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To grow bigger by belittling oneself

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2014-11-15 08:19

Although these expressions have long etymological histories, their sudden popularity cannot be explained by the vogue of social media alone. The author Ma Xiaoyan traced it back to the 1990s when Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow was embraced on mainland college campuses as a voice that spoke to them like no other. Since then Chow has been elevated to a god-like pantheon.

Chow often portrays an underachiever who is rescued by a damsel. The humor he squeezes out of the vulnerability proves to be endearing to legions of the young who have failed to identify with the traditional archetype of the hero known for rescuing the damsel in distress. Of course, he ends up winning her, but not through heroic posturing or deeds, but rather, by playing the loser or victim of circumstances.

In a go-getter culture that is relentlessly striving for higher goals, the masses need something to fall back on, to justify the status quo so to speak. Not everyone can be a Jack Ma or ace a class of Harvard aspirants. When success is defined almost exclusively by fame and fortune, it takes courage, as some argue, to stand up and proclaim that you are not successful but you are happy with it. It is a gesture of defying conventions, they insist.

Others contend it is a trend of servility, a kind of self-deprecating humor that masks their inferiority and timidity and their eagerness to belong in a more enviable social group. Actually, it is reflected in the way they assign nicknames to some of the biggest symbols of worldly success. Wang Sicong, son of the Wanda business empire, is seen by many as the country's most coveted bachelor and hence hailed as "the national husband", and Han Han, best-selling author and now filmmaker, has gained the moniker "the national father-in-law" after he started posting photos of his daughter.

The Chinese tradition dictates a level of superiority by seniority. When you address someone who is not your relative and not much older than you are as if they are your father, grandfather or husband (Confucian hierarchy demands women obey their husbands unconditionally), it involves a subtle or not-so-subtle self-debasement.

Beijingers use ye (literally grandfather) to denote a patriarchal position. The best illustration of the hierarchical implication is in Lu Xun's classic tale of a lowlife who was preyed upon by those stronger than he and, instead of fighting back, uttered the most famous line for underachieving - "I'm your father!" - in a psychological counterattack to get even.

If this is the yardstick, the current fad has sunk lower because the online populace readily kowtows to icons of success without even being bullied. But it would be simplistic to equate this readiness with the age-old custom of humility such as addressing oneself as "your humble servant" or "I'm unworthy".

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