Working Titles

What do the most indus­tri­ous peo­ple on earth read for fun? 


Most of the offi­cials in Qinglin spend their days play­ing mah-jongg and get­ting drunk, but Hou Wei­dong is deter­mined to make some­thing of him­self. He sweeps the work team’s office every day. He orga­nizes vil­lagers to build a new road. Although he is drunk a fair amount—that’s a given for any­one in gov­ern­ment service—he usu­al­ly makes it home before he pass­es out.

The moun­tains around the fic­tion­al town of Qinglin, in south­west­ern Chi­na, con­sist of espe­cial­ly hard rock. And so in the first nov­el of a mul­ti­vol­ume series about the life of Hou Wei­dong the pro­tag­o­nist invests in a stone quar­ry, even though offi­cials are banned from com­mer­cial ven­tures. His tim­ing is per­fect: the coun­ty names 1994 the Year of Trans­port Con­struc­tion, and demand for stone soars. But get­ting paid is anoth­er mat­ter; any­body doing busi­ness has to bribe the gov­ern­ment finance depart­ment in order to get the mon­ey he is owed. Hou Wei­dong learns how to do this, just as he learns how to win con­tracts that have not yet been announced and how to pay off the police. His bank account grows to three hun­dred and thir­ty-sev­en times his year­ly civil servant’s salary. He buys a pager and then a Motoro­la mobile phone; his house is the first in town to have air-con­di­tion­ing.
Even­tu­al­ly, Hou Wei­dong is detained and ques­tioned in a cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tion. But he does not inform on his offi­cial patrons. After his release, friends get him elect­ed deputy town­ship chief. He makes plans to mar­ry his col­lege sweet­heart, whose par­ents have long opposed the match. They change their minds after vis­it­ing his new four­teen-hun­dred-square-foot apart­ment with two bathrooms—a cli­mac­tic scene that ends the first vol­ume of “The Diary of Gov­ern­ment Offi­cial Hou Wei­dong”:

Xiao­jia said, “Hus­band, the two of us final­ly have a house.”
Hou Wei­dong said, “This is our lit­tle nest. We will spend 100,000 yuan to ren­o­vate it prop­er­ly.”
Xiao­jia said, “We should buy a full set of home appli­ances, a VCD play­er, a 29-inch tele­vi­sion set, an auto­mat­ic wash­ing machine, an air-con­di­tion­er, and a com­plete set of wood­en floors.” And so the door to hap­pi­ness opened.
What do the Chi­ne­se, some of the hard­est-work­ing peo­ple on the plan­et, read in their spare time? Nov­els about work. The sev­en­th vol­ume of “The Diary of Gov­ern­ment Offi­cial Hou Wei­dong” was pub­lished last July, with an ini­tial print run of two hun­dred thou­sand copies. An offi­cial-look­ing red stamp on their cov­ers pro­claims that the books are a “Must-Read for Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees,” but man­agers and entre­pre­neurs read them, too. Zhichang xiaoshuo, or work­place nov­els, have topped best-sell­er lists in recent years. “Du Lala’s Pro­mo­tion Diary,” by a cor­po­rate exec­u­tive writ­ing under the pen name Li Ke, is the sto­ry of a young wom­an who ris­es from sec­re­tary to human-resources man­ager at a For­tune 500 com­pa­ny. It has inspired three sequels, a hit movie, and a thir­ty-two-part tele­vi­sion series. The books have sold five mil­lion copies. In “The Get-Rich Diary of China’s Poorest Guy,” an unem­ployed man becomes a mil­lion­aire in three years by sell­ing elec­tric cable; the book’s edi­tor attrib­ut­es its suc­cess to a clev­er title, a flashy cov­er, and the fact that “get­ting rich is the dream of all Chi­ne­se peo­ple.”

Cer­tain pro­fes­sions have their own sub­gen­res. The “com­mer­cial war­fare nov­el” pits sales teams again­st each oth­er in mor­tal com­bat over a large order. The “finan­cial nov­el” wrings dra­ma from stock prices. The “nov­el of offi­cial­dom,” which dates to impe­ri­al times, trades in the secrets and scan­dals of the bureau­cra­cy.

