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The Chinese character 苟 (gǒu)
The Chinese character 苟 (gǒu), shown with its stroke order

Gǒu (苟) is a Chinese character that carries the meaning "ease-seeking", and has been gradually combined with many Chinese (slang) phrases and idioms over the course of the rise of the Chinese internet world and subsequently, Chinese popular culture, to generally express a sense of finding "ease" and "comfort in casualness" within the turbulent modern world and its media; in other words, gǒu (苟) represents a lax and carefree approach towards something, usually regarding life itself [1]. Furthermore, at the same time, gǒu (苟) can also express the temporary nature of something [2]. However, in the modern Chinese internet dialect, the gǒu (苟) character has been combined with other characters to make phrases such as 苟且 (gǒu qiě), which can mean "free-spirited" and "careless" [3], but can also mean "cowardly" [4]; a completely negative connotation compared to the previously mentioned meanings. Thus, with the various amount of possibilities to transform this character into Chinese idioms and slang words, the character gǒu (苟) has become a prevalent character and slang to niche Chinese internet subcultures amongst Chinese netizens, such as within the Chinese video gaming sphere and the Chinese music sphere. The character gǒu (苟) has been used alongside other Chinese characters to create idioms and phrases to describe someone's actions, character, and lifestyle, whether it be about one's skill at a video game, or about one's meanings within their lyrics about living in such turbulent and unstable times. As a result, gǒu (苟), with the rise of the media and social interaction through the Internet, has become a character with ambiguity in both its positive and negative meanings in Chinese popular culture, as a part of these meanings of gǒu (苟) are ultimately based on what the Chinese society deems to be a good way of living, and what a bad way of living is. Therefore, studies of the character gǒu (苟) are able to effectively reflect an understanding of the development and growth of the relationship between Chinese internet users and their philosophies towards lifestyles within the Chinese popular culture.

The genesis of 苟

Historically, the character gǒu (苟) had always meant "ease-seeking" and "carefreeness", while adding the negative 不 (bù) to make it 不苟 (bùgǒu), would carry the opposite meaning of being “careful” and “cautious”. These meanings were often fit in the context of one's life and/or lifestyle. For example, one could end up living life as this Chinese idiom, 苟且偷生 (gǒuqiě tōushēng) describes, in which its meaning is to "drag out an ignoble existence" [5]. In other words, it means to live life aimlessly without a purpose, slowly drifting and dragging out one's life and existence. Similarly, 苟且偷安 (gǒuqiě tōu'ān) describes someone "taking things easily without attending responsibilities" [6]. Both idioms attempt to condemn the "carefreeness" that gǒu represents, instead of praise it. Therefore, gǒu (苟) in a non-popular culture context should generally not be interpreted as a worriless carefreeness, but more so a negligent carefreeness instead.

Zhang Zemin Picture
Whenever "苟利国家生死以,岂因祸福避趋之" is mentioned, it is assumed the topic is of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, pictured here

However, one particular example in recent history of the usage of gǒu (苟) offers the first bridge between the historical past and the present-day Chinese Internet culture. Lin Zexu (林则徐), a political philosopher and politician of the Qing Dynasty, was known in history for primarily catalyzing the first Opium War between Britain and China from 1839 to 1842 with his strict opposition to the opium trade between Britain and China. However, he was also known as a poet, and one of his poems, titled 赴戍登程口占示家人 (fù shù dēngchéng kǒuzhàn shì jiārén) would be popularized in internet culture today, due to one of the lines of the poem (which contains the character 苟), "苟利国家生死以,岂因祸福避趋之“ (gǒu lì guójiā shēngsǐ yǐ, qǐ yīn huò fú bì qū zhī, roughly translating to "how is it possible to base a country's life and death solely on good fortune and misfortunes"), being recited on many occasions by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江泽民) over the course of his presidency to lecture someone or some group in China [7]. As a result, when the character 苟, along with the poetry line is seen in text online, the text is immediately interpreted to be about Jiang Zemin and to an extent, his personality-cult fan culture, called moha culture (膜蛤文化, literally "toad worship culture"), based on his appearance being similar to that of a toad.

Since then, Chinese popular culture has transformed the character into many different contexts that fall outside of the political sphere, including gaming phrases such as 苟住 (gǒu zhù), and has also transformed the definition of 苟 in some cases to be more positive, with the character carrying an emphasis of a sense of comfort in a casual/easy lifestyle, finding solace through calmness within a chaotic world [8]. However, at the same time, 苟 can also be used as slang in an insulting way, as to call someone dishonest or ridiculous [9], or an outright dog [10][11][12], which represents the ambiguity of the positive and negative nature of the character in the Chinese popular culture setting. As seen below, the popularity of 苟 in Chinese popular culture comes from many stories and existing meanings and interpretations of the character, which in turn produces many more different interpretations and meanings of the character 苟 in the Chinese Internet sphere.

