“Want to see how it starts?” asks 21-year-old Ying Feng before turning on her camera to show the green hills above the Chinese city of Xiamen. The city’s skyscrapers, which stretch to the coast, rise above the green surroundings like trunks of steel and concrete.
A breeze blows through Ying Feng’s black hair and sundress as she sits to watch the city come alive below them. A lonely bird sings its song.
“My parents taught me that if I needed peace, I would find it in church and in prayer,” she says over the WeChat call.
“But here in the hills outside of Xiamen I have found more peace than Christianity could ever give me.”
As she speaks, the first rays of the rising sun hit her face over the water behind Xiamen.
“If only I could stop the sun right there,” she whispers, her eyes locked on the reddish-orange hue of the sky. “Then I could stay here.”
But she can’t stay. Instead, she stands up and puts her mask back on.
“I should go back,” she says suddenly, sounding very tired, even though the day has only just begun.
“The work on my teaching internship will start soon.”
When Ying Feng calls again, 14 hours have passed and she is at home in her rented apartment, neatly folding her graduation gown.
She recently completed a music and teaching degree at university, but the occasion was less one of celebration than one of fear.
“I couldn’t really be happy about it, knowing how tough it’s going to be after the summer,” she explains.
Ahead of her is a working week as a primary school teacher during the day, tutoring at night and piano lessons at the weekend. Even if she takes it all on, she feels she can’t earn enough to save for an apartment or raise a family.
When asked if the prospect of an intense work life with low pay made her reconsider her career path, Ying Feng falls silent.
“Sorry,” she apologizes and laughs wearily. “Twelve hours of internship work drained my brain. What was the question again?”
When Ying Feng hears the question again, she sighs.
“Well, sometimes I just want to lay flat and let it all rot.”
Ying Feng is not alone in her frustration.
“Lay flat” (tang ping) and “let it rot” (bai lan) are two terms that have become battle cries for Chinese youth, who are angered by both the Chinese labor market and the greater expectations of Chinese society.
Since spring 2021, users on Chinese social media such as Douban, WeChat and Weibo have been sharing their own stories of abandoning careers and ambitions to instead embrace a minimalist lifestyle with space for leisure and self-exploration.
Among them are 31-year-old Alice Lu and 29-year-old Wei-zhe Wu.
Lu had been working in the communications and media department of a large IT company in Shanghai when she fell ill.
“I had been working weekdays, weekends, days and nights for years when I felt my body and mind breaking down,” she explains.
She had to take time off to recover, and during that time she began to question her work-life balance. In the end, she decided not to return to her field, but to open a noodle shop instead.
“The store may not be much, but it’s my own thing. Now I’m the master of my own schedule and I find I finally have time to just do nothing.”
It was also after a breakdown that Wu began to reconsider his career.
“In my case, it was my older colleague who collapsed on a night inspection on the factory floor,” he says.
“After that, I began to wonder if that would be my destiny one day.”
At the time, Wei-zhe Wu worked six days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. as a project manager at a chemical plant outside of Jinan, a northeastern city halfway between Beijing and Shanghai.
“Although the work took up all of my time, I realized that the dreams I had for my life could not be achieved through my job at the plant.”
He stands and pulls aside a curtain to reveal the lights of downtown Jinan’s skyscrapers twinkling in the night.
“I could never afford to live there anyway,” he grunts.
So he quit his job, moved back in with his parents and started freelancing instead.
“My parents will probably have me back in the rat race soon, but right now I just feel freer and healthier lying flat.”
A threat to Xi?
While young Chinese abandoning expectations and wanting more free time might not sound like much resistance, according to Ying Feng, “doing nothing” has become one of the biggest sins in Chinese society.
“We are taught from a young age that free time must be filled with productive and rewarding activities.”
This is reflected in statements by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping, urging young people to work hard, think big and stay true to Chinese socialism.
“Chinese youth are the vanguard of the challenges our nation faces on the path of rejuvenation,” Xi said at a ceremony marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Youth League in May.
Both Tang Ping and Bai Lan’s embrace and comments from Chinese leaders come at a time when multiple crises appear to be converging.
“Demographic and economic challenges looming on the Chinese horizon,” explains Associate Professor Yao-Yuan Yeh, who teaches Sinology at the University of St. Thomas Houston in the United States.
“Therefore, it is important for the CCP that young people in China work hard and contribute their utmost to the Chinese economy. Especially now, when the high growth that has shaped the Chinese economic miracle in recent decades is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in the future.”
This puts Tang Ping and Bai Lan in direct opposition to the CCP’s demands.
While Xi calls on young people to think big and work hard to achieve their goals, Tang Ping is about lowering expectations and work intensity. And if Xi emphasizes rallying around the patriotic values articulated by the CCP, Tang Ping is about individuals finding peace within themselves.
As a result, CCP and Chinese state media spokesmen have labeled Tang Ping as shameful and unpatriotic. Yu Minhong, the billionaire owner of a tutoring company, has gone so far as to call “laying flat” a threat to China’s future.
The attacks on lying flat are not limited to rhetoric, however. Last year, the New York Times received an order from China’s Internet regulator, ordering online platforms to severely restrict new posts on Tang Ping.
“I was a member of an online forum where we discussed ‘laying flat,'” Lu recalls.
“We had reached around 100,000 members when we suddenly couldn’t post anything new on the site.”
Yao, the academic, says the CCP is unlikely to allow the phenomenon to develop into a political movement that could threaten the dominance of either the party or Xi, who is expected to speak at a party convention later in secures an unprecedented third term this year .
“Given the Chinese authorities’ awareness of Tang Ping, any attempt to organize would be thwarted.”
However, if Tang Ping spreads further and younger Chinese choose a lifestyle that discourages hard work, it could become a threat to the CCP’s ambitions, he adds.
When asked if Tang Ping is becoming a threat to the CCP, Alice Lu takes a deep breath.
“Some things are better not discussed on WeChat.”