A few weeks ago Chinese social media saw a marked uptick in the number of cat photos posted online. Only this time these cats weren’t playing with balls of string or balancing on top of bookcases – they were lying flat on their backs, supine, arms stretched straight by their sides.
Other images included seals doing the same thing: lying flat on their backs, motionless.
Many of these images were accompanied by the label tangping or ‘lying flat’ – a new buzzword for China’s disillusioned youth.
Tangping is the latest iteration of a wider concept known as neijuan or ‘involution’. The idea is simple: it requires too much sacrifice to succeed in modern China. Jobs are excessively demanding, house prices are too high and raising children is too difficult (we first mentioned the tangping concept in last week’s Talking Point; see WiC543).
The claim is that people are more than likely to burn out before they achieve the basic trappings of success, and that personal happiness is just as likely to be elusive too.
So the solution is to step off the hamster wheel and give up the struggle – or, in the lexicon of the day, to simply tangping. The much discussed subject has accrued 1.8 billion views on Sina Weibo.
Of course, this is not a message that the Chinese government likes to hear. It wants the young to have more children. It wants them to work hard so that China can become the rich and powerful nation it aspires to be.
Hence the Southern Daily decries the new philosophy as “shameless” in a commentary that was also picked up by Xinhua and the People’s Daily. “The only happy life is a hardworking life,” it admonishes.
The Guangming Daily agrees, slamming the new mantra as a disaster for the country’s economic and social development.
The phrase originated on a now censored Tieba post in mid-April. The author was a young man going by the online name of ‘Goodhearted Traveller’. In the post he describes how he attained personal “freedom” by cutting his consumption and becoming comfortable with the idea of not being employed in a formal job for a living. He goes on to explain that he hasn’t held a full-time job in two years and that he spends as little as Rmb200 a month on essentials. If he needs a cash infusion he simply picks up a casual job – often playing a corpse at a nearby film studio.
“Lying flat is my movement,” he wrote, referencing the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who made a virtue of poverty and was said to have lived ascetically in Athens.
The debate about tangping continued last week – albeit in a more nuanced way – when it emerged that a graduate of the prestigious Tsinghua University had taken a job as a nanny. So was this another example of a demotivated youth not living up to her career potential, netizens wondered?
It subsequently emerged that the woman had been hired by a wealthy family for her language skills and was set to earn a high salary by local standards of Rmb35,000 ($3,864) a month.
That suggests she’d taken a route that was more ‘private educator’ than tangping disciple.
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