Written by: Wenzhe Teng
In his March 2021 show, US comedian and pundit Bill Maher had interesting insights into Chinese and American priorities, as he said “China once put up a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days. They demolished and rebuilt the Sanyuan Bridge in Beijing in 43 hours. We binge-watch. They binge-build.” Maher went on to criticize America’s obsession with woke culture, including Mr. Potato’s gender and the Lizardmen conspiracy. The American obsession with the culture war might be unproductive, but China’s obsession with infrastructure also has a terrible side effect: civil engineers, the people who built that infrastructure, suffer terrible exploitation. In fact, a funny yet lamentable subculture emerged due to the dissatisfaction of Chinese civil engineers.
While prominent English and American media sites report extensively on China’s infrastructure buildup, especially in Africa, few mention the exploitation of the construction workers inside China and none discuss the “Tumu” subculture. Although I had to rely on Chinese sources to research the subculture, I have corroborated these findings with English sources when discussing Chinese workers’ harsh working conditions and long hours.
Tumu, which means soil and wood in Chinese, is a term used to describe the profession of civil engineering. As a subculture, Tumu has its own languages and expressions. One of the most famous phrases is “run with a bucket,” describing how civil engineers resign. On the construction site, workers have very few possessions, so all they need when resigning is a bucket. This fact alone demonstrates the uncomfortable living conditions of workers, who have no entertainment method besides cards and cell phones.
Moreover, the bucket has to be red, according to Tumu influencers, or else one’s soul will be trapped on the construction site forever. This myth is clearly a joke that plays into Chinese cultural superstition that red is the color of luck and purity. However, the sad fact is that many workers who leave will eventually return to their careers in construction. While some of them are successful in other fields like real estate, civil engineers, like most college graduates, were not trained to work in other professions and are forced to return to their familiar job.
“Pouring concrete and setting out” is another popular phrase used in the Tumu subculture. It refers to two daily activities performed by Chinese civil engineers. During the day, they “set out” by studying the positions of future buildings from a drawing and transferring them to the ground with a string covered by black ink. After a day of tedious setting out, these workers have to pour concrete at night. There are two reasons for this: first, concrete functions best in a cool environment, and second, the truck carrying concrete often arrives at night due to daytime traffic control. Consequently, construction workers not only have to endure direct sunlight and heat waves during daytime setting out, but they also have to work late pouring concrete. To make matters worse, workers have very few holidays. Companies actively celebrate overworked workers, and workers are awarded whenever they stay on the job instead of taking breaks. Using this popular phrase, the Chinese civil engineers express their complaints about the heavy workload and long schedule.
One last famous phrase is called “three-year chief engineer, five-year project manager.” Its original meaning was a promise made by human resource departments to aspiring graduates, telling the latter if they worked hard, they would become chief engineers after three years and project managers after five. However, with fierce competition and rampant nepotism, the aspiring engineers soon discovered that the promise was a lie. The lack of social mobility on the construction site is particularly disheartening, as low-level engineers have few day-offs. They have limited opportunities to meet partners or visit family if they fail to get promotions.
As a subculture, Tumu has a massive following. China’s top influencer presenting the life of civil engineers is named Damengzi. Working on the construction site and shooting short videos with his phone, he was able to attract over seven hundred thousand followers on a major social media platform called Bilibili and received national attention. China’s Reddit, Baidu Tieba, hosts a subreddit for “Tumu,” which had six hundred thousand subscribers, far surpassing subreddits for other careers, such as doctors or teachers.
Why is Tumu so popular? One explanation is that much of the Chinese population can relate to this subculture. Overwork and lack of social mobility are not unique to civil engineers. In the tech industry, the culture of 996, working from nine in the morning to nine at night, six days a week, remains prominent despite government regulation. The term “involution” defines China’s education system, in which students practice test-taking extensively in order to receive a limited improvement in grades. Americans work an average of 40.5 hours a week, while Germans work an average of 35 hours a week. In China, the number is 47.5 hours per week.
Another explanation for the emergence of the Tumu subculture is the lack of an official outlet in China. Civil engineers are usually employed by a state enterprise or large private corporation. Both are hierarchical and assert strong authority over the employees. Meanwhile, workers have no independent labor unions to represent their interests, and labor activists often encounter harsh prosecution. There is a state union inside the state enterprises, but union officials focus on maintaining order rather than helping workers demand their rights be heard. The communist government in China does have a labor law that guarantees eight-hour working days and other labor rights, yet the officials do not actively enforce it. Without an official outlet, workers in China delve into the Tumu subculture to express their dissatisfaction.
Ironically, State-affiliated Chinese media celebrates a very different term, the “Jijian Kuangmo.” “Jijian” means infrastructure, while “Kuangmo” literally translates to “the crazy demon,” but I would translate it to “fanatic” with a positive connotation. On the one hand, China is indeed the infrasture fanatic, building massive projects around the nation and the world. On the other hand, the Chinese government has to reconsider its treatment of the engineers, so workers can “return with a bucket.”