A woman gazes at her cellphone in a subway carriage, indifferent to her surroundings, in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. Photo: VCG
With an innate resistance against "competition," 23-year-old graduate Xiaoyue recently turned down a high-paid position at a securities company. Instead, she is waiting for the result of the guokao, China's national civil service exam that she attended in December.
"I hate to live under great pressure every day, competing with colleagues. I'd rather choose a low-paid but stable and relaxing position," Xiaoyue said.
Xiaoyue is one of a growing number of Chinese young adults who are identifying as "Buddha-like" or "Zen-generation," a neologism that recently went viral to mean those who reject a bustling and competitive society and instead choose to practice patience, tolerance and inner peacefulness.
People who call themselves Zen-generation, either seriously or half-jokingly, are seemingly fine with anything that happens to them. They are not inspired by any patriotic drive or the Party's political catchphrases. They are simply indifferent. In other words, there are few things they care about. Be it missing the bus, getting turned down for a promotion or failing to find a spouse, they simply shrug and move on.
Some say this new trend is a passive reaction against the rapid reforms, changes and developments of modern-day Chinese society, which has made many young adults feel "helpless" and "left behind." Rather than fight against it, these Buddha-like youngsters resignedly accept their lot in life.
People's Daily recently published an article about this phenomenon, suggesting that Chinese youth should do more to make achievements in certain fields that they care about, rather than just blindly follow the trend and get themselves lost in life without any goal.
Youth.cn, the official website under the Communist Youth League, also published an article speaking out against the rising popularity of the phrase and its impressionable followers.
"Only when the young have ambitions and are responsible can a nation have prospects," the article wrote.
The most notable characteristic of Zen-generation is that they are perfectly content with their current status. They will make no extra effort to compete or overcome challenges.
"It is fine if I have a thing, or have not; I would not fight with anyone for a thing; I would not care whether I win or lose," a WeChat post titled "The first group of post-1990s generation has become Buddhists," wrote in December.
Claiming to be a typical Zen-generation, Xiaoyue, originally from Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, said she never runs to catch a bus. Even if it means arriving late somewhere, she still walks unhurried, preferring to wait patiently for the next one.
Xiaoyue also chooses to stay single, because she regards finding - and maintaining - a boyfriend to be troublesome. Even though her parents continue to push her to snare an ideal spouse, she has chosen to let destiny arrange it without making any effort.
Indeed, Zen-generation who are romantically involved with someone will simply let the relationship run its course. Once someone becomes their ex, they won't even bother to delete or block them from their social networks. Like everything else in their life, those exes become completely meaningless to them.
"I feel it tiring to compete with others or strive, for whatever it may be in life," the young woman shared with the Global Times.
Just like many civil servants and bureaucrats, employees of Zen-generation tend to take no initiative in their daily work, and will never make any deliberate effort to please their boss. If scolded by superiors or customers, they will just heartlessly say "I see."
"It is a bit different from pessimism. We just don't have big ambitions; we don't want to be number one. We are happy with an average life, and we are optimistic," explained Xiaoyue, adding that a number of her friends are also choosing to become civil servants in order to live lazy lives.
College students of Zen-generation study without any urgency or pressure to score well or even pass. They will study their materials without any determination. They believe that "it is destiny if you can pass or not after you have done your best."
"It seems they care for nothing," Grace, a post-80s college teacher, told the Global Times. "They don't give their grades a glimpse, even if they will not graduate. I find it too hard to understand."
The recent popularity of the phrase Zen-generation which has appeared not only on Weibo and WeChat feeds but also in top-selling Taobao products such as clothing and mobile phone accessories printed with the phrase, indicating that striving to become the best is no longer the prevailing attitude among many Chinese young adults.
Interests over necessity
The phrase Zen-generation coincides with a similar phrase that became popular in Japan in 2014, which referred to a group of people who put their personal interests and hobbies above anything else deemed troublesome, such as careers and relationships.