Like their pro­tag­o­nists, the­se books strive to be effi­cient and use­ful. They include rules for get­ting ahead in the work­place:

Social­ize with rich peo­ple. They know more than the poor.

Avoid unpromis­ing work assign­ments by feign­ing ill­ness. Wom­en should fake preg­nan­cy when nec­es­sary.

If your boss makes a pass at you, smile and flirt back.

Hire sub­or­di­nates who are bare­ly ade­quate or they’ll make you look bad.

When brib­ing an offi­cial, have your busi­ness part­ner deliv­er the mon­ey so your hands stay clean.

Du Lala’s Pro­mo­tion Diary” con­tains a long dis­qui­si­tion on how to cal­cu­late the bud­get for an office ren­o­va­tion. Else­where, the author inter­rupts the nar­ra­tive to explain what a non-com­pete agree­ment is. “The Get-Rich Diary” puts entre­pre­neuri­al tips in bold­face: “It takes many inci­dents to estab­lish a rep­u­ta­tion and only one to ruin it,” and “Sell­ing the same item in a dif­fer­ent loca­tion may increase your prof­its.”

In Amer­i­ca, writ­ers might feel pres­sured to add romance and sex to a nov­el; in Chi­na they’re told to take it out. “Traps and Links,” a thriller about sales teams com­pet­ing to win a $1.7-million com­put­er-equip­ment con­tract, was edit­ed to tone down a love inter­est. “When we first saw this book, we told the author, ‘We don’t want to pub­lish a romance nov­el. Can you make it more of a finan­cial nov­el?,’ “ Zhang Lihong, the chief edi­tor of Tsinghua Uni­ver­si­ty Press, which pub­lished the book, told me. “We knew that’s what would make it sell bet­ter.” The book has sold almost four hun­dred thou­sand copies and inspired two sequels.
Most work­place nov­el­ists do not have a lit­er­ary back­ground: one was a pio­neer in the secu­ri­ties indus­try, and anoth­er sold com­put­ers for Dell. They typ­i­cal­ly begin writ­ing anony­mous­ly on the Inter­net and are signed by pub­lish­ers after they gain an online fol­low­ing. “The Diary of Gov­ern­ment Offi­cial Hou Wei­dong” is pub­lished under a pseu­do­nym, and the book jack­et iden­ti­fies the author only as “a cer­tain deputy bureau direc­tor in a cer­tain city in a cer­tain province.” But in late 2010 news­pa­per reporters out­ed a mid-lev­el func­tionary named Zhang Bing. He worked in Yongchuan Dis­trict, one of the count­less regions admin­is­tered by the sprawl­ing city of Chongqing. The author of the Hou Wei­dong series, which has sold three mil­lion copies, was the deputy direc­tor of the Bureau of Envi­ron­men­tal San­i­ta­tion.

Zhang Bing doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink at lunch, and doesn’t praise the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. He is forty-one years old but, with his stur­dy round face, crew­cut, and keen black eyes, he resem­bles a school­boy eager for trou­ble. He is like no Chi­ne­se offi­cial I’ve ever met. In lit­er­ary cir­cles, Zhang Bing is famous for earn­ing roy­alties of two mil­lion yuan, almost three hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars. His day job is to over­see the dis­pos­al of the three hun­dred tons of garbage that Yongchuan Dis­trict gen­er­ates every day. He has a staff of twen­ty-two, a crew of six hun­dred trash col­lec­tors, and a fleet of trucks. “Our job is to col­lect garbage, trans­port garbage, and treat garbage. This is what I do,” Zhang Bing told me. “And at night I write.”

On a spring morn­ing, I accom­pa­nied him on an inspec­tion of the old city dump, whose sur­round­ing area is a pop­u­lar get­away for res­i­dents. The dump was closed three years ago, because, as Zhang Bing explained, it “did not suit the atmos­phere of a leisure area.” The trash was buried under a long field that slopes down to a stone dam.

Old Zhao, the fore­man of the site’s work crew, approached. Zhang Bing point­ed to a patch of land below the dam. “I want to make sure no water seeps into the ground here,” he said.

There won’t be much water,” Old Zhao assured him. “Don’t wor­ry about that.”

