What do Chinese college graduates have in common with ants? The recent book "Ant Tribes", about the life of some young people who flock to Beijing after leaving university, depicts the graduates, like ants, as smart but insignificant as individuals, drawing strength from living together in communities.
The book, which is based on two years' of interviews with about 600 low-income college graduates in Beijing, came out in mid-September, about a month ahead of an announcement by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security that 74% of the 6.11 million new graduates from China's universities and colleges had been employed by Sept. 1.
For the book's chief editor, Lian Si, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, that piece of statistic says little about the real situation for many of these graduates. "I am always wondering how many of these employed college graduates are leading a decent life," Lian said. "I hope this book could offer a window on these graduates, whose stories are rarely known."
The setting of the book is several so-called "settlement villages for college students" in the outskirts of Beijing, where a large number of college graduates live. Most of these graduates work for small or medium-sized businesses, earning less than 2,000 yuan a month. They live together because it's cheap: The rent in these communities is only around 350 yuan a month. Many of them travel several hours a day for short-term jobs or job interviews.
Tangjialing, a small village 20 kilometers from Tian'anmen Square, has around 3,000 original villagers, but has become a home for more than 50,000 migrants, most of them graduates from all over the country. Lian calls it "a community with small lanes, dotted with small hair salons, clinics, groceries and Internet cafes. He describes the students" dormitories as five- or six-storey buildings built by local farmers with 12 rooms on each floor and two or three people crammed together in each room of about 10 square meters. Up to 70 or 80 people share the same toilet and kitchen.
According to the book, around 60% of these college graduates are from rural areas and smaller towns around China. Back home, many of them are the pride of their families and possibly the best hope for the family in the struggle against poverty. Many of them lost their jobs during the financial crisis in late 2008, but decided not to go home, not wanting to admit defeat in Beijing.
Lian described a Lunar New Year dinner he spent with the graduates: "At first, everyone was in a festive mood; we made dumplings and cooked many dishes...but then when it turned late and the bustle outside quieted down, completely unexpectedly, all of these boys and girls just huddled together, crying. At this very special occasion, there was no reason to hide their homesickness and frustrations any more," he recalled.
Deng Kun, a 24-year-old college graduate, is an "ant" featured in the book. After graduating from his university in Yunnan province, he came to Beijing and once lived in Tangjialing for about half a year and is now thinking about returning to Tangjialing due to the low cost of living there. Despite many setbacks over the past two years, he is still hopeful.
"I don't really care what hardships I have to go through, as long as I persist with my goal and continue to pursue a better life with an active attitude and a strong mind, I am sure I could succeed in the end. In this regard, we are indeed like ants."
The book has struck a chord with readers, especially those in similar circumstances, and has garnered many positive reviews on cultural site Douban.com.
"The concept of 'ants tribes' has been widely recognized among Chinese college graduates thanks to this book, so we are going to include the life and struggle of more 'ants' in other parts of China in our next book." Lian said.