FOR SOME it is a time for sadness, for others it is a time to celebrate, BUT HOW DID Singles’ Day start AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN IN CHINA TODAY?
For some it is all about sob, sob, sob; for other’s it is all about shop, shop, shop, but it is that time of the year again. Though November 11 is called Singles’ Day, initially it was started by a very particular subset of single people: unwanted bachelors, or guangun–forlorn men with no money, no companionship, and no children. In fact, guanggun is literally translated as “bare sticks”, which is the reason why the date 11.11 was chosen, the four ones looking like a bunch of single bare sticks.
From ancient times to the modern day, China has never lacked bare sticks. But often in history, being a bare stick was a mark of shame, not something you would be proud of. During some historical periods, such as the Yuan Dynasty, guangun were so mistrusted as to be given about the same social status as bandits. Yet today, Singles’ Day—or Guanggun Jie–has come to thrive as a festival for young and old, for Chinese and expats.
Go to a bar or a KTV, get some alcohol in your system, and go streaking. This, in fact, is exactly what the university students who started Singles’ Day all those years ago did.
The origins of Singles’ Day go back to the early 1990s. Single, poor male college students who had escaped the restrictive environment of high school, were now finally free to go and chase the girls. You can imagine the excitement. But for many it didn’t quite happen. The disappointment rose as Valentine’s Day passed, then Dragon Boat Festival, then Christmas. Many of the holidays and festivals were transformed into endless torture for these poor bare sticks. Who wanted to go to a fancy restaurant to celebrate such festivities alone? Since the guanggun felt so excluded they decided they needed their own day—one for bare sticks only. And thus was born Guanggun Jie.
The day is, admittedly, self-deprecatory: a time for the bare sticks to legitimately go out and get drunk with dignity, and have a valid reason for doing so.
Even with the advent of Singles’ Day, however, the term guanggun is not one that a person wears with any particular pride or comfort. Most want to rid themselves of such a burdensome title. So, November 11 has become something of a deadline. If you don’t get rid of the title of guanggun by the day itself, you will have to carry on for another year. And then what will you do?
Well, I suggest you go on the rampage, find a girl you like, spend a fortune on roses, teddy bears, and chocolates, and throw in an iPhone 6 even. After all that you can ask the sacred question, “Wanna be my girlfriend?” If this works out, congratulations: you have shed the guanggun label, and you are now tuo guang—that is, no longer single. It also literally means ‘get naked’. And, yes, I’m sure this will give you some kind of a clue as to what activities you can do with your new girlfriend in the evening.
But what if you fail, and the girl says no? Well, you can tuo guang in the most literal sense. Go to a bar or a KTV, get some alcohol in your system, and go streaking. This, in fact, is exactly what the university students who started Singles’ Day all those years ago did.
During some historical periods, such as the Yuan Dynasty, guangun were so mistrusted as to be given about the same social status as bandits.
So you see, it’s a win-win situation for the bare sticks. no matter what the result: celebrate if you get the girl or revel in their bareness if you don’t. But only on 11.11.
If it is the bare sticks that started Single’s Day, it is the women that have the implicit advantage. According to recent statistics, there are over 33 million more women than men in China. Thus, single females can put on airs and graces during 11.11, enjoying all the attention of men chasing us, bearing opulent gifts. We are like queens, effectively designating who can tuo guang with us, and who can tuo guang on the streets. All we need to do is say, “I don’t think you want to celebrate Singles’ Day again next year”, and our suitors will give us whatever we want. Nor are women who already have partners left out, we can just tell our man, “If you don’t want to be a guanggun, you’d better put a smile on my face!”