Zhang Bing wor­ried. “What if there’s a sud­den rain­storm and twen­ty mil­lime­tres of rain falls? How much water will col­lect in this spot?”

Old Zhao did some quick men­tal arith­metic. A hun­dred cubic metres, he said.

So I’d need ten trucks to get rid of all the waste­water. I want you to build anoth­er chan­nel to drain off more of the water,” Zhang Bing said. Old Zhao nod­ded. “If you spend mon­ey now, you’ll spend less lat­er,” Zhang Bing told him.

Like the hero of his books, Zhang Bing start­ed out super­vis­ing road main­te­nance and fam­i­ly plan­ning in the farm­ing vil­lages around Yongchuan. He joined the district’s forestry depart­ment in 2007 and began to write a nov­el the fol­low­ing year, anony­mous­ly post­ing chap­ters online. In the series’ ninth install­ment, Hou Wei­dong will become the Par­ty sec­re­tary of a major city. As a dis­trict deputy bureau direc­tor, Zhang Bing is four grades below that in the civil ser­vice. “The series will end there,” he told me. “I don’t real­ly under­stand the world above that, so if I keep writ­ing it won’t be authen­tic.”

Zhang Bing has nev­er con­sid­ered quit­ting his job to write full time. The eco­nom­ics of pub­lish­ing are poor: in China’s frag­ment­ed mar­ket, a suc­cess­ful book may sell ten thou­sand copies and pay five thou­sand dol­lars in roy­alties before tax­es. “If you add up the income of the ten top-earn­ing writ­ers, it’s not as much as the prof­it an aver­age build­ing brings a devel­op­er in a third-tier city,” Zhang Bing, then No. 22 on the list, said in a news­pa­per inter­view. But his reluc­tance is also a ques­tion of gen­er­a­tions. He was born dur­ing the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, when a person’s fate could be deter­mined by polit­i­cal whim. He came of age dur­ing Deng Xiaoping’s eco­nom­ic reforms, which brought oppor­tu­ni­ty but also opened up a gulf between win­ners and losers in a hyper-com­pet­i­tive econ­o­my.

I asked Zhang Bing if the series had a moral. “May­be pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers stand on high­er ground and look at things from that van­tage point,” he said. “But I write about very real, very prac­ti­cal things. I don’t write about the­o­ry. I just want to tell a sto­ry.”

The first suc­cess man­u­als to appear in Chi­na were Amer­i­can imports. In the late nine­teen-eight­ies, some peo­ple aban­doned their gov­ern­ment jobs to start busi­ness­es of their own. Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influ­ence Peo­ple” (trans­lat­ed into Chi­ne­se as “The Weak­ness­es of Human Nature”) was pop­u­lar, as was L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dia­net­ics” (“Tech­niques for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Adjust­ment”). Over the next two decades, though, many Chi­ne­se authors reject­ed the sun­ny self-actu­al­iza­tion mes­sage of the Amer­i­can self-help move­ment. A favorite among fac­to­ry work­ers was “Square and Round,” which preached how to get ahead through manip­u­la­tion and deceit. “Do not show con­cern for oth­ers,” it advised. “It insults your self-respect and will only make oth­er peo­ple look down on you.”
Com­pe­ti­tion in the work­place is a new expe­ri­ence. For decades, peo­ple inhab­it­ed famil­iar and sta­ble settings—the vil­lage, the school, the work unit. A nation­wide sys­tem that assigned jobs to all col­lege grad­u­ates was abol­ished only in the late nine­teen-nineties. A decade lat­er, pro­mot­ing one­self in meet­ings and inter­views still feels unnat­u­ral; one person’s advance­ment means that every­one else is left behind. Work­place nov­els present white-col­lar jobs as a form of glad­i­a­to­ri­al com­bat, because to most peo­ple that’s how it feels. In “Traps and Links,” which in 2006 inau­gu­rat­ed the com­mer­cial-war­fare gen­re, the dra­ma of duelling sales depart­ments is treat­ed as a fight to the death. “Sales is like war: in some cas­es it’s bet­ter to die on the bat­tle­field than to suf­fer defeat,” Zhang Lihong, of Tsinghua Uni­ver­si­ty Press, told me. “I did not enjoy read­ing this book and couldn’t fin­ish it,” she admit­ted. “It’s so brutal—people behave like ani­mals! But it’s very authen­tic.” The nov­el is based on a true sto­ry in which all but one per­son in a company’s fif­teen-mem­ber sales depart­ment were fired when a rival team won a com­put­er con­tract.

