It Is What It Is — the song ‘Outsize Dreams’ is about Small Hopes in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Appendix LII



Featuring the band Wayina and Ren Suxi (任素汐, 1988-), a well-known actress, ‘Outsize Dreams’ 大夢 was a hit. Although it did not enjoy the eye-watering success of ‘Land of the Rakshasas & the Sea Market’ 羅剎海市, featured in There Are Few Folk Songs 山歌寥哉, an album released by the popular singer Dao Lang 刀郎 (羅林, 1971-) in the summer of 2023 (see The Topsy-turvy Country — China’s Summer Hit, 28 July 2023), it was soon downloaded and shared over 45,000 times.

Radio Free Asia reported that, for some, the song ‘encapsulated people’s lived reality’ 濃縮了很多強國人的一生. Commentators also saw in ‘Outsize Dreams’ a reflection of the widespread sense of ennui in post-Covid China. Lying flat, moving out, disappearing inwards, sheltering at home, seeking salvation (躺平、潤、內卷、宅、自渡) were terms that expressed the temper of the times, but one song summed up a far deeper sense of despondency. The song also resonates with other works that we have featured in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium such as ‘People With No Ideals Don’t Feel a Thing’ 沒有理想的人不傷心 by Peng  Lei 彭磊 (see Xi Jinping’s Harvest — an anthem for China’s disaffected Huminerals) and the music of Slap 耳光, which was banned in August 2023 (see Tired of Winning Yet, China?).

[Note: see also ‘Lying flat’: Song about being young and poor goes viral in China, Radio Free Asia, 4 October 2023.]

The theme of ‘Outsize Dreams’ is summed up in the expression 該怎麼辦 gāi zěnme bàn, which is repeated like an incantation. It means ‘what’s to be done?’ or ‘there’s nothing for it’. 怎麼辦 zěnme bàn also happens to be the Chinese title of What Is to Be Done?, a canonical political tract by V.I. Lenin, which is well known in China. Lifting the title of a novel by the Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky Lenin’s pamphlet argued that the restive proletariat had to be forged into a self-aware political force under the leadership of a militant vanguard. Soon, that vanguard would be a Communist Party led by the Bolsheviks.

Here, I have chosen to translate 該怎麼辦 gāi zěnme bàn as ‘it is what it is’. This phrase is used to express helplessness, an acceptance of fate and world-weariness. It is what William Safire called a tautophrase, that is ‘a phrase or sentence that repeats an idea in the same words’. Previously, we have used the ancient expression 無可奈何 wú kě nài hé, which we translate as ‘so it goes’, the famous mantra-like phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, to express fatalistic exasperation.


‘Outsize Dreams’ brings to mind ‘We Are The Wooden People’ 我們都是木頭人, a fiery poem by Ye Kuangzheng 葉匡政, which ends with the following lines:

Go on, choose! Wooden People: let the wood burn/ Let this Cabal of Cheats reveal themselves/ Incinerate their dogmas/ Consign the ridiculous news and textbooks to the flames/ Burn all the lies and the lying people/ Look, smoke now rises from us/ It’s a festival for every Wooden Man and Wooden Woman


But we must be alert for the end/ We must continue to work, we must … …/ We must solicit everyone’s help/ To allow wood to be but wood and for our humanity to return to us


You don’t believe this is true/ Wooden People, at heart you are good/ But, Wooden People, the disease has spread/ We are all Wooden People/ We are Wooden People/ Forbidden to speak, not allowed to laugh/ Not even permitted to move/ If I am to die, I will die on the path to my Humanity.


— from Hollow Men, Wooden People, China Heritage, Christmas Eve 2017


I am grateful to Professor Xu Zhangrun for bringing this song to my attention. We conclude this appendix in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium with ‘Both Sides, Now’, a song by Joni Mitchell.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 October 2023


Also in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:


Outsize Dreams


Wayina & Ren Suxi

瓦依那 x 任素汐

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


I was already six and wandering in the fields
When I fell into the water
It is what it is
Clothes all dirty, my toy broken
Father would be angry, Mother anxious
It is what it is
Standing there in the spring wind, crying
It is what it is

