'Lying Flat': The Chinese Style Non-Violent, Non-Cooperation Movement
"Lying flat", the literal translationof the Chinese neologism "tang ping", has become a widespread social phenomenonand trend in China. For this very reason, it is worth to be discussed andsubjected to appropriate qualitative research.
The term in its basic sense is tolie down in some way and refuse to do anything. It became popular in 2021 and,since then, this concept has developed into one of the most well-known internetbuzzwords in China, thanks to its rapid dissemination through the web. InChinese society, "lying flat" specifically refers to the attitude ofthe younger generation, which is characterized by "choosing to live a lifewith neither desires nor ambitions, rejecting societal expectations andstriving. The specific connotations of "lying flat" include but arenot limited to "not buying a house, not buying a car, not dating, notgetting married, not having children, low-level consumption", as well as"maintaining the minimum living standards, refusing to become amoney-making machine for capitalists, and being a slave exploited bycapitalists". In essence, it reflects a lack of motivation to work, and a lackof willingness to make efforts.
If we carefully examine theemergence of the term "lying flat", we will find some interesting observations.
The term first appeared during aperiod of economic downturn and the commencement of the COVID-19 pandemic in2019. At that time, "lying flat" was seen as a collective response bythe younger generation to the disappointment in the prevailing socialenvironment, as well as to phenomena such as class rigidity, internal conflicts,the shrinking middle class, in-work poverty, and overwork. Subsequently, theterm "lying flat" became highly popular among young people, to theextent that even shopping websites began selling T-shirts, mugs, phone cases,car stickers, and more, featuring slogans like "just lie flat" and"as long as you lie flat, you won't be exploited". Due to the highpopularity of the term, it even became the theme for the interview section ofthe Shaanxi Provincial Civil Service Examination in 2021.
The widespread popularity of the term"lying flat" is primarily due to the strong resonance and consensusof the concepts in society. Young Chinese, influenced by generationaldifferences, comparisons, and pressures, have already to some extent developeda sense of non-cooperation by "refusing to consume, work hard, to beexploited, and to be manipulated by capitalistic utilitarianism". Thisnon-cooperative mindset challenges official ideological propaganda and theexisting system, offering a clear response to the previous generation insociety. It is worth noting that as discussions unfold, a stronger sense ofactive resistance among the younger generation has been further ignited. A poemthat became popular on Chinese social media is a clear testament to this:"Lying flat is to avoid bending. Lying flat is to avoid kneeling. Lyingflat is standing horizontally. Lying flat is having a straight backbone."
Therefore, "lying flat"and "lying flat-ism" clearly embody a spirit of non-cooperation.
Perhaps it is due to these complexbackgrounds that "lying flat" has stirred strong attention andconcerns in Chinese society. Chinese shopping websites such as Taobao andJD.com have removed all products related to it. A search for "lying flatT-shirt" on Taobao will show T-shirts with slogans like "NewYouth," "Advanced Producer" or others. This may be a soft way forChinese society to respond to "lying flat".
On May 30, 2021, China's state news agency Xinhuareleased a video news piece attempting to motivate and encourage young peoplenot to "lie flat" but to "persevere". In a video titled"86-Year-Old Scientist Who Rejects Lying Flat", retired professorZhao Huanting is shown starting work at 4 a.m. every day, working for 10 to 12hours. If soft propaganda is insufficient, there are also hard measures tocounteract "lying flat". On June 11, 2021, Tencent announced the implementationof working hours control measures. Additionally, "lying flat" hasgarnered the attention of China's top leadership. On August 17, 2021, PresidentXi Jinping spoke about preventing social class rigidity during the 10th meetingof the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs. He emphasized theneed to keep upward mobility channels open, create wealth opportunities formore people, and avoid "lying flat."
Chinese society's attention to "lyingflat" is for a reason and has a background because it is related to thehighly sensitive concept of "non-violent non-cooperation movements".