This Dar­wini­an view of the work­place is wide­spread. Yu Zhenghua, a pro­fes­sion­al investor, wrote a best-sell­er called “The Stock Pick­er.” In 1993, when the gov­ern­ment opened the mar­ket to insti­tu­tion­al investors, it orga­nized a train­ing pro­gram to teach exec­u­tives at a few select firms how to han­dle the trades. Of the thir­ty-three peo­ple in that class, Yu Zhenghua is the only one who still works in finance. “Some have gone to jail, some have fled abroad, some have lost their faith and are now dri­ving taxi­cabs,” he told me.

Are those the only options?” I asked.

Oh, and some have com­mit­ted sui­cide.”

In the open­ing pages of “Du Lala’s Pro­mo­tion Diary,” the hero­ine lands an entry-lev­el job in the Chi­na office of an Amer­i­can telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­ny. At first, Lala works hard and doesn’t com­plain. Then, real­iz­ing that her Amer­i­can boss­es don’t val­ue her at all, she takes charge of a sev­en-hun­dred-thou­sand-dol­lar office ren­o­va­tion. (In the lit­er­a­ture of the Chi­ne­se work­place, ren­o­va­tion is an obses­sion akin to inher­i­tance in the Vic­to­ri­an nov­el.) After­ward, she hec­tors her boss for a pro­mo­tion:

She swal­lowed and said, “The project is fin­ished. Will there be a bonus?”
“Our chair­man hates when peo­ple talk of mon­ey. It’s not good to speak of mon­ey.” …
Lala said to her­self: “If I don’t fight for myself, I can’t count on oth­ers to defend me.” She gath­ered up her courage and said, “Boss, can I have a raise?”
Moder­ni­ty is the book’s true the­me. Lala advances to man­age­ment by learn­ing how to pro­mote her­self, to speak up in meet­ings, to be pushy and friend­ly at the same time—in oth­er words, to act like an Amer­i­can. She mas­ters the cor­po­rate-speak of man­age­ment consultants—SWOT analy­sis, SMART objec­tives. “Multi­na­tion­als in Chi­na rep­re­sent advanced ideas and sys­tems,” Cai Mingfei, who edit­ed the Du Lala books, told me. “If you under­stand the­se ideas, they can help you no mat­ter what kind of place you work in.” While Amer­i­cans try to learn from China’s eco­nom­ic rise, the Chi­ne­se still look to the West for inspi­ra­tion. “Du Lala” is filled with Eng­lish phras­es that, tak­en togeth­er, offer a paean to the mixed bless­ings of glob­al­iza­tion:



sex­u­al harass­ment


we wish him a bright future




For­eign Cor­rupt Prac­tices Act

pay for it

Louis Vuit­ton

The nov­el is also strik­ing for what it leaves out. Lala is an attrac­tive sin­gle wom­an in her late twen­ties who lacks a social life; we nev­er see her gos­sip­ing with friends, because she doesn’t have any. A roman­tic inter­est final­ly appears—an arro­gant sales super­vi­sor who threat­ens to derail Lala’s renovation—but their love sce­nes are less impas­sioned than their dis­cus­sions of sales tar­gets. Peo­ple spend all their wak­ing hours in con­fer­ence rooms and cubi­cles, because this is what it takes to sur­vive. We nev­er even learn what Lala’s com­pa­ny sells.

