moving from somewhere like Shenzhen to Yunnan does feel like a retreat — like a transient escaping into the mountains, in a way. Can I say “disappear”? It’s a place to temporarily disappear into. [...]
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Shenzhen was actually my fieldwork location [for my PhD]. Many of my friends from my PhD days were still staying there. I remember that during our last month there, we had goodbye dinners with different friends almost every single day. At these things, people would say things like “come visit in the future” or “let’s chat more online”, but in these times saying goodbye feels like an acknowledgement of impermanence. [...]
Yuan Changgeng: We spent six years in Shenzhen in total. [...] When I look back at the spring of 2020, the thing that’s stayed with me is the realization that I was a stranger in a strange land after all. That kind of alien identity had not been salient to me for many years, but I remember very clearly that when we were back home [in Shandong] for Chinese New Year that year, we panic-bought train tickets the moment we realized that things were going wrong, I was still teaching back then and was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to Shenzhen, and we had a cat waiting at home. It took a few twists and turns before we made it back to campus.
I was struck with an intense feeling of strangeness: that I didn’t belong to this city, or this workplace, or the microscopic environment in which I lived. [...]
I research the question of death. Culturally, we say that when a death hasn’t been sufficiently grieved, it leaves regrets and can cause problems in your life later down the line. It’s all very weird right now: maybe it’s related to the pandemic, but I feel like even if you give me two more months, I still will not have fully grieved the goodbye. I think that behind all this is the problem of trust: a kind of belief and certainty has fallen into pieces among us. Back in the day, travelling from Beijing to Hong Kong didn’t seem to mean much: this is a globalized society, after all, and we’d see each other again soon. But now, with difficulties in travel and various barriers, one becomes extra cautious. You’re too scared to hope for a reunion after any particular goodbye, so you have to lower your expectations and anticipate that seeing each other again will be very difficult.
Fu Shiye: I think that perhaps because of the pandemic’s shock, I’ve began to properly embrace the present. Because there’s nothing else we can hold on to and nothing else to look forward to, we practically live in a state of freefall. And precisely because there’s nothing to hold on to in that state of freefall, I feel that all I can do is to hold on to every falling moment. [...]
Anthropology for Yunnan Kids
Fu Shiye: There are some real differences between life in a megacity (such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Shenzhen) and life elsewhere, from the costs of living to the competition and whether or not there are ways out of competition, and also the criteria with which one evaluates things. I’d love to hear more about the differences between Kunming and Shenzhen. Dr. Yuan, I remember you talking on Douban about how the students you meet at Yunnan University are quite different from your old students [in Shenzhen]. Most of them did their undergrad at Tier 2 schools; they’re less worldly and have an innocent side, but they’re also not spared from the competition and involution that plague big cities. But [you said that] it felt as if these students relied on you for their lives.
Yuan Changgeng: I myself didn’t graduate from very elite schools, but I’ve spent most of my education in so-called developed areas. From my experiences and surroundings, it’s always felt like education itself was a very direct endeavour. Everyone had clear plans, schedules, and goals, and worked hard for them. When I first met my graduate students here, they reminded me of something from a book I read [...] which is that the amount of capital these students have, upon which they can contend with our society in these times, is very limited. In this process, for whatever reason, they chose a major like anthropology, so you have to think about what drives or motivates them.
Folks keep telling me to lower my expectations, to abandon any vain hopes — let alone a sense of imagination — because real life is cruel. But these students, to me, have maintained something different. More than others, they need my help to understand what the point of anthropology is. What can such a major get for you in a time like this? Outside of elite circles, you can’t kid yourself with word games. In the ivory tower I can shut the doors and pretend a question is important — if you don’t understand why, well, you’re not smart enough. But in a place like this you have to start from zero and actually think about why things matters. [...] You can’t encourage [these students] to sacrifice everything else in order to pursue so-called academic goals, but you also can’t tell them to just check things off a list, write a dissertation, and go off and find jobs. Neither is correct.
