Insider

More and more Chinese 20-somethings are rejecting the rat race and ‘lying flat’ after watching their friends work themselves to death

Summary List PlacementIt is 8 a.m. in Shanghai. Scores of office workers are pouring into the dizzying network of the city's metro lines, toting heavy briefcases and steaming cups of coffee. Meanwhile, Zhiyuan Zhang, 27, is tucking himself into bed.  "8 a.m. means it's time to lie down," Zhang told...

shanghai rush hour

Summary List Placement

It is 8 a.m. in Shanghai. Scores of office workers are pouring into the dizzying network of the city’s metro lines, toting heavy briefcases and steaming cups of coffee. Meanwhile, Zhiyuan Zhang, 27, is tucking himself into bed. 

“8 a.m. means it’s time to lie down,” Zhang told Insider. “Though I don’t have a job to go to, so I can lie down anytime. It’s great.” 

Zhang is a Chinese millennial who has joined the ranks of a social movement called 躺平主义 — the “lying flat movement.” It’s a mindset, a lifestyle, and a personal choice for some disillusioned Chinese youth who have given up on the rat race and are staging a quiet rebellion against the trials of 9-9-6 work culture.

Why are some Chinese youths “lying flat”? 

tsinghua, neijuan

The idea of “lying flat” is widely acknowledged as a mass societal response to “neijuan” (or involution). “Neijuan” became a term commonly used to describe the hyper-competitive lifestyle in China, where life is likened to a zero-sum game.

According to Chinese news outlet CGTN, a viral photo of a student at the prestigious Tsinghua University studying on his laptop while riding a bike best encompassed “neijuan.” The pressure to succeed renders the mere minutes spent on a short bike commute a waste of time. 

“One big question for the middle class is how to remain in the middle class and ensure that their children do the same and even better,” Yan Fei, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua University, told CGTN.

Neijuan goes hand in hand with China’s “9-9-6” culture.  The term refers to China’s “hustle” culture, where people work 12 hours a day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. The 9-9-6 lifestyle was strongly championed by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, who once in 2019 called the 72-hour workweek a “blessing.” Long workdays are not only common but “expected” of staff, despite China’s labor policy mandating that employees not work more than eight hours a day.

Poor enforcement of labor laws has led to rampant cases of overwork. Stories of people dying at their desks or suffering from depression and exhaustion are not uncommon. 

sang culture pepe the frog

Earlier this year, for example, the e-commerce company Pinduoduo was rocked by two employee deaths believed to be tied to overwork. One worker collapsed and died after staying at the office until 1:30 a.m. Two weeks later, a second employee died by suicide, prompting a third employee to release a viral video claiming that employees at the company were expected to work more than 12 hours a day. 

Rebelling against the status quo by doing nothing — the origins of “lying flat”

There are many ways to “lie flat,” per The Washington Post, including not getting married and starting a family, and  rejecting overtime work and desk jobs.

Per a now-deleted post outlining the “lying flat” manifesto posted this April on Chinese social media Tieba, the movement advocates for “lying down” — both literally and metaphorically.   

“Since there has never been an ideological trend exalting human subjectivity in our land, I shall create one for myself. Lying down is my wise man’s movement. Only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things,” the anonymous author of the “Lying Flat Manifesto” wrote. 

The movement gained momentum on the Douban social media site (akin to the Chinese version of Facebook), which resulted in huge online communities forming, like the “lying flat group,” where users would post photos of animals and other creatures in a prone position. Per The Washington Post, the 9,000-member-strong “lying flat” community on Douban was removed by censors.

man, city, shanghai

Zhang, the 27-year-old night owl, told Insider that he did not start out wanting to join the “lying flat” movement, but his struggles to conform to expectations made him one of its most ardent followers. 

“Since I made a permanent move to Shanghai four years ago, I’ve sent out more than 2,000 job applications and been to hundreds of interviews,” Zhang said. “I got a job at an accounting firm after my second year of job-hunting, but I resigned after four months. That lifestyle just wasn’t for me.” 

It was a staggering disappointment to Zhang’s parents, who run a small business in his hometown. They had high expectations of him after he graduated from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one of the nine elite C9 League colleges in the country, with an acceptance rate equivalent to an Ivy League school in the US.