“Flag dirty to me.”
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The fierce pur­suit of suc­cess once fig­ured in the plot­li­nes of Amer­i­can fic­tion, too. Hor­a­tio Alger pub­lished more than a hun­dred nov­els intend­ed as suc­cess man­u­als for youths dur­ing the late nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry, an era of indus­tri­al­iza­tion and eco­nom­ic growth that had much in com­mon with Chi­na today. Theodore Dreiser’s Sis­ter Car­rie strives for mate­ri­al pos­ses­sions as hun­gri­ly as any Chi­ne­se fac­to­ry girl or office work­er. “Here was the splen­did din­ing cham­ber, all dec­o­rat­ed and aglow, where the wealthy ate,” Car­rie observes on enter­ing a fine restau­rant for the first time. “What a won­der­ful thing it was to be rich.” But the lit­er­a­ture of America’s rise was told in moral terms. In a typ­i­cal Alger sto­ry, a poor young man impress­es a wealthy bene­fac­tor with his virtue and is reward­ed with a job that promis­es mid­dle-class respectabil­i­ty. When Car­rie becomes a lead­ing stage actress, she learns that wealth and fame do not bring hap­pi­ness.
Chi­na was once a coun­try gov­erned by morals. Its emper­or ruled through right­eous exam­ple; by show­ing him­self to be above cor­rup­tion, he assured a vir­tu­ous admin­is­tra­tion and a peace­ful empire. One of history’s first suc­cess man­u­als was the work of a fifth-century-B.C. moral­ist. “The Analects of Con­fu­cius” was a guide to zuoren, how to behave prop­er­ly: “Rich­es and rank are what every man craves; yet if the only way to obtain them goes again­st his prin­ci­ples, he should desist from such a pur­suit.” Today, the focus is on zuoshi, how to get things done. All the rules for get­ting ahead can be reduced to one: Do any­thing to sur­vive, because you’re on your own.

If sales is war, so is pub­lish­ing. Many Chi­ne­se pub­lish­ers wait to see how a book sells in its first week before decid­ing whether to pro­mote it; many writ­ers respond to this pres­sure by buy­ing hun­dreds of copies of their own works. Some con­tracts actu­al­ly stip­u­late that an author pur­chase a set num­ber of copies of his book and sell them how­ev­er he can. Sales in China’s eleven-bil­lion-dol­lar pub­lish­ing indus­try grew nine­teen per cent in 2010, accord­ing to the mon­i­tor­ing firm Bei­jing Open­Book Com­pa­ny, but almost sev­en­ty per cent of the trade is in text­books. What’s more, the retail price of an aver­age book is about four dol­lars and has bare­ly budged in a decade. “Peo­ple are will­ing to spend a lot of mon­ey to go out to din­ner or to sing karaoke, but they are used to hav­ing books be very cheap,” Peg­gy Yu, of, China’s largest online book retail­er, told me.

The cut­throat nature of the busi­ness is on dis­play in any book­store. “Du Lala’s Pro­mo­tion Diary” was fol­lowed by “Hu Keke’s Bei­jing Suc­cess Diary,” “Tian Duoduo’s Civil Ser­vice Exam Diary,” and “Su Changchang’s Strug­gle to Get a Raise Diary.” Is it enough to have one nov­el called “Mayor’s Sec­re­tary”? Appar­ent­ly not, because there’s also “Coun­ty Par­ty Sec­re­tary,” “Inspec­tion Com­mit­tee Par­ty Sec­re­tary,” and “Munic­i­pal Par­ty Com­mit­tee Sec­re­tary.” The undis­put­ed king of the gen­re is Wang Xiao­fang. He has writ­ten four­teen books draw­ing on his expe­ri­ence work­ing for Ma Xiang­dong, the for­mer vice-may­or of Shenyang, who was exe­cut­ed in 2006 for cor­rup­tion. You can’t buy that kind of pub­lic­i­ty.

The­se works owe their exis­tence to a sweep­ing lib­er­al­iza­tion of the pub­lish­ing busi­ness. In a push to mod­ern­ize its cul­ture and media indus­tries, the gov­ern­ment recent­ly gave pub­lish­ers more auton­o­my. Bureau­crats for­mer­ly bought books; now edi­tors act as aggres­sive scouts. The Shang­hai Trans­la­tion Pub­lish­ing House, the largest pub­lish­er of trans­lat­ed books in Chi­na, releas­es titles that it wouldn’t have touched before, such as Lawrence Wright’s “The Loom­ing Tow­er” (too much reli­gion) and the nov­els of Haruki Murakami (too much sex). “In the past, we pre­ferred to avoid trou­ble at all costs. If you were pun­ished, all the peo­ple involved from the man­ag­ing direc­tor on down would be fired,” Zhang Jiren, an edi­tor at the firm, told me. “Now we’re will­ing to take risks.”

