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Creating an Atmosphere

For members of the "atmosphere group," appearing to be hard at work is all that matters

Picture this: flashing lights, heavy bass, and attractive young people gyrating on the dance floor. Where are we? Probably a club that has recruited a team of semi-professional partiers known as a 气氛组 (qìfēn zǔ, “atmosphere group”), given free drinks and other incentives to visit the venue and create a busy atmosphere.

Originating from a real practice used by venues to draw in more customers, the term “atmosphere group” has since expanded to describe other forms of pretense. This started with an online comment asking why so many people sit in Starbucks with a laptop and a cup of coffee, and whether they are only pretending to be busy and successful.

Sensing a marketing opportunity, the coffee chain announced on Weibo that it was starting an official “Starbucks Atmosphere Group (星巴克气氛组 Xīngbākè qìfēn zǔ),” with coupons and bonuses for the first 30 people to join. To sign up, one must visit a Starbucks café, announce the fact on Weibo, and send a screenshot of the upvotes to Starbucks’ account.

The campaign made “atmosphere group” synonymous with 托儿 (tuōr), a term for paid shills that companies hire to write positive reviews of their products. The term “milk tea atmosphere group (奶茶气氛组 nǎichá qìfēn zǔ)” relates to a rumor that viral milk tea shops with big crowds actually hire people to line up at the store to drum up more business.

“Atmosphere group” can refer to other pretentious behavior in everyday life. For instance, the “postgraduate admission test atmosphere group (考研气氛组 kǎoyán qìfēn zǔ)” is a phrase mocking those who pretend to study hard but put in no real effort. The “workout atmosphere group (健身气氛组 jiànshēn qìfēn zǔ)” are those friends who take overzealous selfies at the gym. During Chinese New Year, those who were unable to travel home due to Covid-19 restrictions called themselves the “celebrating Spring Festival atmosphere group (过年气氛组 guònián qìfēn zǔ),” describing their efforts to create a festive mood in the city.

The opposite of the atmosphere group is 实干组 (shígàn zǔ, practice group), which refers to industrious people who actually put effort into their work and study. Those who burn the midnight oil at the library to finish school assignments (perhaps to compensate for group members pretending to work at Starbucks) call themselves the “self-study practice group (自习室实干组 zìxíshì shígàn zǔ).” If you fail to achieve your New Year’s resolution, you could say, “I wanted to join the practical group, but it turns out I am part of the atmosphere group (本来想成为实干组,结果现在成气氛组了 Běnlái xiǎng chéngwéi shígàn zǔ, jiéguǒ xiànzài chéng qìfēn zǔ le).”

At the heart of the tension between “atmosphere” and “practice” is a culture of vanity in today’s China. This has become a topic of social debate, from the “fake socialites” who go to elaborate lengths to create the impression of a high-end lifestyle on social media, to the online “Versailles literature” of humblebragging. These new buzzwords mock these image-conscious trends, reminding people to pay attention to real life—and not to get too caught up in the atmosphere.

Illustration by Xi Dahe

Creating an Atmosphere is a story from our issue, “Dawn of the Debt.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


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