Picture this all-too-familiar scenario: You spend an hour and a half commuting to work each way, five days a week, working overtime without pay. Half your weekends are taken up by business trips, while rare holidays get interrupted by pings from your clients, boss, and coworkers on WeChat—all needing an immediate reply, all hours of the day.
Quit? Rage against the machine? No—no choice but to put on a professional smile and carry on, because you are “社畜 (shèchù, corporate livestock),” and that’s your nature.
Originating in Japan’s bleakly subordinate business culture, this expression is a combination of the Japanese words “会社 (corporation)” and “家畜 (livestock)”: grassroots employees penned up in cubicles, working submissively, exploited and oppressed like draft animals.
The phrase first appeared onscreen in the 2018 Japanese TV series We Cannot Become Beasts, which featured a downtrodden white-collar worker as the female lead. It went viral, picked up by viewers who found it an apt description of their own destinies. The term found an enthusiastic reception in China, which saw an online movement earlier this year against the punishing “996” (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) schedule in IT and other industries.
Since the word “livestock” is typically an insult in Chinese, 社畜 tends to be used in self-mockery:
Get up earlier than roosters, stay up later than dogs, work more than cattle, and eat worse than pigs—that’s our life as corporate livestock!
Qǐ de bǐ jī zǎo, shuì de bǐ gǒu wǎn, gàn de bǐ niú duō, chī de bǐ zhū chà——zhè jiù shì wǒmen shèchù de rénshēng!
Pressure from work can be lethal. The term “过劳死 (guòláosǐ, death by overwork)” also came to China from Japan. However, compared to dying, Chinese livestock seem worried more about the possible havoc that overwork may wreak on their health and appearance, leading to a variation of the term: “过劳肥 (guòláoféi, obesity by overwork).”
Research shows that long working hours, irregular eating habits, and lack of sleep can lead to obesity. However, when you want to find an excuse for those extra pounds put on during Chinese New Year, “过劳肥” is a handy term to use. After all, no one should be blamed for working too hard.
I’m not fat, I’m suffering weight gain due to overwork!
Wǒ búshì pàng, wǒ shì guòláoféi!
Receding hairlines are another problem. Stress and lack of sleep are blamed for causing premature balding among millennial livestock—or 熬夜秃 (áoyètū, all-nighter baldness). So if you see your fellow livestock staying late in the corporate barn, kindly remind them:
Go home and sleep soon, or risk going all-nighter bald!
Zǎodiǎnr huíqù shuìjiào ba, xiǎoxīn áoyètū!
And maybe lay off the burgers and fried chicken for a while—after all, you are what you eat.
“Cattle Class” is a story from our issue, “The Amusement Issue”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.