Chinese youth opt out of the rat race in search of personal peace

“Do you wanna see how it begins?” asks 21-year-old Ying Feng before turning on her camera to show the green hills above the Chinese city of Xiamen. Stretching all the way to the coast, the city’s skyscrapers rise like trunks of steel and concrete above the green surroundings.

A breeze catches Ying Feng’s black hair and summer dress as she sits down to watch the city below come to life. A lone bird sings its song.

“My parents taught me that if I needed peace, I would find it in the church and in prayer,” she says across the WeChat call.

“But here in the hills outside Xiamen I have found more calm than Christianity could ever give me.”

As she speaks, the first rays of the rising sun strike her face above the water beyond Xiamen.

“If only I could halt the sun right there,” she whispers, her eyes fixed on the red-orange hue of the sky. “Then I could stay here.”

But she cannot stay. Instead, she stands up and puts her mask back on.

“I should get back,” she says suddenly sounding very fatigued although the day has just begun.

“Work at 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 finished a music and teaching degree at university, but the occasion was marked less by celebration and more by anxiety.

“I couldn’t really be happy about it when I know how tough things will be after the summer,” she explains.

Before her lies the prospect of a work week as an elementary school teacher during the day, private tutoring at night and teaching piano at the weekend. Even if she takes on all that, she feels that she will not be able to earn enough to save for an apartment or start a family.

Graduates from Chinese universities face increasingly tough competition for jobs, but some are opting out altogether by taking lower-paid work that gives them more time to themselves [File: Cnsphoto via Reuters]

When asked whether the outlook of an intense working life with low pay has made her rethink her career path, Ying Feng falls silent.

“Sorry,” she apologises and gives an exhausted laugh. “Twelve hours of internship work has drained my brain. What was the question again?”

On hearing the question once more, Ying Feng sighs.

“Well, sometimes I just want to lie down flat and let it all rot.”

Lying Flat

Ying Feng is not alone in her frustration.

“To lie flat” (tang ping) and “let it rot” (bai lan) are two terms that have become rallying cries for Chinese youths exasperated by the Chinese job market as well as the larger expectations of Chinese society.

Since the spring of 2021, users on Chinese social media like Douban, WeChat and Weibo have shared their own stories about how they have left behind careers and ambitions to instead embrace a minimalistic lifestyle with space for free time 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 sick.

“I had been working weekdays, weekends, days and nights for years when I felt my body and mind collapse,” she explains.

She had to take time off to recover, and during that time she started 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 shop might not be much, but it’s my own thing. Now I’m the master of my own schedule, and I find that I finally have time to just do nothing.”

It was also after a collapse that Wu began to rethink his career.

“In my case, it was my senior colleague that collapsed on the factory floor during a night inspection,” he says.

“Afterwards I began to wonder if that would be my fate eventually as well.”

Commuters crowd on the station platform during rush hour in Shanghai
Chinese commuters face an often exhausting schedule with long working hours and six-day weeks the norm [File: Aly Song/Reuters]

At the time, Wei-zhe Wu was working from 9am to 9pm six days a week as a project leader at a chemical plant outside Jinan, a northeastern city halfway between Beijing and Shanghai.

“Even though work took up all my time, I realised that the dreams I had for my life could not be achieved by my job at the plant.”

He stands up and pulls a curtain aside to reveal the lights from the high-rise buildings of Jinan’s city centre twinkling in the night.

“I would never be able to afford to live in there, anyway,” he grunts.

So, he quit his job, moved back with his parents and started to do some freelance work instead.

“My parents will probably push me back into the rat race before long, but for 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 of a resistance, “doing nothing” has become one of the biggest sins in Chinese society, according to Ying Feng.

“From a young age, we are taught that free time has to be filled with productive and enhancing activities.”

This is mirrored in statements from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping in which they call on young people to work hard, think big and stay true to Chinese socialism.

“The Chinese youth are the vanguard against the challenges facing our nation on the road to rejuvenation,” Xi declared at a ceremony marking the centennial of the founding of the Communist Youth League of China in May.

Both the embrace of tang ping and bai lan as well as the comments from Chinese leaders come at a time when several crises seem to be converging.

”Demographic and economic challenges are looming on the Chinese horizon,” explains associate professor Yao-Yuan Yeh, who teaches Chinese Studies at the University of St Thomas Houston, in the United States.

“It is therefore important for the CCP that young people in China work hard and contribute their utmost to the Chinese economy. Especially now that the high growth that has defined the Chinese economic miracle in recent decades becomes increasingly difficult to sustain in the future.”

That puts tang ping and bai lan in direct opposition to the demands of the CCP.

While Xi is calling for young people to think big and work hard to achieve their goals, tang ping revolves around lowering expectations and work intensity. And when Xi emphasises rallying around patriotic values formulated by the CCP, tang ping is about individuals finding peace in their own selves.

As a result, spokespeople from the CCP and the Chinese state media have called tang ping shameful and unpatriotic. Yu Minhong, the billionaire owner of a tutoring company, has gone so far as to call “lying flat” a threat to China’s future.

Xi Jinping seated at a desk in the Great Hall of the People clapping
‘Lying flat’ is a potential threat to Xi Jinping’s efforts to encourage Chinese to ‘think big’ and keep the country’s economy growing [File: Florence Lo/Reuters]

The attacks on “lying flat” have not been limited to rhetoric, however. Last year, The New York Times came in possession of a directive from China’s internet regulator ordering online platforms to strictly restrict new posts on tang ping.

“I was a member of an online forum in which we would discuss ‘lying flat’,” recalls Lu.

”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 evolve into a political movement that could threaten the dominance of either the party or Xi, who is expected to secure an unprecedented third term in office at a party congress later this year.

“Given the Chinese authorities’ awareness of tang ping, any attempt at organising would be quashed.”

Still, if tang ping continues to spread and younger Chinese opt for a lifestyle that rejects hard work then it could become a danger to the CCP’s ambitions, he adds.

When asked if she sees tang ping evolving into a threat to the CCP, Alice Lu takes a deep breath.

“Some things are better not discussed via WeChat.”

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