A job like this challenges you to imagine which part of academia actually enriches life. […]
Zhang Zhiqi: I have some experience with what Dr. Yuan is talking about. In Hong Kong I’ve met some students who are ten years, maybe twelve or thirteen years, younger than me. It’s a question I have to answer every day: what do you even do with a degree like this? What can you do afterwards? In a time when media is withering across the board, what’s the value of a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree from a journalism college? Where do you go to find work? Can you make enough to support yourself? Do we have any topics left that we’re allowed to cover? These are very cruel, difficult questions.
From talking to these students, I found that [...] they’re all kids who yearn to “land ashore” (上岸) at various junction points in life. They’re all so-called elite students from famous schools and top colleges, and for them the idea of “landing ashore” has become a phrase that encompasses everything at every crossroad in life. To buy a house is to “land ashore”; to pass the civil service exam is to “land ashore”; to get into graduate school is to “land ashore”; the timeline for “landing ashore” as been pushed so far ahead that even getting into a regular [rather than vocational] high school after middle school is called “landing ashore” these days.
Lots of students live in this massive unknown. Many of them in mainland universities have barely left their campuses or met their professors in-person over the past few years. A lot of them were forced to take gap years. [...] I suppose many of the problems we’re talking about today are related to not landing ashore — or floating offshore, and ending up in a state of continuous drifting. For folks maybe a decade younger than me, “landing ashore” is something they’re super anxious about. But the “shore” doesn’t really exist; they just keep drifting further.
They think that they’ve made it ashore when they get into graduate school, but the truth is they’ve only drifted from one place to another; the “shore” is always the next step on the way. But that “shore” is also so important: if you tell them that there is no shore, they don’t know what they should be doing anymore. I suppose it’s the same reason why so many young people are enthusiastic about the civil service exam these days: it’s not because being a civil servant is a particularly easy job or that it’s extremely attractive, but because it’s a “shore” of some kind. Without this “shore”, they don’t know what else to do if they don’t find a job after university. So they keep creating new “shores”, but in reality it’s a process of constant drifting.
An Mengzhu: I think what we have here is a contradictory situation. On one hand, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but on the other hand you’re quite certain that some things will keep getting worse. [...] Humans are an odd animal: we keep trying to control some things, grasp onto something, or maintain something while living inside uncertainty. In the past, when we lived in so-called normal times, it seemed that we were wrapped up in certain illusions and believed that we had control over many things. For example, parents believe that if they invest in their kids’ education, they can turn it into capital with which they achieve social mobility. Working people believe that as long as they work hard, they will earn promotions or raises. But in reality, over the past few years it’s become clearer that this has never been the case.
I was talking to friends who are also women in academia online a while ago, and we all agreed that this is a time of radical uncertainty.
From an anthropological point of view, radical uncertainty is often also an opportunity to tear open illusions and reveal what’s underneath to more people. It shows people that it is uncertainty, as well as fragility, that underpins our shared lives and circumstances, and that no one can have more security than others. [...]
A while ago, lots of friends were sharing that all-star charity music video “Tomorrow Will Be Better” from 1985 on WeChat, which made me think about where that sense of security came from when I was a kid in those days. I was born in 1990, and I think I grew up with a kind of faith that I was living through progress. We say that we grew up in a cocoon without much understanding of what’s going on around us, society, or history, but we always had this feeling that whether it was our own individual lives or all of society, everything was poised for further growth. But as you grow up and become an adult, you realize that this was, in fact, a dream, and that this dream is fracturing piece by piece. Which is why you look back at the past fondly and recall that “Tomorrow Will Be Better” era — a kind of Chinese Bohemia. So I think that maybe when I look back at the kind of faith I had back then, what I see is that progress and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. [...]
