Bittersweet China: New Discourses of Hardship and Social Organisation

Michael B. Griffiths, Jesper Zeuthen


This paper argues that new interpretations of “eating bitterness” (吃苦, chiku) have firmly entered the landscape of China’s social organisation. Whereas the bitterness eaten by heroic types in China’s revolutionary past was directed towards serving others, now the aim of eating bitterness is self-awareness. Furthermore, bitterness-eating, which once pertained to rural-urban migrant workers as opposed to discourses of urban “quality” (素质, suzhi), has now also been taken up by the urban middle classes. A new cultural distinction, therefore, adds dignity to migrant workers while potentially marginalising a wide range of unproductive people, both urban and rural. This distinction ultimately mitigates risk to the Chinese regime because the regime makes sure to reward those who eat bitterness. This paper is based on ethnographic data gathered in Anshan, from the rural areas surrounding Chengdu, and our analysis of a TV show about a peasant boy who becomes a Special Forces soldier.

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