Offi­cial­ly, all book pub­lish­ers in Chi­na belong to the state; in real­i­ty, pri­vate entre­pre­neurs have been oper­at­ing as pub­lish­ers for years. Inde­pen­dent press­es, which invent­ed and dom­i­nate lucra­tive cat­e­gories such as young-adult nov­els, were the first to send sales teams to book­stores. They’ve pub­lished many of the work­place nov­els and were instru­men­tal in estab­lish­ing the nov­el of offi­cial­dom. The first such work, titled “Paint­ing,” was pub­lished in 1998 by the state-owned People’s Lit­er­a­ture Pub­lish­ing House. It arose out of an old­er gen­re known as the “anti-cor­rup­tion nov­el,” whose sto­ry line typ­i­cal­ly involved the pun­ish­ment of offi­cials who fla­grant­ly abused their pow­er. But where those ear­lier sto­ries blamed graft on a few greedy indi­vid­u­als, with jus­tice pre­vail­ing in the end, “Paint­ing” showed how deeply cor­rup­tion was embed­ded in the Chi­ne­se polit­i­cal sys­tem. The gov­ern­ment was not hap­py with the book, and state-owned pub­lish­ers shied away from the mar­ket, but pri­vate press­es quick­ly took over.
“The pri­vate com­pa­nies were braver and less account­able than the state pub­lish­ers because they are not part of the reg­u­la­to­ry struc­ture,” Jo Lus­by, the man­ag­ing direc­tor of Pen­guin Chi­na, told me. She is pub­lish­ing Wang Xiaofang’s “Notes of a Civil Ser­vant” in Eng­lish. “Now the­se nov­els are such an estab­lished part of the lit­er­ary cul­ture that the gov­ern­ment can’t do any­thing about it.”

That loss of con­trol hasn’t been good for the bureaucracy’s image. In the Hou Wei­dong series, offi­cials skip work for days to play mah-jongg, or they show up only to drink tea, read news­pa­pers, and enjoy the air-con­di­tion­ing. Every meet­ing is an excuse to eat and drink at pub­lic expense, and there are end­less descrip­tions of cadres throw­ing up—on them­selves, on din­ing tables, in pub­lic toi­lets, on coun­try roads. They set up ille­gal com­pa­nies and prof­it from sweet­heart deals. Hou Wei­dong mar­vels at the scale of bribery but quick­ly mas­ters the eti­quet­te of the pay­off. The cor­rup­tion of a young man by the wide world has rarely been pre­sent­ed in such tri­umphant terms. An egal­i­tar­i­an uni­verse, the author implies, is one in which even an uncon­nect­ed nobody can learn to buy off offi­cials and sub­vert the law.

For a man who wrote a best-sell­ing nov­el that has a giant gold ingot on the cov­er, Lao Kang is sur­pris­ing­ly mod­est. Only a few friends know that he is the author of “The Get-Rich Diary of China’s Poorest Guy,” and his wife has not read the book. “She likes Kore­an soap operas,” he told me. He owns a small com­pa­ny that sells elec­tri­cal wiring, and he agreed to meet me on a rainy after­noon in his native Chongqing, on the con­di­tion that I not take his pho­tograph. He nev­er told me his real name.

Lao Kang is forty years old. He has a big, open square face with a wispy goa­tee, like a peas­ant crossed with an artist. He rejects the get-rich gospel and bold­face suc­cess tips advo­cat­ed by his own book, which he con­ceived as the sto­ry of a self-made man’s strug­gle to over­come hard­ship. “The pub­lish­er pack­aged the book as a man­u­al for suc­cess, which I very much dis­agreed with,” he told me. He was asked to rewrite the end­ing to empha­size the protagonist’s mate­ri­al wealth.

I wor­ry that the book will mis­lead young peo­ple,” he said. “It will make them focus too much on mak­ing mon­ey. If every­one in our coun­try focussed only on get­ting rich, that would be a very dan­ger­ous thing.”

