Group 4

Is everyone lying flat without me?

From ‘lie flat’ to ‘let it rot’, inside the the buzzword-ification of anti-work movements in China


Text: Rachel Lee, Insights & Cultural Analyst

There is a movement going on in China: Gen Z and millennials are refusing to work, they are “slackers” commandeering a mass “social protest” that feels “chilling” and is at its extreme a “threat to the state”... These are all descriptions you will find if you Google ‘tang ping,’ a term that translates to ‘lie flat’ in Chinese and refers to an ongoing rebellion against hustle culture amongst Gen Z in China. In the past two years, this phenomenon was picked up by the Western media and has spread like wildfire since. It’s been reported on by the BBCThe GuardianThe New York Times and even made into Amazon merch. The headlines surrounding tang ping are Very Serious: critiquing the wrath of the Chinese government and lamenting the pressures of the youth. Bloomberg described President Xi “cracking down” on the movement to “whip” the country’s youth into shape. On the surface, it’s clear the youth of China are #notokay, and the way they’ve chosen to voice their woes — a slightly vague, tongue-in-cheek internet slang — has become honey to the Western media beehive hungry to dissect China and its culture. But most of these takes are hot and one-toned and often as formulaic as any market analysis out there. Considering how tired the Chinese youth are of, well, everything, it’s safe to say their apathy deserves more nuanced consideration, beyond the trope that young people are once again ruining the economy.

Lying flat’s origin story

Lying flat is an antithetic act against China’s intense work ethic: boss asking you to do an extra task at the end of the day? Lie flat instead. Pressured by your parents to push for a promotion? Sorry, too busy lying flat. Most media outside of China trace the term to a viral post on Baidu (China’s go-to online forum) titled “Tang ping is justice” from April 2021. Actually, the term first appeared in 2011 on a Baidu forum about marriage. 

In 2015, a tang ping forum was formed on Baidu but quickly abandoned, and in 2016, it was picked up by celebrity fandoms in a phrase ‘lie flat and let them laugh’ — describing situations where fans have no choice but let their beloved stars be ridiculed when they do dumb sh*t. In 2019, we began to see the stage set for tang ping’s takeoff with the pervasiveness of ‘996 culture,’ where one works from 9am to 9pm six days a week (even causing deaths and suicides). Co-founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, even publicly endorsed 996, calling it a “huge blessing” and saying that those who adhere to the 966 schedule will reap the “rewards of hard work” — truly giving Kim Kardashian’s “get your f**king ass up and work” energy (sry, Kim, Jack Ma did it first). In 2020, an image of a student working on his laptop while biking went viral, embodying the apex of how normalised hustle (and subsequently burnout) is in China. Bike Boy’s actions, netizens lamented, are futile in what’s been called an involuted society — a social term used to describe stagnation within advanced society. Here tang ping slang found its ideological roots: how can one possibly get ahead in society, when competition is ceaseless and wealth inequalities persist? 

Cut to May 2021, that abandoned tang ping forum saw an influx of followers discussing how to lie flat in a society that has historically applauded upward mobility. Western media got the context of tang ping’s discontent right — China has had a longstanding relationship with capitalist work ideals, where promises of fortune are guaranteed as long as you work hard. However, while Gen Z and Millennials witnessed their parents’ speedy success during China’s golden, open-door years, they now face much less advantageous conditions and those same aspirations no longer feel attainable. It is no wonder they want to lie down — they’re disillusioned by promises of the modern Chinese Dream and, honestly, just tired AF. 

Quiet quitting 🤝 tang ping

In fact, we’re all tired. As with the sobering realities of impossible social mobility in modern China, the West’s mayhem of housing crises, inflation and recession have equally dissolved traditional aspirations of ownership and wealth accumulation for Gen Z and millennials. So it is no surprise that the apathetic spirit of lying flat is echoed in the ‘quiet quitting’ movement in the West, in which going above and beyond at work is out, doing the bare minimum (read: working within your salary capacity) is in, responding to your (micro-)manager’s 10pm texts about a typo is out, and setting boundaries about being unreachable after working hours is in. And as with the Chinese government’s panic over its biggest labour force seemingly refusing to work, Western media has also branded this a mass crisis — the Great Resignation — as if Gen Z and Millennials have single handedly toppled over corporate culture. Chaotic? Yes. Slight overreaction? Also yes. 

The memeification of IDGAF attitudes 

But if there’s anything that Gen Z can do — no matter where they’re from — it’s leaning into chaos and making memes out of it. And much to our delight, the memes that have come about from the tang ping and quiet quitting movements are equally unhinged. From TikTok’s ‘goblin mode’ and ‘couch gremlin’ trends that depicts dishevelled, can’t-be-arsed WFH scenes, to nihilistic illustrations that iterate the defiant spirit of lying flat — the youth are coping with pressures via a lexicon of dark humour, satire and irony.   

Peeling away the layers of sarcasm and self-deprecation, there is also a sense of innocent idealism for a simpler, more down-to-earth lifestyle. Tang ping’s key visuals include a row of cats lying down (one with a paper bag over its head) and an illustration of actor Ge You resting in between scenes. Elsewhere, memes of idyllic relaxation depicting scenes from cartoons and storybooks convey the possibilities of life beyond hustle.  

Online extremes vs reality 

The impact of tang ping as an internet-native phenomenon is impossible to deny. It has been integral in enabling Gen Z to visualise rest and non-career aspirations, and the humour that underpins the term has acted as a relieving salve to an otherwise painful condition of life. The collective acknowledgement of burnout woes around tang ping is not only emotionally validating, but also educational for Gen Z learning how to enforce better work/life boundaries. Tang ping’s development is a classic online evolution: slang goes viral, media gives hot takes and serious social commentary — we now think we know Gen Z better than ever. But as we all take a bite of this juicy Gen Z insight, we must also acknowledge the bitter aftertaste of opposing views that question the validity of tang ping. Recent research by Fudan University shows that lying flat sentiments may not be as extreme as they’re portrayed: a majority of 75% Gen Z surveyed place value on hard work, and another 64% show proclivity towards self-betterment. There is also the emergence of the ‘45 degree life,’ oscillating between grinding away and lying flat — a term that captures the in-between mindset of the majority of Gen Z in this study. 

These exceptions don’t fit neatly with the flood of narratives that have continuously proclaimed that Gen Z plans to replace the 9-5 grind with a lifetime of knitting jumpers with a bunch of cartoon mice. It is easy to take slang born out of youth culture at face value — they are often catchy, provocative and attention-grabbing. But to attach knee-jerk assumptions and conclusions to these slangs would be counterproductive and doing the youth a disservice. Mainstream media’s morbid curiosity and hasty judgement have led to the dilution (and misinterpretation) of tang ping’s true essence. Instead of just debating how many flat-liers make up China’s post-‘00s demographic, or data-visualising how America’s quiet-quitters will impact 2024’s labour market, it would do us better to address and empathise with what Gen Z are going through, maybe even laugh (in despair) with them. After all, if there’s anything #TherapyTok has taught us, it’s that when someone wants to vent about a problem, it’s usually less about them wanting a solution, but more about finding an outlet to share their feelings. 

Let lying flat… rest

Around spring 2022, a new term, ‘bai lan’ (translating to ‘let it rot’) entered the chat as an extreme evolution of tang ping. We have since entered a new cycle of taking another Chinese internet slang and fetishising its context — very real Gen Z’s struggles — for the sake of generational analysis. This will not be the last time this happens, but perhaps there’s another trajectory of approach: take it seriously, but laugh with Gen Z and try to help them feel better — be it through a retail pop-up designed for lazy people, or a tang ping-themed camp programme.