China's disenchanted youth 'lie flat' to cope with modern life

  • Exhausted by working long hours for little reward, Chinese young adults are lowering expectations, reducing desires, and avoiding overwork
  • The idea contradicts the mantra of President Xi Jinping and generational values
Agence France-Presse |
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Exhausted by the realities of modern life, many youth in China are “lying flat", the latest buzzword for those tapping out of a culture of endless work with little reward. Photo: AFP

Ground down by the exhausting realities of modern city life, China’s youth are “lying flat”, the latest buzzword for those tapping out of a culture of endless work with little reward.

With growing inequality and rising costs of living moving traditional markers of success out of reach, some young people are choosing to do the bare minimum at work, dialling back the go-getting aspirations their parents once harboured.

“Tang ping” - or “lying flat” - has emerged as the latest internet-crafted principle to navigate the pains of finding a job among thousands of applicants, plodding through long days and then paying expensive rents in China’s overpopulated cities.

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After a four-month search for work, Wang, 24, said “lying flat” clicked for him when he realised his college classmate had been given a leg-up into his family business.

“Sending resumes was like fishing for a needle in the ocean,” Wang, a lab technician, said.

“You’re beaten up by society and just want a more relaxed life ... ‘lying flat’ is not waiting to die. I still work, but just don’t overstretch.”

Competitive jobs, expensive flats, and crowded cities all contribute to feelings of detachment for Chinese millenials. Photo: AFP

The phrase ‘lying flat’ appears to have emerged from a now-deleted post on Chinese forum Tieba after an anonymous poster wrote “lying flat is my wise men’s movement”.

A debate on the meaning has attracted hundreds of millions of hits on Weibo, while the term has provoked admonishments from academics and state media.

For 24-year-old human resources worker Lin, “lying flat” has caught on because “young people can’t become ‘winners in life’ who buy cars, apartments, get married and have children”.

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“So they choose to lower their goals and reduce their desires,” she added, giving only a surname.

Others praise the concept of reclaiming more attainable goals while stopping to smell the roses.

“Isn’t it wonderful if basic needs are met and people live in a more relaxed way?” said 47-year-old freelancer Lucy Lu.

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‘Sang Culture’

The general mood of disenchantment is covered by the umbrella term “Sang culture”, which began as a self-deprecating subculture for youth expressing a sense of defeatism.

It is has entered the mainstream, with millenials increasingly aware of a “glass ceiling obstructing their upward mobility”, according to K Cohen Tan, an academic at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China.

An early Sang icon was Pepe the Frog, called “sad frog” in China, whose memes conveyed their disillusionment - unlike its adoption as an alt-right symbol in the US.

An early icon of the burgeoning ranks of dispossessed youth was Pepe the Frog, also called "sad frog" in China, whose memes conveyed their disillusionment. Photo: AFP
By April, a new Sang culture anti-hero emerged from a boyband reality show.

Russian Vladislav Ivanov, 27, joined the show by accident and made it to the finals despite pleading with fans to vote him off.

Unable to leave without breaching his contract, he performed limply in contrast to the fame-getting format, telling fans: “Don’t love me, you’ll get no results.”

But his on-screen persona captured the widespread feeling of wage-slavedom - and brought fame and endorsements.

Tan believes the disillusionment sweeping across urban youth ultimately ties back to the age-old search for value in life.

Audiences found the laid-back charm of a reluctant, bored and even sometimes angry Vladislav Ivanov a welcome departure from the cookie-cutter youth idols swamping showbiz nowadays. CREDIT: Tencent Video

‘Roll up your sleeves’

‘Lying flat’ seemingly runs counter to the mantra of President Xi Jinping; “roll up your sleeves and work hard”.

The idea of defeatism also clashes with generational values in a country whose elders have experienced extremes of poverty, hunger and violence, and have often clawed their way up the social ladder.

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The ‘lying flat’ concept is “an extremely irresponsible attitude that not only disappoints one’s parents, but also hundreds and millions of taxpayers,” said Tsinghua University professor Li Fengliang, arguing that people can still achieve social mobility through competition.

State-run news agency Xinhua even took a swing at “tang ping” culture, publishing a video of a scientist’s 12-hour workday, accompanied by the now-removed hashtag “the 86-year-old scientist who rejects lying flat”.

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