Lying Flat

Lying Flat

| David Bandurski
“Lying Flat,” or tangping, is an online meme that arose in April 2021 as an informal social movement in China urging young workers and professionals, including the middle-class Chinese who are to be the engine of Xi Jinping’s domestic boom, to reject social pressure to achieve success in the workplace or fulfillment through consumerism. The term has met with staunch resistance since its inception from the Chinese leadership, which regards its lay-down attitude as a threat to the push for economic development.

The “lying flat” movement was kicked off in April 2021 when a post on the Baidu platform titled “Lying Flat Is Justice” went viral. The post was a manifesto of renunciation, sharing the author’s lessons and experiences from two years without a job. The post’s author concluded that the extraordinary stresses of contemporary life were completely unnecessary. These stresses were passed down from the previous generation, with its single-minded focus on struggling forward with an attitude of self-sacrifice. Instead, the author argued, young people could find independence in resignation: “I can be like Diogenes, who sleeps in his own barrel taking in the sun.”

Why Struggle?

Discussions about “lying flat” increased in May 2021. For some, “lying flat” promised release from the crush of life and work in a fast-paced society and technology sector where competition is unrelenting. A particular target of rejection is the so-called “996” work system, which defines a work culture of 9 AM to 9 PM shifts six days a week – meaning weekly 72-hour work schedules that in many cases overtly flout China’s labor laws.

An illustration of “lying flat” accompanies a discussion of the concept on the Zhihu platform in the spring of 2021.

For China’s leadership, this movement of stick-in-the-mud resistance to the national drive for constant development was a concerning trend — a threat to ambition at a time when Xi Jinping has made grand ambition the zeitgeist of his so-called “New Era.” State media have continually opposed the movement of “lying flat,” and upheld instead an attitude of constant “struggle” (奋斗), a word Xi Jinping has frequently used to emphasize that these are times of many headwinds domestically and internationally that require the Chinese to rise to the challenge.

A Long March for Every Generation

On the eve of the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in 2021, just as the “lying flat” discussion was taking off online, Xi Jinping visited Tsinghua University and sent a message to students in which he again urged young people to sacrifice for their country, saying: “Let youth blossom in the unremitting struggle for the motherland, the nation, the people and mankind.” A related article from the Global Times said that “Chinese youth in the New Era should have the courage to build on their struggles,” and even (echoing Xi Jinping) invoked the Long March, the series of arduous journeys in the 1930s by which the armies of the Chinese Communist Party escaped annihilation by the Nationalist troops of Chiang Kai-shek. “Each generation has its own Long March,” the article said, “and each generation has its own responsibility.”

“Lying flat” promised release from the crush of life and work in a fast-paced society.

But many young Chinese now balk at the Party’s calls for “continued struggle” alongside a deeply engrained culture of overwork without the promise of real advancement. More recently, “lying flat” has been joined by the online neologism “runology” (润学), which derives from the English verb “run” (identical to the pinyin form of the Chinese term’s first character). “Runology” is essentially the study of how to emigrate, or “run” overseas, a response to a growing sense among some young people of worsening conditions as the economy falters and repression worsens.

Since 2021, “lying flat” has also been used in China’s official discourse to refer more generally to a lax attitude toward key issues of policy. In October 2022, just as China was on the cusp of dismantling its unpopular zero Covid policy, the People’s Daily argued in a commentary that other countries were “lying flat” when it came to the control of Covid, and that the idea that China should relax its restrictions was “extremely wrong and irresponsible.” Within weeks, those restrictions had been relaxed, and the discourse shifted accordingly.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

The CMP Dictionary