Zhang Zhiqi: This year we’ve written some things where we’ve used the phrase “post-pandemic era”, but some readers pointed out that this phrase is problematic. One reason is that the pandemic hasn’t passed, so there’s no “post” to speak of. The other is that a true “post-pandemic era” should be one where the pandemic’s impacts have subsided and we’ve returned to the era we were in before all this. But I actually think “post-pandemic era” is a good way to describe our current moment. You can understand it as the era that’s been shaped by covid. We’ll always live in a post-pandemic era. It’s like a train going through a tunnel: dust and soil fall onto the train’s top, and you’ll never get back to what it was like before. By the third year, we’ve all accepted it: we’ve stopped talking about how we want to go back to 2019 and the free, mobile life we had back then. Back then we thought we could have anything as long as we worked hard. We thought that if we wanted to travel abroad, we could just do it. We could see anyone we wanted to see. I don’t think it’ll be like that ever again. [...]
Covid Trauma, the Politics of Fear, and Building a Post-Pandemic Life
Yuan Changgeng: I’ve always felt that in these times, the real work of life lies within the self. When there are things you can’t change, the extent to which you can hold fast and maintain a basic sense of self-awareness is a new challenge for our generation in my opinion.
Zhang Zhiqi: During lockdowns lots of people got into houseplants or cooking, including myself. I felt that cooking and raising plants gave me a sense of certainty: if you water it, it grows well, and if you don’t it dies. In itself, it is a sense of certainty. If you add more salt, it’s salty; if you don’t, it’s mild. Compared to the big things you can’t control, these things give you something to anchor life onto. But on the other hand, I think that the daily life we’ve built is being destroyed piece by piece; ultimately, it’s very fragile. You could spend so much time and effort on creating the most intricate personal life, and gain a sense of certainty or self-knowledge through it, but if you get dragged to quarantine and your home gets sprayed down with disinfectant — 消杀 — everything in your lovely little life crumbles. And also that when you spend a long time living under the fear of everything you’ve built falling apart, I don’t know how we should even look at it anymore. Because that fear is very real: it’s not like if we live every day well, we can resist that fear. Sometimes the reality is that the more you love life and the more effort you put into everyday things, the bigger the fear is. [...]
Yuan Changgeng: With regards to any kind of destruction, its real potential for damage lies in the fact that it can change how you view your fundamental relationship with the world. If you spend a long time living inside an externally defined fear, whether controlled by another individual or other forces (or even shaped by them), I think that the process of escaping from it (or from a kind of reliance and continuous gaze at the fear) is an essential part of saving yourself.
The moment it truly starts to take effect is not when it destroys something beautiful right in front of you, but when it forces you to carry it on your back as you move on with life. [...]
Nowadays, I think that the worst thing about a politics of fear is that it wants to make you abandon essential things. It tells you that when you’ve retreated into the parameter it has defined for you, that’s when you are the strongest and safest. It tells you that you can save yourself when disaster comes, but even if that’s true, you would also become complicit with the powers that be. Even if you aren’t affected by the senseless disaster in the end, you are still changed by it. I still remember the spring of 2020: Dr. Mei Zhongming, while helping manage covid in Wuhan, said that what he missed the most was Coca-Cola. I think that’s right: these things are much more certain that so-and-so critical forces, in a way.
We live life not because it is some form of resistance, but because to love life and live it is the point of being on this earth; we’re born to do it, and it’s an ontological issue. It is precisely because we’re born to do this that we should resist being changed by [the politics of fear]. If the point of life is to hide, or to build some kind of safe harbor, then it’s already been redefined by fear. What I’m afraid of the most is being redefined by it; that’s something I cannot accept, because that can change our fundamental relationship with the world.