Xiaoyue explains that being Zen-generation are also an escape from reality, as certain thresholds in modern Chinese society, such as education and employment, have been growing over the past decade, which has placed tremendous pressure on China's younger generations.
"If you don't like to face pressure, and if you stay away from it, then you won't feel it and you will live comfortably," she said.
As a way to cultivate inner peace in a bustling society, it has also become popular among many Chinese young people to practice meditation in temples or meditation centers catering to this need.
Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University, attempted to analyze the phenomenon in a recent WeChat post. "The harsh competition going upward in society is making many young people anxious and perplexed."
People born in the 1990s were thrown into a much more competitive society than their predecessors. Skyrocketing house prices, particularly in recent several years, have made it even more difficult for them to buy a home with their salaries. As Chinese society develops, thresholds and costs in other aspects, such as employment, finding a spouse and raising a child, have also risen. This indicates lower social mobility and has made young people from average families feel hopeless during their climb up the social ladder.
It is, of course, a fact that many young Chinese generally face very big challenges and high expectations from family and society. A recent survey conducted by China Youth Daily showed that, among 2,000 interviewees born in the 1990s, 50 percent of them are now paying greater attention to their health and wellness due to high pressures from work and daily life.
But according to Lu Shizhen, a professor specializing in youth studies from China Youth University of Political Studies, becoming Zen-generation is mainly due to "a lack of motivation."
"Zen-generation reflect that people's demands have grown more diversified after their material lives have reached a certain level. Meanwhile, people's motivation fades," Lu told the Global Times. "The principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved, as mentioned in the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China."
In other words, a relatively affluent material life allows young people to make choices according to their personal interests and comfort rather than out of necessity.
"I don't think it is worthwhile to earn a double salary if it means working under much greater pressure," said Xiaoyue. "I'd rather find a relaxing job and have more time to myself, so long as the job lets me feed myself."
Saving youth from themselves
A Zen-like lifestyle is beyond reproach, as it stresses inner peace, tolerance and harmony. To some extent, it indicates a more open attitude toward life. But as an ever-rising number of Chinese young adults continue to identify as Zen-generation, opposing voices are also rising.
In a video shot by news website people.com.cn, some young adults against the Zen-like movement characterized themselves as vigorous and responsible when it comes to what they care for in life. "We post-1990s generation are good!" they state in the video.
Sarah, a woman born in 1990 who presently works in Beijing, sniffed at the media reports about Zen-generation. According to her, even though it is common for people her age to constantly switch jobs without considering the consequences, she says a majority of post-1990s generation Chinese are reliable and hard-working. "People vary, even at the same age," said Sarah.
Xiaoyue confirmed this, saying she "belongs to the minority" of Chinese who have chosen to retreat from the frontlines of life's many daily battles. "Most of them (post-1990s generation Chinese) are vigorous," she said.
"The competition in society is so fierce. I think the best way to cherish my youth is to seize the moment and work hard," said Xiaofu, a 22-year-old man struggling in Beijing.
Nonetheless, the phenomenon has drawn concern from mainstream media and scholars and has also aroused numerous heated online discussions about how Zen-generation are affecting China's future. Some hold that this "low-desire" mindset will eventually hold back the nation from progressing further as a rising world superpower.
Youth.cn published an article titled "So-called 'Zen-generation' are a total tragedy for youth" comparing China with Japan, a once-progressive and innovative culture that has ground to a halt in recent years, both economically and even in terms of human reproduction, due to mass indifference.
The article reminds Chinese youth that their country is still developing and thus depends on them to create more wealth for the greater good of society. Before "slowing their footsteps," the article encourages youngsters to "pursue their dreams with sweat and to always fight for their family and their country."
The China Communist Youth Leagues in different regions across the country have also forwarded articles of similar tone in an attempt to spread positive energy.
"It is horrible if a society lacks motivation," noted Lu. "The root of motivation lies in belief, particularly in pursuing interest for the majority and the whole human society."
"It is time for relevant departments to make more effort to mobilize the motivation inside the young, particularly about their beliefs," Lu added.