But it was precisely his experiences at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Zhang said, that made him think “lying flat” was the way to go. He referred to his 富二代 (“fuerdai,” a slang term for “rich second generation”) classmates who got jobs within weeks of graduating off recommendations from family members and other inroads, and people in his cohort who started businesses using seed funding from their parents.

“Sons of businessmen and daughters of officials got a head start that was equivalent to an entire lap or two around the track. I think it is inevitable that people like me would lose the race. So that made me think, why do I even try?” 

Zhang now receives an allowance of $800 a month from his parents, and they also pay his rent. He finds work occasionally to supplement that allowance, taking up part-time shifts at nearby convenience stores for month-long stretches. Most days, however, he plays computer games through the night, then sleeps through the day.

Some ‘lie flat’ for a while but eventually stand back up again

freelance work

Not everyone goes to Zhang’s extremes.

“‘Lying flat’ doesn’t mean lying down all day or being jobless. It means going at your own pace and doing what you like,” said Yubo Li, 31, who works as a freelance designer and digital artist from his rented room in Shanghai. 

Li works around four to five hours a day on projects that make enough money to live simply without pushing himself to the point of overwork.

“I resent the idea of having to work myself to death just to move up the corporate ladder,” Li told Insider.

“Of course, I know that if I were to join a corporate design firm, I would very likely make more money and be able to afford more tasty food and better accommodation. But I would only sleep three hours a day and have no time to enjoy life. Now my simple bowls of noodles taste good and my bed is soft enough. I see no reason to try harder,” Li added.

For others, like Beijing-born Shihui Lin, 25, “lying flat” is a temporary state of affairs. Lin quit her job in banking a month ago because she felt like she was on the “verge of imploding.” She wants to “lie flat” for a few months before “standing up again.”

“I felt like I was losing my mind. After not sleeping for five days while working on a major project, I thought: ‘If I don’t quit now, I’m going to kill myself,'” Lin told Insider. 

Lin is prepared to take a pay cut if it means she can take the time and space she needs to manage her mental health.

“There was no meaning to my life in that 9-9-6 job. It became a 24/7 job over the three years I worked there. Now I want to learn how to truly live,” she said. 

Is “lying flat” something only the privileged can afford?

chinese office workers

Some Chinese youths say the idea of “lying flat” is a “middle-class ideal” that only people above a certain income level can practice.

“The idea of lying flat is ridiculous to me,” said Yixiang Zhou, 27, who works in the legal sector in Guangzhou. 

“I don’t have the right to ‘lie flat’ because my parents are aging. One day, they will get too old to work. So who supports them, then? Who pays for their living and healthcare expenses if I’m wasting my youth away?” Zhou told Insider. 

College student Li-li Fang, 21, told Insider that even thinking of “lying flat” is symptomatic of having a “bad attitude.”

“The way I see it, ‘lying flat’ can only be done by two kinds of people: Someone rich enough to be able to afford it and cruise through life, or losers who don’t mind being poor forever,” she said. “Don’t sugarcoat being lazy or not wanting to work with this honorable idea of defying societal norms. Get a job, and stop eating into your family’s savings. Make yourself useful.” 

Xi Jinping

The Chinese government remains in opposition to the “lying flat” movement. It promotes working hard — as Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a 2018 televised address — as the “most honorable, noblest, greatest, and most beautiful virtue.” 

“I feel the millions of ordinary Chinese are the greatest, and I also feel that happiness is achieved through hard work,” Xi continued.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Youth Wing has also disavowed the movement, making a post on the social media platform Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) advocating for hard work.

“The Chinese youth have never opted to lie flat,” the group wrote in a post on Weibo in May. “We have beliefs, dreams, ambition, and the ability to contribute to our nation.” 

There are also perhaps concerns that “lying flat” could affect China’s flagging birth rate if more young Chinese people lean into the ideals and delay starting their careers, getting married, and having children. The country last month reversed its two-child policy in favor of a three-child quota, but fears remain that the policy change will do little to reverse the country’s population woes.

But Zhang, and many others who ascribe to “lying flat,” will continue to push against the grain, unconcerned with jobs or families.

“I ‘lie flat’ because this is the way my life is meant to be,” he said. “If people think I’m a loser, then so be it.” 

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