Photos: China’s college grads in ‘ant tribes’ pursue dreams

August 25, 2011Jing Gao3 Comments, , , , , , , ,

From QQ

You can always meet such people: they came to an alien land all by themselves, sleep on cheap bunks, send bunches of application letters and try out new jobs, call their families and whine over the phone, and then assure them, “I can get it done.” In that case, they are very likely to belong to an ‘ant tribe.’

“Ant tribe” was coined several years ago to describe the millions of Chinese college grads who, unable to afford high rents, crowd together in slums in major cities and scrape by on meager salaries. They have stepped off campus. Their careers are not yet onto the right track. Their future seems so uncertain and undecided.

Most “ant nests” are very ill-equipped, providing simply bunk beds and a water sink. It would be a “high-end” ant nest if it has internet access and a shower. Most apartments have four to six rooms, each packed with several bunk beds. As a result, the rent is very cheap, ranging from 100 to 300 yuan (US$15 to 46) per month in the city of Shenyang in China’s northeast. Low rent is the biggest enticement to ‘ant tribes.’ However, their biggest concern is if people in the same room are on the same page and can get along. After all, an ant tribe is unlike a college; you need much longer time to get to know one another. On the other hand, ants seem to be kindred spirits. They are in similar circumstances and strive for the same ideal – being able to move out of the ant nests one day.

Leaf is now an intern at an real estate selling company in Shenyang. She waits to be offered a full-time position after graduation. Every day, she is the first in her ant nest to rise and leave. Her job is to promote the sales of real estate to customers of all kinds. After she returns to her nest, she has to go through her thesis and prepare for the defense next month.

Moon is Leaf’s classmate. She is right now a trainee at a cosmetics company. She is required to memorize things printed on a thick stack of documents within days of training, and will be relocated to a remote and unfamiliar city for a month the first week after her official entry.

Huan Huan majors in animation. She is crazy about photography, and works as an assistant in a photo studio specializing in children’s portraits. She has been shooting photos on her own ever since half a month after her internship started. She works extensively with kids and has a lot of anecdotes and fun facts to tell at night in the ‘ant nest.’

Little Huan is Huan Huan’s friend. They two happen to share in their names the same Chinese character for “joy.” Little Huan is a shop assistant at a department store. She is always the last one to return. After she gets home, she goes to bed soon after washing and seldom engages herself into conversation with girls in the room.


Due to different work hours, while some are soundly asleep, others have got ready to go.


With a busy life, snoozing for a little longer would be an extravagant wish.


Leaf is the earliest bird. Her hairdryer is also admittedly an alarm clock for everyone else.


Ready to go.


Huan Huan and Moon get up subsequently to embrace their new day.


When everyone else is still busy around, Leaf is leaving. “Today I gotta sell an apartment out” is her goal.


The amenities in the room, if any, are very simple. The bed and the walls are covered with adhesive hooks. Hangers also line the bedstead.


Socks that girls air to dry.


Hot water that girls use is supplied by an immersion heater that Leaf has bought.


A homemade hanger.


Moon has just been enrolled in training classes offered by her new employer. She has to remember the reference materials by heart, so she reviews those materials every day after work.


Huan Huan gets home from work quite early. She sometimes makes do with instant noodles for dinner in the room.


Leaf devotes most of her spare time to her thesis as the date for defense draws near.


Moon reviews her materials.


Huan Huan gets home when it is quite late. Girls are going to bed soon.


In the spare time, girls gather together. It must be when the American TV shows they’ve been following closely are updated online.



Everyone talking at night about what they have seen and heard during the day is the jolliest moment of the entire day. The glow emitted by Huan Huan’s lamp makes the little room cozy.


Huan Huan applies moisturizer to her face before going to sleep.


Leaf is about to wave goodbye to this day.


One day has passed, and another day is coming.


Huan Huan works at a children’s photography studio and meets many adorable children. She has the best to offer as bedtime stories.


Leaf works at a real estate company. She sold two units in less than a month.


Little Huan works at a department store. She is the last one to get home.


Moon is a trainee at a cosmetics company. She makes the most money among the four girls.

No one knows how much longer such life would last, and everyone is thinking about escape, about when their jobs are safe within their grasps, when they can afford to move into an apartment and share it with no one else, and when they no longer have to be on the go like this…

Best wishes to those young people who are still endeavoring.

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3 comments to “Photos: China’s college grads in ‘ant tribes’ pursue dreams”

  1. Nick | August 25, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    Nice translation!

    For the home page, would it be possible to make the pictures/images to each article be a link to the article, not the picture itself? Much easier for navigation

  2. Homesteaders | August 29, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    Great information! I really thank you for making the effort to share this. Thank you!

  3. ratmaozepingpong | August 29, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    good piece! I saw something similar on Global Times a while ago.

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