Tea Leaf Nation

Meet China’s Jack Kerouac

Meet China’s Jack Kerouac

The portly Chinese man strolled through an open-air market, holding an AK-47 to his chest, surrounded by six gun-toting security guards. Under a crystal-blue sky sat a nightmarish urban scene: walls ridden by bullet holes, piles of garbage strewn on dirt roads, a gunshot or two ringing in the air. A 36 year-old entrepreneur from Beijing, Zhang Xinyu had spent most of 2012 traveling with his fiancée, Liang Hong. Mogadishu, the capital of war-ravaged Somalia, was his idea of a tourist destination.  

Zhang and Liang are among a growing number of Chinese who want to escape the rat race and see the world. The intense pressure of trying to get into the best school or pursuing a lucrative career has left many young Chinese hungry for freedom, romance, and adventure. Chafing under social expectations to hold down a stable job and save up to buy an apartment, they fantasize about traveling to exotic places and leaving work or school far behind. Perhaps that’s why On the Road, a 15-part documentary about Zhang and Liang released in 2013, has received more than 100 million views on Youku, China’s Youtube, with thousands of comments expressing encouragement and admiration.

While the vast majority of Chinese will never wander through a Somali marketplace, stories like Zhang’s have stirred a sense of collective wanderlust. A group on Chinese community discussion site Douban called "Quit & Travel" has more than 200,000 members, its own iPad magazine, promotional video clip, and even a theme song, which urges followers to find "another self on the road, a self that is relaxed, free, and tolerant." Several popular comment threads on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, discuss the trend of traveling after "naked resignation," a newly-coined term referring to the practice of quitting work without lining up another job: On Weibo, the term has been mentioned almost 600,000 times. According to an infographic published by Sohu, one of China’s largest Internet portals, almost half of more than 3,000 respondents to an online survey wanted to tender a naked resignation and then go traveling.

The desire to take a travel sabbatical has become so prevalent among white-collar urban Chinese that it’s almost cliché. According to a viral tweet on Weibo, there are now four typical yuppie dreams: "Opening up a café in the city, quitting one’s job to travel in Tibet, running a small inn in Lijiang, and biking to Lhasa." (Lijiang is a tourist town in southwest China; Lhasa is the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a popular destination for well-heeled Chinese, despite the region’s severe ethnic tensions.) One Internet user posted photos in July 2013 purporting to show a traffic jam of expensive mountain bikes on the Chengdu-to-Lhasa section of Route 318, a 1,300-mile road through remote regions at altitudes as high as 16,400 feet. "It’s crowded like a street market," the user claimed.

But to many young Chinese struggling to find a job or support their families, a sabbatical seems like a luxury that only the fu’erdai — "rich second generation," which refers to the children of the wealthy and connected — can afford. One user commented on Weibo, "I have parents to support. I can’t do a ‘naked resignation’ without a rich daddy." Another user cautioned against such seeming indulgence: Quitting to travel, she wrote, "is wasting your best years on frivolous pursuits, not a good idea unless you are prepared to be single forever and have no family to support and be responsible for."

Some are incredulous that Zhang and Liang have the courage to step so far out of the daily grind of working to pay for mortgages, child care, and parental care that bedevils so many Chinese in their 20s and 30s. But Zhang is a self-made man, who says he never went to university and never held a desk job. Instead, after a stint in the late 1990s as a mechanic and cook in the People’s Liberation Army, he worked as a kebab peddler, a street sweeper, and even the manager of a public bathroom. Zhang earned his first million renminbi (approximately $125,000) in 2002 by making tofu machines and selling them to tofu merchants.

By the mid-2000s, Zhang and Liang were running a moderately successful jewelry-store franchise. At that point, "what I thought about all day was making money, buying a house, making more money, and buying a bigger house," Zhang says in On the Road. The turning point came in May 2008, when Zhang and Liang visited Sichuan province, immediately after a Richter-scale 8.0 earthquake devastated the area. They said they were deeply touched by the ephemerality of life, and "decided to follow their dreams." In 2012, Zhang and Liang put their careers on hold and started traveling to places like Mogadishu, Chernobyl, Oymyakon in Siberia (one of the coldest places on Earth), and the Marum volcano in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. They plan to get married at the South Pole.

Zhang’s story is not the only one that has fired up China’s collective imagination. A family from Yanzhou, a small city in Shandong province, made headlines in Oct. 2012 after they sold their apartment and took their eight-year old daughter out of school to sail the world in a $55,000 boat. China’s media has reported on many anecdotes of young urbanites leaving their jobs to travel: One woman received breathless local media coverage for traveling around China in an RV in the fall of 2012. "Sometimes if you don’t do what you really want to do now," the woman told the local newspaper Ningbo Daily, "you probably won’t have a chance to do it later in life."

Sure, Ningbo isn’t Mogadishu. But it’s a start.