Zheng Bijian, author of the phrase “China’s peaceful rise,” once wrote that as China’s development wins the attention of the world, it becomes increasingly important to understand its path. He explained that “economic growth alone does not provide a full picture of a country’s development. China has a population of 1.3 billion. Any small difficulty in its economic or social development, spread over this vast group, could become a huge problem.”
These words were penned 10 years ago, and in the decade since China’s social development has been stunning: brimming with ambition, globally instrumental, and touching the highest peaks of human progress. But at the very top of Chinese society, the peaks are narrow and the valleys below are deep and wide. One of the difficulties in China’s recent development is the emergence of a new social class of economic elites known as tuhao. These are China’s nouveau riche, though the term itself means something more offensive, and deservedly so.
“Tuhao” comprises the characters for “earth” and “powerful” (I prefer the translation “dirty rich”) and is an ancient reference to oppressive landlords that was given new life in 2013 when a joke went viral on the microblogging site Weibo. In the joke, a rich but unhappy young man asks a Buddhist monk for advice, to which the monk, cognizant of the young man’s wealth, replies, “Let’s be friends!” Since then, the term has been adopted into common use; the Oxford English Dictionary added “tuhao” to its 2014 edition.
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