Global non-cooperationmovements, also known as civil disobedience, are shrouded in obscurity in theirorigins, but several well-known and influential figures have been associatedwith them. An early thinker who recognized this issue was American writer HenryDavid Thoreau, whose works like Civil Disobedience were influential ininspiring the important ideas behind India's non-violent non-cooperationmovements. Civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and hunger strikes becameessential political tools in the non-violent non-cooperation movements in Indiaduring the era of Mahatma Gandhi. Whenever significant social events occurred,Gandhi himself would embark on hunger strikes in protest.
Martin Luther King,himself a widely recognized American intellectual, was the figurehead ofAmerica's most famous non-violent movement. King held a doctorate in systematictheology, and his non-violence philosophy had a strong connection to Christianbeliefs, including the Biblical passage "put your sword back into its place;for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26: 52)".
It is also in the U.S.that Bayard Rustin, an influential African-American figure, served as both anadvisor and mentor to King. Rustin, a devoted Christian pacifist, delved intoMahatma Gandhi's teachings and effectively applied them during the 1940s withinthe context of the Journey of Reconciliation. Rustin's profound influence,along with those of Thoreau and Gandhi, significantly shaped King's adoption ofnon-violent principles in his own social activism. Among these, Thoreau's CivilDisobedience provided King with his initial exposure to non-violent movementtheory. Notably, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King expresseda heartfelt tribute to Gandhi in his speech.
Thefundamental essence of the "non-violent non-cooperation movement" is as itsname implies, non-violence and non-cooperation, but also resistance, andawakening, seeking to be understood, and striving for the emergence of harmonyand reason through peaceful means. Therefore, "lying flat" is basicallya Chinese variation of this movement, sharing the same basic essence andsignificance.
Perhaps for this reason, responsesoriginating from Chinese official and semi-official sources, while denying it,do not explicitly address the fundamental nature of "lying flat".
In May 2021, the official socialmedia Weibo account of the Communist Youth League Central Committee posted a criticism of "lying flat". An article in Nanfang Daily, the official newspaperof the Guangdong provincial CCP committee called "lying flat" as "shameful". Aneditorial in Global Times mocked that "young people who claim to want to'lie flat' are always awakened by their own alarms at dawn". There are manymore criticisms of "lying flat" in Chinese media.
While there are many articles anddiscussions about "lying flat" and "lying flat-ism" inChinese society, one sees very few perspectives from the angle of socialmovement to understand and define this issue. Most people's understanding issimilar to what Li Fengliang, an associate professor at Tsinghua University,believes: "Lying flat is an extremely irresponsible attitude, whichdisappoints not only one's own parents but also millions of taxpayers. ...People can still achieve upward social mobility through competition".
In general, Chinese society'sattitude towards the "lying flat" phenomenon among young people manifestsin the form of admonition. It overlooks the fact that such a phenomenon is aform of non-violent non-cooperation movement. Some scholars even view"lying flat" from a more positive but awkward perspective. Forinstance, financial scholar He Jiangbing believes that "lying flat"is a form of "resigned optimism", in the sense that while it may haveadverse effects on the economy, reducing consumption helps to reduce waste,thereby reducing carbon footprint, which is conducive to achieving carbonemission reduction goals. He believes that people who "lie flat" aregenerally mild-mannered, not rebellious, and are unlikely to retaliate againstsociety, which contributes to social stability. Huang Ping, a professor in theChinese Department at East China Normal University, also believes that"lying flat" is a way for young people to relieve themselves of stress,pointing out that when people find it impossible to keep up with the distorteddevelopment of society, such as soaring housing prices, "lying flat"can be seen as one of the most rational choices.
Of course, there are also individualswith insightful observations on this. Columnist Chang Ping remarked that"lying-flat-ism" is "an awakening of consciousness regardingrights and identity". On August 3, 2021, former CIA employee EdwardSnowden shared a song titled "Lying Flat is the Right Way" onTwitter, encouraging young people to "never forget that you are not alone:the exploitation of the emerging generation is a global struggle". He hasa point, as the core of the issue is indeed about the struggle. "Lyingflat" is not just about consumption; it represents China's version of thenon-violent non-cooperation movement.