Chinese youth are identifying with the struggles of the protagonist in Lu Xun’s “Kong Yiji,” as they face unemployment and limited job prospects despite their education.
China’s cyber community was recently stirred by a viral discussion about an old literary character from a short story written by Lu Xun. The story is experiencing a resurgence in popularity among Chinese youth who identify with its protagonist, a learned scholar by the name of Kong Yiji (孔乙己) who is unable to find work due to his impractical skills. They relate to the character’s struggles with unemployment and academic limitations, often calling themselves “modern Kong Yijis” and using his long robe as a symbol of their own educational shackles. As graduate job opportunities dwindle, many feel trapped and hopeless, searching for a way out.
Lu’s story is set in an era when the imperial examination (科举, kējǔ) system had just been abolished. Kong was one of the poor intellectuals who had studied the classics for most of their lives but failed the examination. Despite carrying himself with a scholarly demeanor, he lacked the ability to make a living and was unwilling to engage in physical labor to make money. Lu used this character to illustrate the decadence of people educated through the imperial examination system and the tragedy of Chinese intellectuals in the late Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911). Additionally, Kong served as a symbol of apathy among individuals in the old days.
However, this forgotten character seems to have found new life through some young netizens. Having spent most of their lives struggling for a diploma, they have ended up jobless due to the current shortage of graduate jobs, which they describe as “unemployment upon graduation (毕业即失业 bìyè jí shīyè).”
According to the Communist Party Youth League, the number of students graduating from college is expected to hit 11.58 million this year. The new graduates have studied under quarantine and lockdowns for three years due to the pandemic, only to face the toughest graduate season ever (史上最难毕业季 shǐshàng zuì nán bìyèjì). Tired of being “involuted,” the young generation now is all “Alexander (亚历山大 Yàlìshāndà),” a homophone of 压力山大 (yālì shāndà), meaning ”shouldering pressure as huge as a mountain.”
In Lu Xun’s story, long-shirted customers in taverns are upper-class people who can sit down to drink, while lower-class people in short shirts can only stand and drink outside. Kong Yiji, as a failed scholar, is the only person wearing a long gown and drinking his wine standing—the contradiction indicates his pathetic fate.
Netizens are now struggling with the dilemma of facing unemployment or accepting labor jobs or low-paid work that is not commensurate with their qualifications. They use “Kong Yiji’s long gown (孔乙己的长衫 Kǒng Yǐjǐ de chángshān)” as a metaphor for their “academic shackles that cannot be removed (脱不掉的学历枷锁, tuōbudiào de xuélì jiāsuǒ).”
The heated internet discourse began with a small group of people sighing online: “A high education background is like a pedestal I cannot step down from, and a long gown Kong Yiji cannot remove (学历是我下不来的高台，更是孔乙己脱不掉的长衫 Xuélì shì wǒ xiàbulái de gāotái, gèng shì Kǒng Yǐjǐ tuōbudiào de chángshān).”
Netizens soon termed this kind of writing the literature of Kong Yiji (孔乙己文学 Kǒng Yǐjǐ wénxué) and found themselves relating to its meaning. One quote in particular gained popularity: “If I had not received an education, I could find other work to do. But precisely because I have been educated, I cannot do so (如果我没读过书，我可以找别的活做，可我又偏偏读过书 Rúguǒ wǒ méi dúguò shū, wǒ kěyǐ zhǎo bié de huó zuò, kě wǒ yòu piānpiān dúguò shū).”
Some graduates who were brave enough to take off their long gowns and accept blue-collar jobs shared their plight on social media. One wrote, “Low-level jobs do not require lofty degrees. Only when I changed my education background to high school graduate, could I find a job washing dishes (找底层的工作不要高学历，只有把学历改成高中毕业才有了一个洗盘子的工作 Zhǎo dǐcéng de gōngzuò búyào gāo xuélì, zhǐyǒu bǎ xuélì gǎichéng gāozhōng bìyè cái yǒule yí gè xǐ pánzi de gōngzuò).”
As a result, graduates have begun to question the value of striving to attend higher education institutions. Rather than “education being second to none (万般皆下品，惟有读书高 wànbān jiē xiàpǐn, wéiyǒu dúshū gāo),“ as it was praised in Kong‘s lifetime, some netizens today go so far as to declare that “education is useless (读书无用 dúshū wúyòng).”