Tangping has emerged over the last few months as the rallying call of Chinese millennials who have had enough of the rat race. Some compare them to the 1950s Beat Generation in the United States. Others call their behavior a form of nonviolent resistance or “ideological emancipation” from consumerism. Supporters portray it as a rejection of struggle and endless striving. Critics say it is defeatist.
Ultimately, observers say, tangping is a reflection of China’s disenchanted middle class, faced with stagnant wages in increasingly expensive and competitive cities.
“People realize there is no upward mobility,” said Yicheng Wang, a PhD student in political science at Boston University who studies propaganda and popular discourse. “It’s a negative acceptance: ‘My life is like this. It will always be like this.’ ”
The term developed after an April post on the Tieba forum where the author, unemployed for the last two years, described a low-effort, low-cost lifestyle that consisted of working just a few months out of the year.
“Lying flat is my sophistic movement,” he wrote, referring to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who was known for living in a barrel. He posted a picture of himself lying in bed in the middle of the day with the curtains drawn.
In the following weeks, a “lying flat” group on the online forum Douban surged to 9,000 members. Internet users identified themselves as “lying flatists,” posting photos of cats and seals lying supine.
But as tangping gained popularity, it also a drew a level of opprobrium from state media not seen for other terms that have emerged from the Chinese Internet.
The government-backed Guangzhou paper Nanfang Daily called the philosophy “shameful.” The state-run Global Times made light of it, describing “lying flat” as “not a serious philosophy.” The Communist Youth League pointed out that young medical workers on the front lines during the pandemic “never chose to lie down.”
Censors sprang into action. The original Lying Flat manifesto was taken down, and other posts republishing the content were deleted. Discussion threads on tangping were taken down. The Lying Flat group was also removed.
“I feel more and more horrified by the big hand that controls us. It does not allow even a little room to think and be yourself,” one user wrote in response to the group’s closure.
Experts say tangping is also a rejection of the attitude and behaviors — working and consuming — promoted by the government to keep the Chinese economy running. When Chinese officials announced loosened family-size limits to allow all couples to have up to three children, one commentator quipped, “We are all thinking about how best to lie down while they are pushing us to reproduce.”
“People were convinced by the discourse of self-development,” said Yang Zhan, an anthropologist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “They were willing to suspend their life in the present in the hope of a better future. That sense of optimism seems to be disappearing.”
For Zhang in Wuxi, lying flat is not about giving up or withdrawing from society. “It’s more an expression of our demands from society. We want systems to be better and for workers to get more protection,” she said.
“Many people want to lie down because 996 is too tiring,” she said, referring to the notorious hours common in China’s tech industry, where staff are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
The philosophy is also about giving oneself a break. On Douban, the social networking website, new groups have emerged that support “lying down and then standing up.” Zhang, who is thinking about getting into media, says she has started sending out résumés.
“I’m interviewing for jobs while writing a little and looking for direction,” although nothing “too active,” she said. “It’s better than doing nothing.”
Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.