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Office Zootopia: How Chinese Netizens Relate to Animals

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Increasingly frustrated by their career prospects, China’s workers are likening themselves to various animals to blow off steam

Capybaras, monkeys, dogs…China’s netizens’ propensity for capturing their standing in the world via animal memes knows no bounds. While tech companies once promoted “wolf culture (狼性文化 lángxìng wénhuà),” defined by long hours, sacrifice for the good of the company, and unwavering struggle for the best outcomes, jaded young workers are now more likely to refer to themselves as “corporate livestock (社畜 shèchù)” or “office oxen and horses (上班牛马 shàngbān niúmǎ).”

The corporate livestock label has been around since 2019 but recently found new life under the hashtag “Stop calling yourself livestock (不许再叫自己牛马了 bùxǔ zài jiào zìjǐ niúmǎ le)” on the microblogging platform Weibo. Here, netizens bemoan how their plight is apparently on par with, if not worse than, that of working animals: “High-quality livestock get a one-day break for every day worked, while high-quality workers push themselves to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week (优质牛马上一休一,优质打工人拼007 Yōuzhì niúmǎ shàng yī xiū yī, yōuzhì dǎgōngrén pīn líng-líng-qī),” one Weibo user wrote on May 30.

Other netizens took up the challenge to try and find the “differences between oxen and office livestock (牛和牛马的区别 niú hé niúmǎ de qūbié).” One user on the social media platform Xiaohongshu wrote, “Nobody would call an ox at midnight asking it to plow the field again in a different direction, but corporate livestock have to redo their assignments again and again (没人半夜打电话让牛把白天犁的地换方向再犁一遍,而牛马一个方案被要求改来改去 Méi rén bànyè dǎ diànhuà ràng niú bǎ báitiān lí de dì huàn fāngxiàng zài lí yí biàn, ér niúmǎ yí gè fāng’àn bèi yāoqiú gǎilái gǎiqù).”

The comparisons are not limited to just beasts of burden. Office workers have also previously referred to themselves as “wage slave dogs (打工狗 dǎgōnggǒu).” As another Xiaohongshu user put it in December last year: “Going to work is like being a dog, not only selling labor but also selling your dignity (上班像做狗,不止出卖劳动力,甚至出卖了尊严 Shàngbān xiàng zuò gǒu, bùzhǐ chūmài láodònglì, shènzhì chūmàile zūnyán).”

More recently, netizens have become “monkeys (吗喽 mālōu).” This Cantonese term from the southern Guangxi and Guangdong area spread among online communities in early 2023 when demand for the region’s sugar tangerines soared. Netizens urged locals to pick the fruit faster so that they could get their fill. In response, one local is reported to have written online: “Stop pushing us! Even a monkey’s life has value. (别催了!吗喽的命也是命。Bié cuī le! Mālōu de mìng yě shì mìng.)”

These memes have since entered the workplace, with netizens describing themselves as hapless monkeys with phrases like, “I am just a monkey. What can I do? (我只是一只猴子,我能怎么办呢?Wǒ zhǐshì yì zhī hóuzi, wǒ néng zěnme bàn ne?)”

Meanwhile, the public WeChat account Chaping wrote in an article last December, “What’s the difference between a monkey screaming, swinging from vines, and snatching bananas from tourists, and myself who gets angry, squeezes into the subway, and gets harshly criticized by my boss (尖叫、抓住树藤荡来荡去、抢游客香蕉的吗喽,和那个生气、钻进地铁挤来挤去、被领导痛批的自己,有什么区别呢 Jiānjiào、zhuāzhù shùténg dànglái dàngqù、qiǎng yóukè xiāngjiāo de mālōu, hé nàge shēngqì、zuānjìn dìtiě jǐlái jǐqù、bèi lǐngdǎo tòngpī de zìjǐ, yǒu shénme qūbié ne)?”

Rather than distressed monkeys, most netizens aspire to become “spiritual capybaras (精神水豚人 jīngshén shuǐtúnrén).” Busy workers are finding solace in the cute, calm, and seemingly contented oversized South American rodents, images of which have flooded China’s internet in recent months. Many young workers hope to emulate the capybara’s peaceful aura, considering them their “spirit idols (精神偶像 jīngshén ǒuxiàng)” and declaring themselves a part of the “capybara sect forever (豚门永存 túnmén yǒngcún).”

As hardworking as livestock, as submissive as dogs, as crazy as monkeys, and with the ambition to be as mentally grounded as capybaras…As one netizen recently put it: “Wage slaves aren’t just humans. They can be any animal. (打工人除了人,什么动物都能当。Dǎgōngrén chúle rén, shénme dòngwù dōu néng dāng.)”

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