In 1919, Lu Xun, one of modern China’s most influential writers, wrote a short story about a down-on-his-luck Confucian scholar named Kong Yiji. Having failed to pass the imperial civil-service exams, Kong is unwilling to keep a regular job and sinks into poverty. The other villagers show no sympathy for his plight or respect for his learning: “His speech,” recounts the tale’s narrator, the wine-warmer at a tavern Kong frequents, “was so dusty with classical constructions you could hardly understand him.” The villagers taunt and abuse him until, at the story’s close, his legs having been broken in a beating he takes for stealing, Kong drags himself out of the tavern with his hands, never to be seen again.
More than a century later, China’s educated young people have found a special affinity for the unfortunate Kong Yiji. By the official count, one in five Chinese aged 16 to 24 is unemployed, the highest level on record. Their hard-earned college degrees have diminished in value as a result of both the economy’s halting recovery from strict COVID lockdowns and an ideologically driven crackdown on private enterprise. Many educated young people face a choice similar to Kong’s: take a job beneath their credentials or fail to pay the bills.