China's growing postgrad 'ant tribes' (蚁族)

China's growing postgrad 'ant tribes' (蚁族)

Chinese university graduates are turning into ants -- in a manner of speaking
Ant Tribe (蚁族)
A recent Chinese university graduate embraces the ant tribe lifestyle.

If you are a Chinese university graduate born in the 1980s, working an unstable job that pays less than RMB 2,000 per month, living in a shared RMB 350 apartment and spending over two hours a day travelling to and from work, then you're officially an “ant.” Welcome to the ant tribe.

"Ant Tribe," a recently published anthropology book that's making waves, describes China’s post-‘80s generation: university graduates from rural China who dream of a better life in big cities but struggle with low-paying jobs and poor living standards.

Members of the tribe

“Ant Tribe” is the outcome of two years of research and interviews with the “ant” community around China's major metropolises. The reason that this group of college graduates are compared to ants is because "ants are intelligent, hardworking and strong in groups," explains Lian Si (廉思), chief editor of the book and a postdoctoral student from Beijing University. He says "ant" ranks also include "low-income graduates who live together in communities with poor living standards.”

“The ‘ants’ are usually between 22 and 29 years old,” Lian explains in an interview with China Youth Daily (青年日报). “They make between RMB 1,000-2,500 a month, spend RMB 377 on rent and RMB 529 on food, so they can just get by.” Many of these people work in the sales and hospitality industries. Most of them don’t have labor contracts with their employers and are not entitled to any social or medical insurance. They cram together with three or four other people in a ten-square-meter room and share a toilet with up to 70 people.

[The 'ants'] make between RMB 1,000-2,500 a month, spend RMB 377 on rent and RMB 529 on food, so they can just get by— Lian Si, postdoctoral student from Beijing University.

With little space and privacy, sex is also a problem for the “ants.” According to Lian, “They hardly have a place for sex, therefore very few ‘ants’ can think about getting married.”

Why people are buzzing

"Ant Tribe" has stirred much debate online as people consider whether China’s “elites” (university graduates) have become the fourth weak social group, after peasants, migrant workers and the unemployed.

Xiao Chuan, a blogger from Shanghai, concludes that these graduates don’t deserve our pity, it’s their own choices that make them live like this: “Why can’t university graduates work in restaurants? China’s education system make graduates think they are princes and princesses, it also made them very fragile.”

Although Xiao Chuan isn’t alone in this opinon, Tang Peiliang, another blogger on, represents the other side of the debate. For Tang, “ants” are superior to young people who “eat their elders” (啃老族), young adults who are capable of supporting themselves but living off their parents. According to Xiao Chuang, “at least the ants struggle, they’re fighting for a better future.”

Is this the best the future has to hold for China's 1980s generation, an ant tribe?