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Prof Bonds with Ant Tribe

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Except for the framed calligraphy of the Chinese characters for "ant tribe" in his office, one may find it unlikely to associate Lian Si with the person who coined the term that went viral in China a year ago.

Neither his fast-track career rise to associate professorship within two years, nor a straight-A record at prestigious universities such as Renmin University of China and Peking University on his way to a doctoral degree, helped to make the implausible match any likelier.

Reared in a well-off family of intellectuals, the Beijing native can't be any further from the "ant tribe", a term he coined in 2009 to describe low-income college graduates who endure hardships in big cities in hopes of brighter futures.

Lian first read a story in China Newsweek in July 2007, and was stunned to learn many graduates were living in cramped areas struggling for a better future in the Beijing suburb of Tangjialing.

Lian's initial curiosity to find this place turned into a larger project. He led a team and conducted two years of research in Beijing's seven communities where the poor fresh graduates live.

"I was astonished. Everything looked rosy and upbeat around the time the Beijing Olympics took place. People thought we were exaggerating these gloomy stories," Lian recalled.

"It took us a long while to digest what we had found. But shortly after the Games the economy cooled. A global economic downturn began to unfold. People, at this time, started to look at our findings."

A grant of 80,000 yuan (US$12,000) from the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee in 2009 boosted Lian's confidence to look for a larger audience, expanding their project into a book.

A catchy book title became the new challenge, since they only had a lengthy description to refer to this burgeoning demographic.

Inspiration came unexpectedly when Lian noticed a book entitled Monologue of an Ant, winner of the most beautiful book award at the 2007 Leipzig Book Fair in Germany, which reflects a person's experiences through a humble ant's life.

The idea met some resistance from team members. Some cautioned that no one had used an animal to describe a social group in modern Chinese history. Some suggested "bees" as an alternative.

"Bees, as they fly, give the impression of upward mobility, while ants are always seen down on earth, stuck on the ground," Lian said.

The intelligent, industrious, yet anonymous and underpaid graduates bear so much resemblance to the features of ants that Lian decided to name the book Ant Tribe.

The term soon went viral, and three months after it was coined, online search clicks climbed to more than 20 million by the end of 2009.

The book, an instant bestseller, was reprinted more than 10 times, and claimed almost all the major book awards in China last year.

"It struck a chord with the audience, vibrating with a common sentiment shared by Chinese people today, especially the post-'80 generation."

The book's sequel hit the shelves in December 2010, after expanded research in seven first-tier cities where ant tribes are densely populated, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

"It was the new concept, 'ant tribe', that made the first book sell. But that advantage was lost for the second book, and we needed to go deeper and give analysis," Lian said.

The Japanese edition of Ant Tribe (I) came out last September, and its Korean and English editions are expected to appear this month.

But Lian finds the popularity more ironic than complimentary.

"I'm not trained to be a sociologist. I simply presented some people's lives. Its huge success shows that many scholars are losing touch with reality. The pressing concerns that people hold dear don't get sufficient attention," Lian said.

"I'm not proud to see that the book's popularity has only changed my life, while the ant tribe's living conditions seem to have worsened," he added.

When Lian's team did follow-up interviews with former respondents, they became guarded and even hostile.

"They resented the excessive media exposure. They are admiringly optimistic and extremely vulnerable at the same time. They live in perplexing paradoxes," Lian said.

"Some institutions abroad have expressed an interest in collaborating comparative studies, exploring the same issue in large cities such as London and Paris. But I'm hesitating. I don't know how much stress that would entail," Lian said. "I have my family and my own life to consider."

Over the past three years, Lian has survived on only three hours' sleep a night and has to rely on strong coffee to stay refreshed at work. Sometimes he catches a short nap on the couch in his office.

"Increasingly, I see myself as one of them. There is a deep sorrow and gloominess growing in me. I have to balance it with more cheerful spirits. Otherwise I will be sucked into it and lose sight of the whole matter."

For Lian, the highest praise of his work came from professor Ken Sekine at Keio University in Japan, who translated Ant Tribe (I) into Japanese.

The Japanese scholar applauded the fact that a group of elite students from China's most prestigious universities, under Lian's leadership, overcame a great socioeconomic gap to understand and care about a disadvantaged group.

"What I did is preliminary, and what we've found out is really limited. I hope more people will pick up from where we started," Lian said.

(China Daily January 6, 2011)