The explicit dictionary meanings and etymology of 苟

苟 seal script
An example of the character 苟 in the seal script.

The character gǒu (苟) has a few different but relatively similar dictionary meanings that have stayed consistent over the course of history. There are a total of 12 characters that the character 苟 comes from, with seven in the Bronze script, one in the Seal script, and four in the Liushutong script. [13] It can be used as an adjective and an adverb, as well as a conjunction, but can also be a surname. The character has been included in a number of idioms and phrases as well. [14][3]

As an adjective, 苟 can mean: casual, flippant, sloppy, temporary. This provides the general meaning of 苟 to be "carefree", as 不苟 (bùgǒu), the negative form of 苟, then means the opposite; careful and cautious. [3]

As a conjunction, 苟 can mean: if. (Although it is seemingly not as commonly used compared to other ways to say "if" in Mandarin, such as 如果 (rúguǒ))

The variegated meanings, actual usages, and value-loaded implications of 苟

An example of 苟住 (gǒu zhù) being used outside of the gaming sphere, such as in a work setting. It says, "Hold on/stay strong, the world is yours."

“苟住(gǒu zhù)”

In contemporary Chinese popular culture, the meaning of 苟(gǒu) has expanded beyond the traditional and dictionary context. In gaming, 苟 refers to the player's ease-seeking attitude as well as their defensive competing strategies[15]. Expressions such as "the King of Gou" (苟王), "keep Gou" (苟住), and "this is really gou" (真的苟) are frequently used by gamers and gaming video on social platforms like Bilibili (哔哩哔哩)[16]. In particular, 苟住 (gǒu zhù) originated from Chinese players of the video game "BATTLEGROUNDS", where when a player is about to be killed by another enemy player, their teammates say "苟住(gǒu zhù)!" to encourage them to stay alive[15], or to tell their teammates to "avoid fights and preserve strength" [14]. As more people from different sectors borrow the expression from gaming, "苟住" (gǒu zhù) can be interpreted as “hold on and carry on”, with a sense of irony and helplessness, but the connotation is still positive[8]. The Buddha meme shows other relevant things people say with 苟住 in non-gaming contexts like "keep calm, don't get angry, go to bed early, be patient, so be it, etc."

The message 苟住 sits at the top of this meme, plastered amongst many other words of encouragement.

In addition, 苟住青年(gǒu zhù youth) refers to the younger generation who have to calm themselves down in front of the ever-changing outside circumstances like fluctuating stocks, personal relationship, financial crisis, job market, etc. [17] 苟住 can therefore be reconceptualized by the Chinese youth as a state of strategic self-discipline and steadily fighting against uncertainty and insecurity in Chinese popular culture[17].

In social media, young people also use 苟 as a substitute for another word 狗(dog), which shares the same pronunciation with - 狗(dog) (both being pronounced gǒu). Calling someone or something "too dog" (太狗了) is to express dissatisfaction, irony, and anger in a more implicit manner[11]."You are too gou" (你太苟了) is a curse slang to describe someone who is irresponsible, ease-seeking, and unmotivated to fulfill their tasks. Expressions like "一律不得养苟" (No dogs are allowed) is a pun for the double meaning of saying 狗(gǒu) as 苟, implicating that no one shall keep someone who is ease-seeking and unambitious (like a dog)[10][12].

“苟活(gǒu huó)”

The meme of Lu Xun pictured with his quote. "To survive with 苟 (苟活) is the first step of not being able to survive."

In 2012, Chinese mainland singer Wang Feng wrote a song called “存在" (cúnzài, "Existence") that contains the lyrics, "是否找个借口继续苟活 ("Should I find another excuse to continue the ease-seeking life")[18]. The usage of 苟(gǒu/Careless) with 活(huó/Survive) creates the meaning of "careless" and "negligent" lifestyle. The picture on the right side is a meme regarding 苟活, with a quote from Lu Xun, known to be the father of Chinese modern literature. His quote, “苟活就是活不下去的初步” is translated as, “To survive with gou/ease-seeking attitude is the first step of not being able to survive." In fact, the complete quote is “苟活就是活不下去的初步,所以到后来,他就活不下去了。意图生存,而太卑怯,结果就得死亡". The latter is translated as, "That is why later on, he can no longer live any more. Intended to survive, but he was too abject and coward; as a consequence, he died." [19]

“苟且(gǒu qiě)”

In 2016, another pop song "生活不止眼前的苟且" by rock musician Xu Wei made the phrase 苟(gǒu)且(qiě) go viral. The lyrics "生活不止眼前的苟且,还有诗和远方" (Translation: Life is more than the ease-seeking and hustle of the present, but also of poems and the distant that awaits) is an example of how the old phrase 苟(gǒu)且(qiě) has become revitalized by popular culture[20]. Listeners of the song can be reminded of the prevalence of 苟且 in today's world, with 苟且 meaning of one "drifting along, resigned to their fate" [3].