Leng Jianguo: I very much agree with Dr. Yuan on one hand, but on the other hand I feel like our lives have already been completely changed by it. It’s like what Primo Levi said: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” [Ed.: This was misattributed; the quote is from Theodor Adorno.] When an enormous humanitarian disaster unfolds, that kind of “small, certain happiness” is very, very illusory. Even if it were real, it would be full of guilt. [...] I’m reminded of that book by Professor Yang Kuisong, One Can’t Help But “Care”. From the beginning of history to today, the Chinese intellectual has always been marked in a very notable way by a sense of “can’t help by care”. Today, in an era where the internet is all-reaching, we can see humanitarian disasters from far and near.
Over the weekend I stayed at a hotel in the outskirts of the city where there was an auntie from Zhengzhou. Every night, she’d tell me about her son quarantined at home all alone. He’s only 12 years old, and his dad couldn’t go home either. He had nothing else to eat but rice soup and salted pickles every day. She was so worried about her son, but she couldn’t go back. And then every morning, I’d look at the hotel’s breakfast buffet feast with so many Chinese and Western dishes and tons of leftovers, and I just couldn’t stomach it. I paid for the hotel stay fairly and didn’t steal anything from anyone, but I just kept thinking about that little boy eating rice soup at home.
I have been building a life of my own over the past few years: I got into cooking, started climbing (‘maintaining my life force through exercise,’ in the words of a friend), and worked on creative things. We’ve been writing, making podcasts, and translating, trying to connect ourselves with bigger things. We try to draw some purpose in life out of art and literature — some kind of faith that can’t be lost. But at the same time, not only can you not change this pain, you can’t even change your own experience of the pain. I really empathize when friends on Douban ask, “What’s the point of poetry and novels anymore?” But I also understand the counter-argument: “If we didn’t have them, what else do we have left?”
I think we all feel this helplessness. What can we do for others? When we witness humanitarian disasters at such a scale, it feels illegitimate to keep living our own lives. [...]
Yuan Changgeng: Yu Jian, a local poet here in Yunnan, likes to say that Yunnan had fooled inland China throughout the entire imperial civilization. Inlanders thought Yunnan was this barren land of barbarians full of suffering. Only those exiled to Yunnan realized that people here had been quietly living a fantastic life. I find this so interesting. Yunnan, as a place, resists the logic of language: it does not record itself through language or show off how great it is. That’s why its resistance has been effective over the long term. It’s even managed to escape discursive space altogether, and as a result its cultures and traditions are free. Rarely do you find a place where Buddhism, Confucianism, and animist beliefs live together in peace with little conflict. [...]
In our final days in Shenzhen, we realized that it wasn’t the pandemic [that’s pushing us away] anymore. We just couldn’t understand why that city always emphasized progress. Especially in the few years before I arrive, Shenzhen’s so-called slogan of “just make money” (搞钱) has become a badge the city wears on its chest to differentiate itself from others. I became very tired of it. I remember quite clearly that in the beginning of this year, when the whole city was under “silent management”, there was this viral photo of people rushing back to their offices in the last few hours before the area was locked down. They needed to grab their computers, and lots of people had full-sized monitors. So they were literally carrying monitors and desktops out, and some had to climb through road barriers with their monitors. That image became a new rallying point for the so-called “Shenzhen spirit”, but I just didn’t understand the need for this hustle culture. When you’re inside of a space like that, it’s very difficult to vocally question it, but it changes when your physical location changes. If you express these things in Yunnan, many people understand and relate.
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Nicely done and a difficult piece to translate from the Chinese into similar concepts in English. Reading it I thought of life depicted as a merry-go-round where people try to grasp the brass ring, the rat race, the organization man from the 1950s, the work culture in Korea and Japan with the problem of karoshi, Marx's alienation and Durkheim's anomie, even the 1960s motto coined by Timothy Leary of tune in, turn on and drop out. These are universal themes. Each generation rediscovers them and renames them as a way of owning the idea. An inter-generational form of NIH syndrome perhaps. :P Even in ancient China there was the tradition of intellectuals leaving the capital and Confucianism behind to live in the mountains or by a river and pursue Daoism or Chan. We all hope to find meaning in life. Do you live to work or work to live?