我已經六歲 走在田野里
一個不小心 撲倒在水里
弄髒了新衣 弄壞了玩具
爸爸會生氣 媽媽會著急
站在春風裡 大聲哭泣

Twelve years old, had never left home,
Started at a school far away
It is what it is
If I got sick or lost my money
People would look down on me, a feeble nobody
It is what it is
My father never said a word
It is what it is

我已十二歲 沒離開過家
要去上中學 離家有幾十里
若是生了病 若弄丟了錢
被人看不順眼 我單薄的身體
我的父親 總沈默無語

Eighteen years old and I didn’t get into college
Should I keep trying or just get a job
It is what it is
Arrived in Shenzhen and hung around for a while
Couldn’t find work and was running out of money
It is what it is
At the crossroads, people going this way and that
It is what it is
Didi dada didi dada … Didi dadada

我已十八歲 沒考上大學
是應該繼續 還是打工去
來到了深圳 轉悠了些日子
沒找到工作 錢花得差不多
十字路口 人往往返返

滴滴噠噠 滴滴噠噠 滴滴噠噠 滴滴噠噠
滴滴噠噠 滴滴噠噠噠

Twenty eight now and I have a partner
Bumping into buddies in the street
We end up sharing a meal
Her sister asks: you have no regular work
Do you want your own place, to have kids
What can I do about it
I’m at a loss and hurry away
It is what it is

我已二十八 處了個對象
與哥哥姐姐們 相遇在街上
於是 就吃個飯
她姐姐問我 沒正式工作
要不要房子 要不要孩子
我措手不及 倉皇離去

Now thirty eight and my kid is well behaved
I’d like to be with her but there’s overtime to do
It is what it is
Paying for food, school, health care
I’m on a treadmill and never make enough
It is what it is
I’m like an automaton, always running
It is what it is

我已三十八 孩子很聽話
想給她多陪伴 但必須加班
柴米和油鹽 學校和醫院
我轉個不停 賺不到更多錢
我像部機器 不能停歇

Sure, I see the blossoming flowers
Hear the birdsong
See the busy crowds
The clouds overhead
Listen to the bubbling streams and
See people out there looking as though they are lost

我看到花兒在綻放 我聽到鳥兒在歌唱
我看到人們匆匆忙忙 我看到雲朵在天上
我聽到小河在流淌 我看到人們迷失在路上

I’m fifty-eight now and my mother’s departed
Second son’s divorced and I have his kid to raise
It is what it is
He says he needs to make something of himself while there’s still time
Maybe when he comes back things’ll be different
All I can say is ‘Stay safe’
All the old mistakes, repeated again and again
It is what it is

我已五十八 母親已不在
老二離了婚 娃交給我來帶
他說趁年輕 再去闖一闖
說不定歸來時 會有一番景象
太多的錯誤 總在重復

Seventy-eight years old and I suddenly keel over
Time passes slowly lying sick in bed
It is what it is
Faced with the unknown, helpless as a child
I put on a brave face for my partner
Tell them it’s just a minor setback
But my life is flickering like a candle in the wind
It is what it is

我已七十八 突然間倒下
躺在病床上 時間變很漫長
面對那個未知 無助得像孩子
在老伴面前 裝作卻很釋然
生命的燭火 在風中搖擺

Eighty-eight, walking in the fields
I see a child crying in the wind
The spring light is so dazzling

我已八十八 走在田野里
看見個小孩子 在風裡哭泣

All those past hopes, scudding by like clouds and mist
All the scenes that no one can ever see clearly
Can let go, never feel fulfilled

過往的執念 過往如雲煙
太多的風景 沒人全看清
放不下 怎圓滿

If life is just one Big Dream
What can be done?

如果生命 只是大夢一場

Sure, I see the blossoming flowers
Hear the birdsong
See the busy crowds
The clouds overhead
I hear the bubbling streams and
See people out there slowly making their way

我看到花兒在綻放 我聽到鳥兒在歌唱
我看到人們匆匆忙忙 我看到雲朵在天上
我聽到小河在流淌 我看到人們漫步在路上


Both Sides, Now

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell wrote ‘Both Sides, Now’ when she was twenty-three. She performed the song during an unannounced appearance as a special guest of the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island on 24 July 2022. It was her first public appearance since she had suffered a brain aneurism in 2015. Mitchell first sang at the festival in 1967.

The last lines of the song go:

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

It’s life’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know life
I really don’t know life at all