Explainer | What is ‘lying flat’, and why are Chinese officials standing up to it?
- China’s Gen Z and its youngest millennials are finding solace in lying flat amid a collective swell in antipathy toward working themselves to the bone
- Lying flat, or tang ping in Chinese, means doing the bare minimum to get by, and the ethos poses a threat to President Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’
“Lying flat” is a movement about doing nothing. And that makes it about everything.
For months, the chatter surrounding lying flat, or tang ping, has permeated Chinese society, sowed discourse and become ubiquitous enough to finally warrant a public condemnation by President Xi Jinping.
So what does ‘lying flat’ mean?
It represents the mindset of lying down instead of being a productive member of society. Rather than striving to study hard, buy a home, or even start a family, a subsection of society is rejecting it all to lie flat.
Some have dubbed it a manifesto against materialism, some suspect it is simply being lazy, and others say this type of defeatist attitude is an inevitable result when people become so overwhelmed and dismayed by the notion of working themselves to the bone that they feel there is no other option but to give up.
Where did ‘lying flat’ come from?
Unlike many buzzwords that have come before it, “lying flat” does not represent a new fad. But a viral online post in April 2021 brought it to the forefront of many minds, especially the younger generation, and it has since gained immense traction in China.
On the Baidu Tieba social media platform, a man named Luo Huazhong, in his mid-twenties, wrote about how he had embraced this lifestyle of minimalism for two years.
“Life is just lying down, lying down and lying down,” he said in the post, titled “Lying flat is justice”.
Luo explained how he was living a low-desire, zero-pressure lifestyle without stable employment, while staying with his parents in Zhejiang province. When he was feeling up for it, he would travel three hours to Dongyang, Zhejiang, where the world’s largest film studio is located. He found work there that he considered perfect – acting as a dead body in movies.
His post included a picture of himself lying down, dressed in an ancient Chinese assassin costume for one of his roles. The photo and post spread like wildfire online.
“When I say lying flat, I don’t mean that I just lie down every day and don’t do anything,” Luo later said in media interviews. “Lying flat is a state of mind – that is, I feel that many things are not worthy of my attention and energy.”
Why has lying flat resonated with ordinary Chinese?
Similar stories about unmotivated Chinese youth have also circulated in the past. One involved a group of young migrant workers who self-mockingly called themselves the “Sanhe gods” and would roam around the Sanhe area of Shenzhen’s Longhua district. Having grown tired of working long hours in factories for little pay, they instead took occasional one-off jobs as labourers and received cash for a day’s work.
Their motto was, “With one day’s pay, you can have fun for three days.” They slept in public parks, ate instant noodles and spent time in internet bars until they ran out of money. But local authorities eventually cracked down on the “Sanhe gods”, and their story never gained the type of notoriety nor longevity that “lying flat” has.
In the internet era when countless posts feature complaints and gripes about personal struggles and the hardships of life, the concept of lying flat stands out because of its philosophical undertones that serve not as a call to action, but to inaction.
“Since there has never really been an ideological trend exalting human subjectivity in this land, I shall create it for myself,” Luo said. “Lying down is my wise-man movement.”
The ethos struck a chord with much of China’s young and disenchanted workforce that has been hit particularly hard by the nation’s economic slowdown, trade tensions with the West and the coronavirus pandemic.
And an increasing number have lost the motivation to even try.
What risks does lying flat pose to China?
From white-collar workers in China’s bustling cities to university students, an army of frustrated young people took to social media and internet message boards in recent months to declare themselves “‘lying flat youth”.
And across the country, T-shirts printed with “Do nothing lie flat youth” have become hot selling items. Authorities have been scrambling to suppress the phenomenon, fearing that it could challenge the established social and economic order.
Psychologists and doctors also warn that prolonged inactivity raises the risk of life-threatening physical and mental disorders, including heart disease and depression.
It is easy to understand the anxiety of Chinese authorities over the lying-flat attitude, said Dr Gavin Chiu Sin-hin, an independent commentator and former associate professor at Shenzhen University.
