Chinese “Pancake people” – Scratching the surface of modernity

June 14, 2012gil3 Comments, , , , , ,

Note: Gil Hizi is Ministry of Tofu’s contributor. He is also the chief editor of website Thinking Chinese.

Jianbing (煎饼), often translated to ‘Chinese pancake’, is one of the most celebrated snacks Northeast Chinese streets, and even foreigners tend to appreciate its greasy taste and its high calorie-per-money value. In recent years the jianbing is facing competition from many fast food alternatives, but not only it doesn’t retreat from the Chinese street corners, it is now also an important modern slang term.

‘Jianbing people’ or ‘jianbing ren’ (煎饼人) refers to people who cannot focus their attention on one thing at a time, or who cannot truly deepen their thoughts. Instead of developing ideas and creativity, they divide their attention to many directions, without reaching any meaningful outcome. Just like the cooking style of jianbing, where the flour spreads throughout a large circular pan, generating a very thin layer of ‘pancake’, ‘jianbing people’ also live their lives in a ‘thin layer’, that perhaps cover a lot of space, but never become ‘thick’. In other words: “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

Why is such a term becoming popular in China and what is so wrong with being a ‘jianbing person’? Many internet articles discuss this issue in the last couple of years. Some of the criticism against the ‘jianbing phenomenon’ derives from a nostalgic and bitter approach. Older generations tend to lament that today’s youngsters are too lazy and impulsive (浮躁  fuzao) and cannot really put their mind into something for too long. The internet is one of the main suspects of this jianbing situation. Many Chinese social scientists and educators blame the World Wide Web for making information so accessible, which prevents people from actually thinking. They rather feed on quick and dry information.

While some people blame the internet, other point fingers at the education system for not encouraging creative thinking. This argument is interesting, because in many aspects the last decades have introduced new forms of education that intend to develop self-sufficiency and creative capabilities in students (often associated with the suzhi jiaoyu – ‘education for quality’). Were the Communist years inducing greater creativity? Probably not, but perhaps in terms of possessing a deep and strong passion towards certain ideas they did provide, at times, some spiritual and ideological depth that is missing today.

Another possible manifestation of the ‘jianbing ren’, which articles that I have read did not mention, is social relationships. During Communist and early reform years most people were bound to a work-unit (danwei) or to the extended family, thus making their social realm quite small and homogeneous, whereas today people don’t have the same social stability. They rather need to spread their social ties to many directions. Making many superficial friendships is required in order to find job opportunities. As one’s social network becomes larger, the essence of each relationship becomes shallower (this process is illustrated in the essay of Ruan et al. “On the changing structure of social networks in urban China”, 1997). An article about the ‘jianbing ren’ by the China Youth Newspaper (中国青年报) claimed that another aspect of the pancake syndrome manifests in the topics and activities shared among friends. Superficial priorities lead to conversations that seldom become intellectual or meaningful emotionally.

The worship of money (baijin zhuyi 拜金主义) is what fuels new generations, according to critics of the ‘jianbing’ phenomenon. The desire to succeed and prosper economically ASAP (多快好省) impedes any attempt to sink without a parachute into a book or dive into a new hobby without an oxygen tank. It is not that people nowadays do not specialize in certain fields (they clearly do, otherwise they would not hold an occupation), but it seems that ‘jianbing ren’ criticizes a style of thinking that directs people towards the quickest path to possible (and often temporal) success. People therefore are neither truly versatile (tongcai 通才) nor they manage to become specialists (zhuancai 专才) at what they do. Some critics even suggest that the desire for ‘quick success’ fails to lead to the desired destination, since long-lasting and solid success requires the capabilities of patient, resilience and creativity, which instant procedures cannot bring about.

Perhaps at this point the term ‘jianbing ren’ becomes more concretely related to contemporary China rather than remaining an abstract term that represents any ‘modern’ location worldwide. The fierce socioeconomic competition in Chinese cities has produced in recent years numerous new ‘instant solutions’ for youngsters who wish to gain an advantage in the professional and occupational sphere. Advice books, workshops and training courses (normally signifying private classes that allow attendees to acquire a useful skill or pass an important exam in the fastest time possible) all tempt people to join and shorten their road to success. Computer software and applications replace some cerebral functions, only in order to save time and promote ‘valuable’ efficiency.

These phenomena do exist to some extent in many developed and developing countries. Coachers tell people what to do, physicians tell us what to eat and psychologists instruct us what to feel. Furthermore, time is money and money, we all agree, is more crucial than intellectual enlightenments.

Nevertheless, when examining what is so typical ‘Chinese’ about the ‘jianbing ren’ we can notice several things. First, it is interesting that many Chinese regard it as a local characteristic rather than an extension of a global modernity. Second, we see how certain universalistic neo-liberal phenomena take shape in the urban Chinese landscape. Thirdly, the rapid economic and cultural shifts in Chinese society in recent years make the emergence of the ‘jianbing ren’ much more drastic than elsewhere.

Unlike many other contemporary slang terms, ‘jianbing ren’ does not explicitly refer to the competitive socioeconomic conditions, yet it is inevitably linked to related phenomena such as the privatization of the market, growing generation gaps and value transformations. This term is contradictive in its nature: it criticizes the one-track social orientation towards ‘success’ while at the same time it also suggests a better path to ‘success’. ‘Jianbing ren’ is a clear result not only of changing global values, but also of the confusion they bring to the Chinese society.

Assisting reference: 自己身边多是“煎饼人”, 5/16/2012

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3 comments to “Chinese “Pancake people” – Scratching the surface of modernity”

  1. Lotus Eater | June 14, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    I think the cultivation of ‘jianbing ren’ is deliberate. A population that thinks deeply about the social, political and economic conditions in China would be a destablising force. Therefore the education system is set up to cover many, many areas at surface level, but none in depth; students are told they merely need to have the right answers and scolded for questioning either teachers’ statements or the information in the textbooks. The news media is controlled, with no in depth analysis of issues, no opposing or alternate views to stimulate discussion or thought. The social manipulation of emotion (Lei Feng Day, sudden outbreaks of anti-Japanese sentiment whenever a hard issue raises its ugly head) and the easiest emotion of all to stimulate – fear related patriotism – prevent people from actually analysing any issue without being seen as unpatriotic.

    Deep, critical, anlytical thought is the LAST thing this government wants to encourage.

    • Rackgen | June 16, 2012 | Permalink Reply

      Deep, critical, anlytical thought is the LAST thing any government wants to encourage.

      FTFY !

  2. diana | June 15, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    I dunno lotus eater, is it a manipulative top-bottom tendency, or is it that when societies are in an instable, yet growing, conditions they try to uptake everything they can, particularly when they are learning from more ‘developed’ countries.

    what I find interesting is that scholars complain that today Chinese don’t think deep enough about issues, but when was it better? In the Mao years? In imperial China when only 0.00001% of the population was considered well-educated? I certainly don’t think that there is less freedom to broaden the mind today, only more pressure maybe to do things fast.

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