In the last few months, the term bishilian, or “chain of contempt,” has spread like wildfire across Chinese social media. The concept extends the notion of food chains to social hierarchies in which certain groups of people look down on others.
In modern China, for example, so-called professional chains of contempt work like this: Venture capitalists look down their noses at finance workers, who, in turn, think little of real estate developers. If you work in information technology, you probably think you’re better than people who work in new media. If IT workers’ scorn arouses the ire of, say, Sixth Tone journalists, they can always console themselves with the knowledge that at least they’re better than traditional media outlets.
In the past, however, this chain looked very different. Government workers sat at the top in their ivory towers, peering down at the mass ranks of lowly public institution workers, state-owned enterprise staff, and private companies, in that order. Chains of contempt apply to cities, too: Denizens of Beijing consider themselves superior to the supposedly snooty Shanghainese, who in turn shun those from Shenzhen, who then hate on the Hangzhounese, who then gripe about Guangzhou, and so on ad infinitum.
Chains of contempt are meant to be fun, satirical ways of framing the existing hierarchies in Chinese society. Every time someone wryly exposes a new chain on social media, it invariably goes viral. But why, exactly, do people have such a tireless preoccupation with chains of contempt?
At the center of the trend is Chinese society’s obsession with keeping up with the Joneses. Every chain shared online acts as a chart by which people can determine their positions in the social hierarchy. The ubiquity of such chains demonstrates our vain desire to live better lives than other people.
If we dig deeper, we also find that the popularity of chains of contempt mirrors China’s unique social structures and the psychology they engender. Once we link together all the chains, it is easy enough to ascertain what life is like for the rich and successful people at the top of the hierarchy: They hold a Beijing or Shanghai household registration card. They own multiple properties and live in luxurious gated communities. With their annual salaries of more than 1 million yuan ($150,000), they can afford frequent spending sprees in Europe and North America. Their children attend international schools and go on overseas exchanges in the summer. Once these children finish high school, they head to prestigious, expensive colleges in the U.S.
The way we define and imagine prospects and social classes is becoming increasingly narrow, homogenous, and superficial.
- Zeng Yuli, writer
Why is it that the rich and influential reside at the top of each chain of contempt rather than those who are less well-off but happy? This is hardly a whimsical question when we consider the sheer materialism running through Chinese society; for many people, money has become the sole criterion by which they judge the world.
As China’s economy has developed, both domestic and foreign media have noticed the country’s growing obsession with money. “Having more money” topped an online survey on life goals among Chinese readers of the Guangdong-based magazine New Weekly. The South Korean newspaper Hankyung Business Weekly described wealth-flaunting Chinese as people who “lust after money, know how to make it, and love saving it.” And the German newspaper Die Welt quoted Markus Taube, a professor of East Asian economic studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen, as saying that “there is a powerful atmosphere of utilitarianism in China — one’s career and overall success are both assessed firstly based on money.”
In a money-driven society, those sitting pretty at the top of chains of contempt are naturally the wealthiest, regardless of whether they are truly fulfilled. In fact, chains of contempt are so popular in China partly because they capture society’s one-dimensional view of the relationship between money and success.
But why do so many Chinese people share an ardent desire for material pleasures? The answer has to do with the relationship between wealth and social mobility. In today’s China, class is a largely material notion; the country’s official media outlets, for instance, typically use the terms “middle-class” and “middle-income” interchangeably. Whether you’re upper class, middle class, or working class depends to a large extent on how much money you have in the bank at any given moment.
China’s economy has achieved astonishing growth in the last 30 years, but divisions between social classes are steadily worsening. The distribution of wealth increasingly favors entrenched interests, meaning only the rich can enjoy the country’s best housing, education, and health care. The way we define and imagine prospects and social classes is becoming increasingly narrow, homogenous, and superficial.
As ever, Chinese people long to be able to ascend social strata so that their children can be better off than they were. But China’s upper social classes are becoming increasingly exclusive clubs. Herein lies the brutal reality behind the knowing satire of chains of contempt: Nobody wants to find themselves at the bottom, because they know that the next link up is pulling ever further out of reach.