Touching Fish & 996 Culture

The Chinese have always had a thing for numbers, or specific sequences of numbers, which in modern internet slang often becomes shorthand for something else. For example, ’88’ is often taken to mean ‘bye bye’ because the Mandarin word for ‘8’ is phonetically similar. Likewise, 520 has come to mean ‘I love you’ and 666 is roughly equivalent to ‘cool.’

Another sequence you hear about a lot is 996, which is a reference to the common practise of working 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This is immediately at odds with Western convention, where most people usually work 9am to 5pm five days a week. Somehow, I don’t think 955 will catch on, though it probably should because this idea that you have to work yourself into the ground in order to get ahead just isn’t healthy. It’s the large companies that promote this ideology simply because it gives them more bang for their buck. A lot of Chinese business leaders are big advocates of 996, for obvious reasons. Alibaba founder Jack Ma has said it is key to being successful in competitive industries while others, like Xibei Canyin CEO Jia Guolong still isn’t satisfied, suggesting people should adopt the 715 (15 hours a day, seven days a week) model instead.

Interestingly, in recent times there seems to be a kind of backlash brewing among young Chinese who are beginning to resent the notion that they are expected to devote seventy or more hours a week to their job when they could be playing video games or singing badly in KTV. And rightly so, I think. A recent article in British newspaper The Guardian laid out the ‘touching fish’ craze, a growing movement basically devoted to skiving. The term is a play on a Chinese proverb: “Muddy waters make it easy to catch fish,” and the idea is to take advantage of the ongoing Covid crisis drawing management’s focus away from supervising their employees. Some employees make a game of it, subversively aiming to be the one who has the most toilet breaks per working day, or fills their hot water flask most often, and compare results anonymously on platforms like Weibo. This indicates just how disenfranchised and disillusioned a large percentage of the work force in China is becoming. It’s also telling that ‘touching fish’ seems to be far more common in the new generation, recent graduates who are generally more well off than their predecessors having seen their families reap the benefits of China’s economic boom. They simply don’t need to work as hard as their parents or grandparents did. Of course, how this state of affairs will impact the future of China is another conversation.

For the record, I deplore laziness. It gets you nowhere. But you can’t help but sympathise with the young Chinese born into a culture of overwork. I imagine most of them find their work boring and unfulfilling, especially those in low-paid, menial jobs. This is one reason why I appreciate the lifestyle of a teacher in China where in most institutions you’re only expected to teach 16 or 18 hours a week, plus a few hours prep. This is in stark contrast to when as a young man I worked at a factory in Wales, or when I was a journalist in London and did ten-hour days in conjunction with a three-hour commute. Balance is important. For a long time, it seems as if the large corporations have been ruthlessly exploiting youthful exuberance, naivety, and a yearning to make one’s mark in the world. They actively encourage overwork and make it known that if you aren’t prepared to put in those seventy-hour weeks, plenty of other people will. This creates competition, but who really benefits? You guessed it, the large corporations. No wonder more and more people are touching fish.

This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on Red Dawn Publications

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