The Era of “Bei …”
The Era of “Bei …”
by WANG Xiaoming
Front. Lit. Stud. China 2014, 8(2): 347-357; DOI 10.3868/s010-003-014-0018-8
Even today, most experiences in life present themselves through language and writing. At the same time, the more taboo, rare, or permissive a place is, the livelier and more accurate the image of life will be. Therefore, in order to get a good sense of how people in today’s China spend their time and view life, the first thing to look at are the new words and phrases popping up on the internet.
Of course, the internet is not exactly a Buddhist “Pure Land,” and recently all sorts of “Internet commentators” have been increasingly active. Furthermore, many Chinese people are still either unaccustomed to the internet, or they simply cannot get online to surf the web and chat. Many of the new words created on the internet change daily and disappear just as suddenly as they arise, like freshly hatched mosquitoes in the morning light of a rice paddy.
Therefore, it is very much worth paying attention to those words which are quickly entering the offline world where they are readily accepted and continuing to expand, even appearing in newspaper headlines and articles. Like putting the final touch on a painting, these words and phrases demonstrate the most important characteristics of our era.
Of these new internet terms, the most brilliant is the formula “bei (被)....”
This is neither a word nor a sentence pattern—not like, for instance, the “bei expressions” we all memorized when we were small. Rather, it is used for construction: stick bei in front of a noun or verb, and a new word is formed.
For example, a government agency issued some statistics saying that per capita income had increased by a certain percentage. Most people, however, felt that it was actually much less than this, and began discussing the matter both on and off the internet. In no time at all, a new word was formed: per capita income had “increase-ified” (bei zengzhang). This new word was remarkable not only because it asserted a concrete fact—that per capita income did not increase to the extent the numbers claimed—but because it also pointed to a broader series of questions: Why create this kind of data? Why publish this kind of data? Why is it possible to publish this kind of data?
In other words, the essential meaning of “bei...” is not merely to deny the reality of a certain noun or verb, but to draw attention to why that noun or verb has been used perfidiously in the first place. Behind the straightforward contradiction of the rhetoric lies a judgment regarding the entire situation surrounding that rhetoric.
Given the widespread increase and popularity of “bei...” in recent years, the new words it has been used to create have continued to stack up: “suicide-ized” (bei zisha), “slip-upped” (bei shizu), “patriotic-ified” (bei aiguo), “donation- ified” (bei juanxian), “thankfulled” (bei ganxie), “jubilant-ized” (bei huanxinguwu), “brim-ified-with-confidence” (bei chongmanxinxin), and so on. Actually, I get an ominous feeling from this. The flood of new words formed by bei indicates an uncontrolled situation in which the winner takes all and society has tilted too far in one direction. In real life, the weak are not only unable to act for themselves—or even express this or their own feelings—but they are all also spoken for by the strong, who do not listen to what other people have to say. What an extreme bullying!
On the other hand, the people’s creation of the “bei...” formula demonstrates their thorough and indignant recognition of this situation without losing their sense of humor. Is this to say that, rather than abandoning all resistance, resolutely enduring, or toadying to those in power, the people have been motivated by this reality? To borrow the words of Lu Xun, admitting that one is a slave is the first step toward not being one.
The preponderance of the “bei...” construction, however, is not due solely to the uncontrolled situation described above. There are also some deeper, more expansive reasons which are quietly at play.
A recent study of labor conditions in the financial industry shows that, compared with ten years earlier, the mental and physical demands this industry has placed on employees—especially front-line employees—has clearly increased. The main increase, however, has not been in the time spent at work, but in the intensity of the work: the pressure for better performance has continued to intensify so much, in fact, that you’re afraid to relax. Even after you return home from work and lay down for a rest, exchange rates and price quotes are still swirling in your head. You are therefore easily fatigued with very little leisure time—all you want to do is relax and have fun, and you are not willing to exert yourself or do other activities that require much effort. You are obviously not going to be reading Lu Xun, listening to Stravinsky, watching German films, reading French theory, defending neighborhood interests, or worrying about the future of the country, the world, or nature, because all of this requires concentrated attention and the exertion of brain cells. These are the sorts of things from which you instinctively flee—even getting married and starting a family—because you subconsciously fear them. Where are you going to get the mental and physical strength to develop feelings for someone, work through misunderstandings, mutually adapt, provide long-term loving care, and keep a family happy?
I wish this were an exaggeration of the financial industry’s intense demands on both blue and white collar workers, and that this situation were limited to the financial industry. From a general standpoint, however, modern society continues to strive for whatever is meticulous, airtight, and efficient, and it is unable to stop heading in this direction. The closer it comes to a crisis, and the more acute the conflicts become, society’s main system of production—namely capitalism (although it is also known by some other names)—tightens its logic of operation. It stops up the leaks, increases the speed, applies more pressure, and seeks to squeeze out whatever it can. In today’s world, whether in Europe, America, or China, this crisis is becoming deeper and more immanent. All forms of “management”—a word that implies so much—will inevitably continue to turn the screw and raise demands. The conditions remain the same as before, but the availability of turnover personnel and breathing space are both largely reduced: it’s like living while having the marrow sucked out of your bones. Unfortunately it seems as if it will be difficult to restrict this situation to one certain area, as it becomes more widespread by the day and expands in all directions.
Seen like this, the continued popularity of words and phrases like “bei...” really demonstrates the most profound aspect of our era. This is a time when people are bullied excessively and the winner-takes-all, a time when self-determination has been stripped away from the people layer by layer, and a time in which people live their lives ever more passively.
At the same time, of course, this also indicates the direction of our resistance, which is to change the basic logic of society’s reproduction—but this is a topic for another essay. Only when we can actually restrain the insatiable greed of those on top can we change the present situation of our lives, which may have the appearance of mobility but which are in fact becoming ever more fixed.
 Translated from Chinese by Todd Foley.
 Translator’s note: referring to people who spread government propaganda on websites.