In 2020, author of the economics book "Variant" He Fan coined the term 苟且红利(gǒu qiě dividend). 苟且红利 refers to the situation where one makes a little more effort like insisting on small things which can bring them goods later while most of other people are still surviving with an ease-seeking and unambitious attitude[21]. In comparison with other people who are still surviving with a 苟且(gǒu qiě) attitude, one can get the relatively more benefits just by slightly investing more on the things one does.

Interestingly, 苟且(gǒu qiě) has a completely different connotation in Ancient China. Although the phrase 苟且 in 苟且之事 still means casual and careless, 苟且之事 (casual and careless affairs) refers to "immoral or casual sex"[22].

“苟富贵(gǒu fù guì)”

Some expressions with the word 苟 (if or supposing) can be misused in people's daily conversation. For example, "苟富贵,勿相忘" (Translation: Don't forget your friend if you get rich) is used playfully with a joking tone when someone wants to get benefits from a promising friend[23]. This meaning of this expression is derived from a Chinese traditional book "史记/Shi Ji/Records of the Grand Historian". In one of the chapters, 陈涉世家 (The Hereditary House of Chen She), the character Chen Sheng says, "苟富贵,无相忘" (I won't forget you if I become rich and noble) to his fellow farmers[24].

In 2020, a woman named 苟晶(gǒu jīng) revealed a series of fraudulent incidents and derelictions of duty that occurred in Jining City, Shandong Province, after claiming that she was impersonated twice during her Gaokao exam in 1997 and 1998[25]. It was later revealed that although it was true that she was the victim in 1997, she lied to the public on Sina WeiBo and livestream, exaggerating her academic capability and past experience by disguising herself as a unprivileged top student who was mistreated due to social injustice[26]. From then on, based on these events, some Chinese netizens use her first name 苟 as a reference of someone who is dishonest and unbelievably ridiculous[9].

Counterpart terms in other cultures

Japan's Hikikomori

A hikikomori is shown engaging in a common activity of internet gaming as a form of retreating from society.

The term Hikikomori (Japanese: ひきこもり or 引きこもり), is similarly used to describe people who withdraw from society and become reclusive. It is defined officially by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare as “when the individuals refuse to leave their parents’ house, do not work or go to school and isolate themselves away from society and family in a single room for a period exceeding six months”.[27] The cause of such a condition does not appear to be classified as psychiatric problem,[28] due to insufficient research.[29] The causes of this phenomenon is widely debated, but can be stemmed from a combination of societal pressure, youth economic powerlessness in the 1990s[30] and systemic socio-cultural issues. However, from a contemporary cultural standpoint, the popular stereotype assigned to Hikikomori individuals are recluses who can be seen as adolescents due to their withdrawal anxiety and not conforming to societal expectations.[31] Thus, they are seen as social pariahs that drag out an ignoble existence, or those who continue living life whilst subverting the expectations placed upon by society.

United States' terminology of Homelessness

Homelessness is an issue that is currently prevalent among many developing and developed nations, one notably being the United States. A person who is currently suffering from homelessness are colloquially also negatively referred to as a “hobos”, “beggars”, “bums”, “drifters”. The negative stigmas behind homeless people being referred to in the aforementioned terms reflect a systemic issues coined as byproducts of rapid capitalism. Popular opinion pieces by political charged sides would seek to debunk the myths that homeless people are dregs within society, as defined by the term “bum” who live carefreely and off the taxpaying citizens[32]. The term “bum” specifically refers to the assumption of laziness inherent to the demographic, with the attitude it reflects originating in catholic teachings as “sloth”, one of the deadly capital sins in Catholic teachings. From a religious perspective, the sin of “sloth” is to accuse a person of apathy in regards to god, and as a result life.[33]

Subsequently, against the negative stigmatizations affecting this group, there has been a growing trend of movements seeking to combat it, by painting a different narrative that homeless people, demarcated by the definitions of “bums” and “hobos”, have agency and rational thought and are just plagued by systemic issues of home insecurity and economical inequality.[34]