But aren’t we already at that point?” I asked.

He was silent for a moment and then laughed in embar­rass­ment, as if the nation­al ethos were a per­son­al fail­ing. “But I think this will change,” he said. “A lot of peo­ple are already chang­ing their think­ing. They want to spend time with their loved ones, and to trav­el. They don’t need too many mate­ri­al goods—just enough not to have wor­ries.”

The Get-Rich Diary” tells the sto­ry of an edu­cat­ed man who has been out of work for sev­er­al years and is estranged from his wife and son. He is inspired to pur­sue suc­cess after watch­ing an “Amer­i­can Idol”-type real­i­ty show on tele­vi­sion. “They were not nec­es­sar­i­ly good singers, but they made the attempt and took action,” the nar­ra­tor says. “This was the orig­in of their suc­cess. So I must take action.” He finds work as a labor­er on a con­struc­tion site, assem­bling scaf­fold­ing for build­ings. (“If you don’t act,” the book coun­sels, “you’ll be poor forever.”) In his spare time, he starts dis­trib­ut­ing con­struc­tion mate­ri­als, sets up a sales show­room, and even­tu­al­ly buys a scaf­fold­ing fac­to­ry. (“A person’s job oppor­tu­ni­ty is to be found in the mid­st of work, not through sit­ting and imag­in­ing it.”) In three years, his com­pa­ny achieves sales of a mil­lion yuan. His wife returns home and they buy an apart­ment togeth­er. (In the Chi­ne­se work­place nov­el, the cli­max often involves an apart­ment pur­chase.)

The book describes how it feels to be a fail­ure in a place as ambi­tion-mad as Chi­na:

I am thir­ty years old.
I don’t own an apart­ment but live with my wife’s par­ents.
Every day I sleep until ten, cook a huge bowl of noodles to rav­en­ous­ly fill my stom­ach, then leave and “go to work.” … My work involves find­ing an Inter­net café to go online. I read the news, roam the online forums, or play some com­put­er games.
If I have no mon­ey to go online, I will go alone to an out-of-the-way place and sit qui­et­ly star­ing into space. This is also part of my dai­ly work.

At any rate, I will avoid people’s gaze, and I have gone into hid­ing from every­one I know.
Lao Kang reluc­tant­ly agreed to take me on a sales vis­it that he assured me would be of no inter­est. “All we’ll do is go in and sign a piece of paper,” he told me. It was his sec­ond meet­ing with Boss Peng, and he hoped to close a deal to sup­ply Inter­net cable to a pris­on in the city of Ful­ing. Boss Peng’s office was a drafty room in an unfur­nished apart­ment, lit by a flick­er­ing flu­o­res­cent bulb. The pound­ing of a ham­mer next door start­ed up like a wel­com­ing orches­tra the moment we arrived.

I’m not mak­ing mon­ey on this project, because the con­struc­tion com­pa­ny is pay­ing me such a low price,” Boss Peng, a stocky man with a meaty crew­cut head, said.

I’m not mak­ing mon­ey on this deal, either, because my costs are so high,” Lao Kang replied.

Hav­ing tak­en their vows of pover­ty, the men got down to nego­ti­a­tions. (“Any busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ty needs two peo­ple: one who wants to spend mon­ey and anoth­er who wants to earn it.”) Boss Peng want­ed to pay only ten per cent up front; Lao Kang required a twen­ty-per-cent down pay­ment. Boss Peng protested—“I thought we had already agreed on this point last Friday”—and pulled out a brick of hun­dred-yuan bills, like a show­girl flash­ing a bit of leg. The brick dis­ap­peared almost imme­di­ate­ly into the breast pock­et of his wind­break­er. Lao Kang stood firm. Next door, an inter­val of silence was fol­lowed by a sec­ond move­ment: pow­er drilling.

In the next hour, Boss Peng request­ed that the box­es of cable be deliv­ered to the con­struc­tion site that after­noon. Lao Kang said he need­ed two days. Boss Peng explained that he had only fif­teen days to fin­ish the job. See­ing his advan­tage, Lao Kang said he could guar­an­tee deliv­ery the next day if Boss Peng paid him on the spot. The brick of cash reap­peared and changed hands. The drilling con­tin­ued and the ham­mer joined back in, build­ing to a crescen­do as the two men signed the con­tract.

