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Life’s tribulations have Chinese students crawling — literally

A woman shows a security guard proof for entry at Peking University in Beijing, where pandemic restrictions continued to limit students’ activities this spring. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
4 min

The groups of students gather in the dark of night on school lawns and sports fields. Then, in bizarre scenes, they crawl in circles on the ground.

This “collective crawling” has been repeated at universities across China in recent weeks, a sudden fad among students that has flummoxed and alarmed school officials. Are these young people engaged in a sex cult? Are they protesting the government’s strict covid policies? Surely foreign hostile forces are behind it, one nationalist commentator posited online.

Students say it is merely a way to relieve stress after almost three years of a pandemic that has confined their lives to endless campus lockdowns, online classes and constant coronavirus tests. (At some schools, apparently for the same reason, students also have taken to making cardboard pets and taking them out for walks.)

The pressures they face are considerable. This year’s college graduates are confronting the toughest job market in decades as the Chinese economy struggles under coronavirus controls of indefinite duration, rising unemployment and a property market crisis.

“Under the exhaustion of lockdowns and great uncertainty about the future, the loss of meaning is adding to young people’s sense of existential crisis,” Lin Shihou, a student at Chongqing University, wrote in an essay. “Crawling is a collective ritual for young people to release that feeling of being repressed,” Lin noted, describing it as a way of using “meaninglessness to resist meaninglessness.”

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The fad appears to have begun with an anonymous online post this month in Beijing by a student at Communication University of China. It asked: “Would you find it frightening if you saw someone crawling on the ground on school campus? If not, this is what I’m going to do tomorrow.”

Other students responded quickly. “Can I come too? It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything embarrassing,” one said. And another: “Can I join? Lately I haven’t been in a good mental place.”

Soon, groups of “creepers” were surfacing at universities from Beijing to Suzhou to Hangzhou. In Hong Kong, some students are organizing a group crawl every Wednesday night, according to a post on the platform Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book, where users have been sharing videos of themselves in the act.

“This is definitely an expression of extreme frustration,” said Yicheng Wang, a PhD student in political science at Boston University who studies propaganda and popular discourse. “Students have had to accept that their [time at] university, which was supposed to be the best and most enjoyable time in their life, had to be spent under de facto house arrest.”

The crawling rules, so to speak, vary from school to school but are simple, according to the individuals posting about the events. Be on time. Keep some distance from those in front or behind you. Crawl any way you like — on hands and knees, hands and feet, or even rolling sideways along the ground. In one chat group, organizers reminded students not to eat the grass.

The fervor with which students are organizing crawl groups is worrying some officials. A student at Zhejiang University, in the eastern city of Hangzhou, posted online that their groups had been canceled because of “security issues.” A student at a university in Beijing said teachers had recently told them to stop — yet another example of young people’s loss of autonomy.

“It’s best for students not to have any views because they are not allowed to anyway,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of security concerns. “Lockdown really is very boring, and people look for something to do.”

Chinese state media and nationalist commentators have criticized other recent trends among disaffected young people, including tangping, or “lying flat,” a kind of quiet quitting from society’s rat race, and a more extreme version known as bailan, or “let it rot.”

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While collective crawling has not received the same level of censure, articles in state-run media warn people not to “blindly follow” the trend or to consult experts when engaging in this form of exercise.

Students also are sharing their experiences online. Some say crawling on the ground is liberating — a return to a more primal state where focus is drawn to the immediate surroundings and the feel of the grass or the ground.

“It’s not about crawling, it’s about any kind of abnormal behavior that is bound to spark questions like ‘Why are you doing this? Who organized you and who is behind this?’ ” one internet user observed on the microblog Weibo. “It’s through this questioning and criticism that you see the nature of the society you live in. Sometimes the clearest truths are found in the silliest of actions.”