China’s Striving, Sexually Frustrated Young Men See Themselves in Jay Gatsby

China’s Striving, Sexually Frustrated Young Men See Themselves in Jay Gatsby

This is a guest post from Jianyu Hou, a China-based writer and contributor to FP‘s Tea Leaf Nation

With his crystal blue eyes, luxury cars, and fabulous parties, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby may appear to have little in common with China’s legions of sexually frustrated young men who struggle to afford small apartments in Beijing or Shanghai. But to many Chinese Internet users, the similarities are uncanny.

On Aug. 30, the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby hit theaters in mainland China, more than three months after its release in the United States. According to Box Office Mojo, which tracks worldwide box office receipts, the movie grossed over $4 million in mainland China during its first week, and over $13 million to date, making it a modest hit by Chinese standards. (Property tycoon Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, according to Bloomberg, recently announced that his company Dalian Wanda Group had signed agreements with U.S. talent agencies to produce films with megastars like DiCaprio.)

Although the story is set almost 100 years ago on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s classic has found an unlikely group of sympathizers among China’s urban youngsters, who share Gatsby’s frustration in love and in life.

In China’s Internet lingo, Gatsby is a diaosi — a nobody. Initially meaning "loser," diaosi has been re-appropriated by younger generations of Chinese who are dissatisfied with the definition of success in a society where ‘winning’ often requires social connections and parental help. Though diaosi implies a degree of social failure, self-identified diaosi tend to be young men — students or young professionals working in information technology, media, or marketing — struggling to turn their expensive education into well-paid jobs that will allow them to win the hearts and hands of their crushes.

Many of these young Chinese identify with Jay Gatsby. A nobody-turned-millionaire, Gatsby clumsily claws his way into the upper class to win back his ex, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, who has married an old-money playboy named Tom Buchanan. The theme of trying to win a girl with money, and ultimately falling short, is painfully familiar to China’s diaosi generation.

The Great Gatsby also resonates because of perceived similarities between the United States in the 1920s and China today. On Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging service, one user writes: "After seeing The Great Gatsby, I think the 1920s New York depicted in the movie is just like Beijing and Shanghai today in terms of people’s situations and relationships." Economic prosperity, tension between traditional and modern values, the new rich and their intrigues on the way to success, and deep class divides characterize both modern-day China and Jazz-Age America.

Chinese web users have paid particular attention to The Great Gatsby‘s exploration of class divisions. In China, many a would-be Gatsby have failed in love, faced unequal competition in the education system and the job market, and endured contempt from the more established class. A May 2013 survey of over 35,000 single Chinese women, conducted by the web portal iFeng, found that self-made Chinese men from small cities or rural areas were surprisingly unpopular on the marriage market. They are known as "phoenix men" because of their rise from poverty to wealth, giving them an exalted status among parents and small-city friends. But survey respondents said these men lack confidence and prioritize their extended family over their wives.

Men from "old money," however, are considered more confident and willing to prioritize their own wives and children. In Gatsby’s failed quest to court Daisy, he rejects Tom’s classist notion that upper-class families possess not just wealth, but also ideas and ways of thinking that Gatsby can never grasp. As columnist and author Xin Haiguang wrote in September, "One good thing about this is that The Great Gatsby pours cold water on young [Chinese] who obsess over fiction involving time-travel or reincarnation [both popular escapist fare in China] and fantasize about rising above their roots. Don’t be naïve. A diaosi is just a diaosi. The underdog winning the game is never such a simple matter."  

More broadly, moviegoers find the disillusionment pervading The Great Gatsby reflected in growing disillusionment with the "Chinese Dream," which Chinese President Xi Jinping has defined as the "great revival of the Chinese nation." Authorities have heavily promoted the phrase, calling on the people to work together for the betterment of the Chinese nation. Yet many Chinese are unconvinced that patriotic self-sacrifice yields tangible results, given persistent concerns such as income disparity and the decline of social mobility. Some Chinese see in Gatsby’s tragic fall the confirmation of their fears: that the Chinese Dream, like Gatsby’s American Dream, is only an illusion.

On Douban, a film and book review site popular with young Chinese intellectuals, a blogger with the handle "I Am in the Darkness" argues that Daisy Buchanan represents the "goddesses who are out of reach." Gatsby thinks he can win back Daisy after making his fortune, but China’s diaosi instinctively know he is wrong. "The worst problem diaosi had when they started out in life is the lack of money," the blogger writes. "This ‘congenial deficiency’ leads to a flaw in their overall approach; they think that money can solve all their problems." That also means that diaosi think that if they make a fortune, women will surely accept their advances — an expectation that is often dashed.

"Her voice is full of money," Fitzgerald wrote of Daisy Buchanan. "That was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it." It’s the same song that calls China’s youth today.