This nego­ti­a­tion had tak­en two hours. “I’m very tired,” Boss Peng said.

I’m very tired, too,” Lao Kang said. “In our next life, let’s not do busi­ness. Let’s be gov­ern­ment offi­cials instead.” For sup­ply­ing six thou­sand dol­lars’ worth of Inter­net cable to Boss Peng, Lao Kang earned less than fifty dollars—a prof­it mar­gin of sev­en-tenths of one per cent.

As we drove back to his office, Lao Kang told me that he could imag­ine a dif­fer­ent way of life. His wife’s sis­ter and her hus­band have lived and worked in the Unit­ed States for years. “They don’t focus on mon­ey,” he said. “All they care about is liv­ing a pleas­ant life. Every week­end, they dri­ve some­where on an out­ing.”

I sug­gest­ed that he could also spend week­ends this way.

Yes,” he said. “But every time I think about doing it I imme­di­ate­ly think I should be doing some­thing more mean­ing­ful. Like work­ing.”

In a nation that so wor­ships mate­ri­al suc­cess, even the heretics are high achiev­ers. Zhao Xing is a twen­ty-six-year-old exec­u­tive at an Amer­i­can pub­lic-rela­tions firm in Bei­jing who also writes a blog aimed at office work­ers in their twen­ties. But Zhao Xing does not offer tips on becom­ing a man­ager or a mil­lion­aire. Instead, she advis­es read­ers on how to ful­fill their dreams while sur­viv­ing the workplace—an explic­it rejec­tion of the work-obsessed soci­ety she lives in. “We dis­agree with Du Lala,” she told me. “All she does is fight. It is very tir­ing. I keep telling my read­ers that we don’t have to be like that. If we’re just like our elders, soci­ety will nev­er devel­op.”

Zhao Xing’s first book, which comes out in Chi­na this spring, is not about work. It’s about an eleven-day trip that she made to Tai­wan in 2010, sleep­ing on the couch­es of fam­i­lies she met online. Chi­ne­se tourists are not allowed to trav­el to Tai­wan except in orga­nized groups, so the book, which sold well in Tai­wan, is get­ting a lot of atten­tion. “It’s been my dream to vis­it Tai­wan since I was sev­en­teen,” she told me. A sec­ond book, com­bin­ing essays and fic­tion about the work­place, is due out lat­er this year.

Zhao Xing is part of what the Chi­ne­se call bawuhou, the post-1985 gen­er­a­tion. Accus­tomed to a life of mate­ri­al com­fort and choice, they don’t define suc­cess in the stan­dard ways. “We grew up along with China’s reforms,” she said. “You can’t moti­vate us with money—you have to appeal to our dreams. For exam­ple, a post-’85 may quit a job so he can take a trip. This is unimag­in­able to the old­er gen­er­a­tion.” Read­ers often write her about their aspi­ra­tions: to be a good teacher, to buy Louis Vuit­ton, to direct films, to take their par­ents on a plane trip for the first time.
Zhao Xing would like to vis­it “the places oth­er peo­ple can­not go, like Ice­land, Fiji, and the Vat­i­can.” She wants to improve her piano-play­ing. She was the only work­place writer I met who offered her own def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess. “Suc­cess means that you can live the way you want, that you can be your­self and not the per­son oth­ers want you to be,” she told me. “I can’t say I’ve achieved this, but I’m pur­su­ing it.”

Don’t get wrapped up in your title and the words on your busi­ness card,” she tells read­ers in one blog post. “Life is not lived for the sake of those few words.… You can change the com­pa­ny, you can change the pro­fes­sion, but your own youth comes only once, and of your own inner being you have only one. Don’t sac­ri­fice your soul and your ideas for any­thing. You must have dili­gent behav­ior and a brave heart.”

Though Zhao Xing rep­re­sents some­thing new in con­tem­po­rary fic­tion, she is also a throw­back to an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of Chi­ne­se writ­ers: those who were con­cerned not with how to work but with how to live. ♦

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