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‘Lying down flat’ as passive resistance in China

Viral internet meme screen capture from a 1994 Chinese TV drama “I love my family”.

A new viral term promoting slow living has taken China’s cyberspace by storm, and authorities are moving quickly to stamp it out.

Tangping (躺平), or “lying down flat” is a counter-culture philosophy championing minimalism and anti-consumerism.

The “lying down flatist” believes that people are more than mere extensions of capital. The “lying down flatist” is in open rebellion against the hard-working, credit-hungry, striving existence promoted from the top down in China.

The idea originated from a short post, “Lying down flat signifies justice”, published on a mainland Chinese forum, Baidu Tieba, in April.

The now deleted post said:

兩年多沒有工作了,都在玩,沒覺得哪裡不對,壓力主要來自身邊人互相對比後尋找的定位和長輩的傳統觀念,它們會無時無刻在你身邊出現。你每次看見的新聞熱搜也都是明星戀愛、懷孕之類的『生育周邊』,就像某些『看不見的生物』在製造一種思維強壓給你,人大可不必如此。我可以像第歐根尼只睡在自己的木桶裡曬太陽,也可以像赫拉克利特住在山洞裡思考『邏各斯』,既然這片土地從沒真實存在高舉人主體性的思潮,那我可以自己製造給自己,躺平就是我的智者運動,只有躺平,人才是萬物的尺度。

I haven’t been working for two years, I have just been hanging around and I don’t find it a problem. Pressure mainly comes from comparisons with your own peers and the conventional values of the older generation. These pressures keep popping up…Messages about “fertility” are pressed upon you by an “invisible organism”. But, we don’t have to abide by these (norms). I can live like Diogenes and sleep inside a wooden bucket, enjoying sunshine. I can live like Heraclitus in a cave, thinking about the “logos”. Since this piece of land had never had a school of thought that upholds human subjectivity, I can develop one on my own. Lying down flat is my philosophical movement. Only through lying down flat can humans stand at the center of the universe.

Very quickly, the term went viral with a flood of online memes:

Giving the ‘Garlic Chives’ a much-needed break

Chinese netizens are seizing on the philosophical moment to promote “Tangping” as a strategy of resistance for “garlic chives” (韮菜).

The chives, in the language of the Chinese internet, are people whose working existence has helped fuel China's economic revolution, whilst predatory rent-seekers with connections to the political elite “harvest” the fruits of their labour.

Lying flat – a fast beat on “Tangping”.

In the TikTok video embedded in the tweet above, the woman says:

Lying down flatists. Who says that Lying down flat means giving up on future? Property prices keep surging, in response I lie down flat. Life keeps repeating itself through a 996 working hour system. I am better suited to foot-dragging.

The man in the video rebukes the woman: “Lying flat is a dead end.”

The woman responds:

If you don't lie down flat, you will die suddenly during work. If you don't lie down quick enough, you will become garlic chives to be harvested by Capital. If you lie down flat enough, you will win back your life.

Lying down flatists are also targeting “involution” — an anthropological term appropriated by Chinese netizens to describe a political-economic system pushing itself to its outer limits rather than seeking to evolve.

The term became popular after the outbreak of COVID-19 and amid China’s worsening diplomatic relations with the West.

Chinese president Xi Jinping stated that China will rely more on “internal circulation” for boosting its economic growth – a comment that was interpreted as meaning that China will have to boost its own domestic demand to reduce reliance on overseas markets.

In China's case, key features of involution are the 996 working hour system (workers work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days per week) vicious competition that results in an highly exploitative working environment, growing living costs, reliance on credit and an education system that puts extreme pressure on students to pass exams. 

With the political system blocking all channels for bottom-up changes, passive resistance such as Tangpingism has become the only way to express discontent.

As one Weibo poster wrote:

不能站,又不想跪,只有躺平了

You can’t stand up, but you don’t want to kneel down. Then you can only lie flat.

The standing committee strikes back?

This online discussion soon caught the attention Chinese authorities.

On May 20, a commentary on the state-affiliated Nanfang Daily slammed Tangpingism as “poisonous chicken soup” that injects negative energy into the Chinese youth.

The article was republished by the state-owned Xinhua information service on May 28.

On May 30, at least four Tangping study groups on Douban, a popular social media platform that appeals to youth in particular, were deleted. The next day, the same platform flagged Tangping as a sensitive keyword and censored it, as a large number of netizens used the term to mock Beijing's new three-child policy.

With “Tangpingism” memes remaining popular, some Internet users are concerned that the government's efforts to combat it will spread from the realm of information to the realm of lawmaking.

As Twitter user @chnechenzh noted, laws of this kind have been deployed in the past by other communist governments:

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