Social, cultural, and political problems regarding 苟

Youth Powerlessness and Disillusionment in Sixth Generation Film-making

Starting in the 1990's, the Sixth Generation was an underground film movement produced by the state censorship policies of the time. The themes of youth and coming-of-age were common in the films of the Sixth Generation, and in particular many explored ideas about youth losing their hopefulness and evading their responsibilities under the weight of societal pressures and expectations.[35] The protagonists of such films often found that their expectations opposed societal demands and ended up disillusioned. Films such as Lu Xuechang’s The Making of Steel, Wang Xiaoshuai’s 11 Flowers, and Lou Ye’s Summer Palace suggested that youth were finding themselves in states of drifting and rootlessness due to such disconnects from society.[35] In the case of such films, the term "ease-seeking" could refer to the young protagonists, and by extension the young people of China at the time, and their disillusionment with societal expectations and avoidance of responsibilities. In this context the term could refer to a social issue of Chinese people, and in particular Chinese youth, losing hope for the future and subsequently losing motivation and direction and choosing to forego their responsibilities.

Employment Issues

One prominent factor which could contribute to widespread disillusionment and loss of motivation among youth is the lack of good employment options in mainland China. Chinese youth, particularly urban university graduates, generally have high expectations for their careers after graduation.[36] Children born during the one-child policy in particular tend to have very high aspirations as they bear all of the expectations and hopes of their family.[37] In response to the growing supply of labour and the expanding middle class, the PRC has made pledges to increase opportunities for the emerging middle class, to increase their chances at upwards mobility.[36] Yet despite their expectations, and the promises of their leadership, youth entering the workforce frequently find that there are few opportunities. The supply of university graduates in the labour market has exceeded demand since the 1990s, leaving large numbers of graduates with job opportunities that they are over-qualified for and lower than expected salaries. The lack of good job prospects for university graduates leads to high rates of unemployment and underemployment, in turn generating significant feelings of frustration and uneasiness and leading to high turnover rates in jobs.[36] Unemployment can also make young people feel that they have lost control over their lives, and unemployed youths have demonstrated higher levels of depression and lower levels of confidence in their ability to succeed in China's highly competitive labour market. Growing numbers of highly educated young people are feeling marginalized within the labour market, and many are choosing to live off of their parents instead of attempting to seek steady employment, which seems out of reach. Many have become self-deprecating and extremely pessimistic after dealing with significant pressure to get ahead yet finding so few opportunities to do so.[36] In this case, these hopeless young people who are living at home and making no attempts to pursue careers may be seen as "ease-seeking", as they are choosing to live off of others indefinitely instead of working to support themselves and improve their status in life. This phenomenon speaks to a wider issue in China's labour market, whose demands do not match China's labour supply, causing frequent employment issues among those trying to enter the workforce.

The Chinese economy has been unable to create a sufficient number of jobs for highly educated youths because its development has primarily relied on blue collar work, not white collar. Demand for employees with lower or mid-level qualifications has often exceeded the supply in recent years.[36] However, for those who do not attend university, the sense of hopelessness regarding job prospects can still be present. Students surveyed at vocational schools have also expressed very self-deprecating and pessimistic attitudes towards their future employment, with many expecting to become sources of cheap labour working under exploitative conditions and doubting their ability to ever overcome social divides and experience upward mobility.[38] While unemployment may not be as much of an issue as it can be for university graduates, terms such as "ease-seeking" or phrases like "gǒu qiě tōu shēng" (to drift and live without purpose)[3] could be used against these working class youths in the sense that their hopelessness about their future could make them feel discouraged and resigned to an unhappy fate. In this case, the term shows a pervasive issue with poor quality low-qualification jobs in China.

Internet café in Hubei, China, filled with young gamers.

Internet "Addiction"