“If it becomes widespread, it will affect young people’s expectations of income growth, consumption, marriage and childbirth, which will be detrimental to China’s ability to avoid the middle-income trap, where growth stagnates and incomes stall,” he said.
China tackles challenges posed by its ageing population
The lying-flat trend also appeared to reach its zenith in the third quarter.
But he also said government officials at all levels should not make promises they cannot keep, and must avoid the “trap of welfarism” to support the lazy.
“Only by promoting common prosperity, increasing the income of urban and rural residents, and improving human capital can we increase overall productivity and consolidate the foundations for high-quality development,” the Qiushi article quoted him as saying. “China must prevent polarisation, promote common prosperity and achieve social harmony and stability.”
Is China censoring the lying-flat movement?
The “Great Firewall” is doing its best to keep people from talking about lying flat.
When censors realised how popular Luo’s original post was becoming, it was scrubbed from the internet. However, copies quickly spread online, sparking lively discussions and videos – many of which garnered millions of views each. But they, too, have since been deleted.
Authorities have used all of the tools at their disposal to steer the social narrative back toward the official line.
State-backed media outlets helped lead the charge. Nanfang Daily called the trend “shameful”. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalistic Global Times tabloid, said: “Young people are the hope of this country. Neither they themselves, nor the country, will allow them to collectively lie flat.”
Analysts say that the idea of people doing nothing is particularly jarring for Chinese authorities, as it reflects a sort of silent rebellion that cannot easily be quashed. Quelling protests in the streets is one thing, but getting millions of individuals out of their beds and forcing them to engage in society is entirely different.
The censorship and preaching have, in some cases, sparked heated backlash and lent credence to the movement, particularly in the eyes of people who struggle to simply earn a living.
Analysts at Nomura, in the financial services group’s special report on Asia in August, said they believe that the wealth-inequality issue will continue to be a growing concern among China’s leaders for years to come.
“Falling social mobility, as a result of widening wealth inequality, is sowing the seeds of discontent, especially among younger people, who have higher expectations after observing the vast amounts of wealth accumulated in cities,” the report said. “This kind of disenchantment and dissatisfaction is only likely to worsen with the expected slowdown in economic growth.
“The lying-flat movement, which calls on young people to opt out of the struggle for workplace success and to resist the attractions of consumer fulfilment, is a direct extension of this discontent.”
Do people lie flat in the United States and elsewhere?
At John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, he inspired Americans to see the importance of civic action and public service.
The JFK Library says his historic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”, challenged everyone to contribute in some way to the public good.
This call came after the so-called Beat Generation movement prompted people – dubbed beatniks – to rebel against conformity and traditional lifestyles in the 1950s. “Beat” was initially slang for “beaten down”.
South Korea’s young ‘broadcast jockeys’ stream themselves to fame and fortune
In the 1990s, the United Kingdom classified a growing group of people as NEET – an acronym for “Not in Education, Employment or Training”, and it included those who were unemployed and not looking for work.
Around 2010, the “Satori generation” was coined in Japan to describe young people who were seemingly free from material desires and no longer wanted to work.
And a few years ago, South Korea had its “Sampo generation”, referring to those who had given up on romantic relationships, marriage and having children. Eventually, the generation’s name evolved to include a disinterest in employment, home ownership, interpersonal relationships and even hope.
“It’s not new across the world to see youth of different generations and different nations losing their motivation to strive for a better life, while turning against materialism and forgoing regular jobs and careers,” Dr Chiu said.
But the trend is more worrying in China than in other countries, he explained, because China’s economic development is not as advanced.
“The significant difference is that [similar] movements occurred when the United States and Japan had already entered the stage of advanced economies, with per capita disposable income much higher than the current level in China,” he said.
“China is now at a crossroads of becoming a high-income economy or finding itself stuck in the middle-income trap. The lying-flat movement would negatively affect China’s efforts to escape the middle-income trap.”
So it’s little wonder that Xi and the rest of China’s leadership are so intent on stamping out this lying-flat ethos that has become such an outsized threat.