Internet access and usage has been increasing across China for years, with roughly 75% of users being between the ages of 10 and 39, prompting concern among parents and the Chinese government over youth internet usage.[39] China was the first country to label "socially problematic" internet usage as a medical disorder, and in particular Chinese leadership identified internet gaming as an issue.[40] The idea of internet gaming disorder - that is, an addiction to internet gaming - is not universally accepted; there is a lack of consensus on how to define it, and some doubt that it even classifies as an addiction. Despite this, the Chinese government does generally treat excessive gaming as an addiction and therefore a health issue, and has taken steps to limit the amount of time that children can spend gaming and to "cure" children suffering from this supposed addiction.[40] Internet gaming is often considered to be a way for youth to escape reality. In the documentary Web Junkie (2013), which follows several Chinese boys living in a boot camp to cure themselves of their gaming addiction, the psychiatrist in charge of the program even suggests that the boys do not understand reality. This documentary highlights the anxiety of parents in China over the idea of internet or gaming addiction in youth and the level of concern that some professionals in the fields of psychology and addiction have for this proclaimed disorder. The documentary also shows that the boys in the boot camp believe that good students are not supposed to go online a lot, linking high internet usage to underachievement and possibly failure to live up to the (academic) expectations of their families, schools, or society.[40] With the possible exception of eSports, parents often see gaming or other such leisure internet activities as a sign that their children are doing nothing and wasting time.[40] Children who frequently play internet games could therefore be labeled as "ease-seeking", as in the view of many adults they are choosing to spend a lot of their time in an escapist fantasy world instead of working on school or some other more "valuable" pursuit to improve themselves and live up to expectations. In this context the term speaks to the increasingly widespread phenomenon of internet gaming "addiction" in China and the extreme worry that this evokes in parents, psychological professionals, and the Chinese state.

Studies related to "苟"

Internet addiction and its relation to depression in Chinese Youth

Internet addiction and its relation to depression and the subsequent symptoms of depression which include decreased motivation for learning, loneliness, academic failure and inhibits youth development.[8] Research by Chi et al. has highlighted the need to address the issue of haphazard youth development caused by an onset of depressive psychological tendencies through internet addiction, given that previous research on the topic has been abundant and past conclusions have pointed at the casual relationship between the onset of depression and internet addiction in youth. However, in their study, Chi et al. seeks to examine whether the predevelopment of youth serves as a factor in the onset of depression caused by internet addiction. The study reveals that adolescents who had a positive upbringing with good emotional regulation and social interaction tend to be unlikely to fall into depressive symptoms with the onset of internet addiction, presumably due to replacing less online activities with real life activities.[8] Therefore, it is suggested that the degree of which a youth experiences an onset of depression due to internet addiction is dependent on their youth environment and mindfulness. The social phenomena of Internet addiction and its relationship with depression could possibly explain the onset of contemporary phrases with the negative connotations such as 苟且偷生 (gǒuqiě tōushēng), or intent on living life seemingly aimlessly.

Perceived social support and helplessness

Given the state of Chinese economical policy, highly educated youths find it increasingly more competitive to afford to live their dream lives due to blue collar work to white collar. As such, demand for highly educated employees that are able to carry out highly technical skills in exchange for increased compensation often exceeded the supply in modern times. As such, these highly educated youth often fall into a negative feedback loop of perceived helplessness,[9]and this often leads to phenomenon such as the laying flat movement. In addition, even for the lower blue collar or the less educated youth, negative sentiments still persist. Students surveyed at vocational schools have also expressed similar negative feedback loops including cynical outlooks towards their future employment and life, with many expecting to become sources of cheap labor working under exploitative conditions and expecting to never be able to escape their social class.[36] This culminates in a lack of self worth and self identity, along with being affected by a lack of social support among one other, causing difficulties in emotion-regulation and depression. In a study by Hua et al., unemployed youth are at a high risk of depression and other mental health problems associated with a perceived lack of social support which is further amplified by a lack of emotion regulation and self-efficacy.[9] Therefore, the study reveals that the issues focused on in highly developed wealthy cities such as Shanghai versus lesser developed ones such as those in the Henan province are similar- that there is national pride in the identity and devotion to the country, but not to the symptoms of social disarray in youths brought on by the pangs of the national collective.


Initially, the word Gǒu (苟) is a Chinese character that conveys the meaning "ease-seeking", and despite evolving in its saying and application, has been used as a marker for social commentary and satire on societal problems throughout history. From the Western Han Dynasty where Jia Yi (200-168 BC) remarked that officials have become too complacent and comfortable, only flattering the emperor and ignoring the great issues of state, to the modern usages of the word to signify social dissatisfaction with the status quo caused by rapid capitalism and economic growth, the word Gǒu (苟) has this been seen combined into many Chinese (and often slang) phrases through any and all forms of media. Thus, the word is considered a word generally associated with negative connotations, with the meaning being expanded from its initial meaning of “ease-seeking” to a word that represents a critical outlook on various aspects of socio-psychological health, sociological issues, social interactions and relationships and a word that can represent phenomenon from internet addiction and youth disillusionment to the laying flat movement seen in youth within China. Despite this, the word can still be used in casual conversations and interactions as a word to illustrate humor or irony, and can sometime even serve as a colloquial psychological coping mechanism for citizens of all social class alike in China on the surface level, whilst hinting towards the aforementioned societal issues as a whole.


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UBC Asian Centre, Bell Shrine, Winter 2013.JPG
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