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


“Want to see how it starts?” asks 21-year-old Ying Feng before turning on her camera to show the green hills above the Chinese city of Xiamen. The city’s skyscrapers stretch all the way to the coast and rise above the green surroundings like logs of steel and concrete.

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

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

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

As she speaks, the first rays of the rising sun fall on her face over the water behind Xiamen.

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

But she can’t stay. Instead, she gets up and puts her mask back on.

“I should go back,” she says suddenly, very tired, even though the day has only just begun.

“Soon the work on my teaching internship will start.”

When Ying Feng calls again, 14 hours have passed and she is at home in her rented apartment, neatly folding her graduation dress.

She recently completed a music and education degree from college, but the occasion was marked less by celebration and more by fear.

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

Before her lies the prospect of a working week as a primary school teacher during the day, private lessons in the evenings and piano lessons at the weekend. Even if she takes on all that, she feels she won’t 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 drop out by taking on lower-paying jobs, giving them more time to themselves [File: Cnsphoto via Reuters]

When asked whether the prospects of an intensive working life with a low wage made her think about her career path, Ying Feng falls silent.

“Sorry,” she apologizes and laughs exhausted. “Twelve hours of internship work has cleared my brain. What was the question again?”

On hearing the question again, Ying Feng sighs.

“Well, sometimes I just want to lay flat and let everything rot.”

Lay flat

Ying Feng is not alone in her frustration.

“Lay flat” (tang ping) and “let it rot” (bai lan) are two terms that have become a rallying cry for Chinese youth annoyed by the Chinese job market and the greater expectations of Chinese society.

Since the spring of 2021, users on Chinese social media such as Douban, WeChat and Weibo have been sharing their own stories of how they left careers and aspirations behind to instead embrace a minimalist lifestyle with space for leisure and self-exploration.

Among them are 31-year-old Alice Lu and 29-year-old Wei-zhe Wu.

Lu was working in the communications and media department of a large IT company in Shanghai when she became ill.

“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 began to question her work-life balance. In the end, she decided not to return to her field, but to open a noodle shop.

“The store may not be much, but it’s my own thing. Now I am in charge 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 who collapsed on the factory floor during a nighttime inspection,” he says.

“After that I started to wonder if that would be my fate in the end.”

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

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

“Although my job took up all my time, I realized that the dreams I had for my life could not be realized through my job in the factory.”

He stands and pulls aside a curtain to reveal the lights of the tall buildings of Jinan’s city center that twinkle in the night.

“I could never afford to live there anyway,” he growls.

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

“My parents will probably push me back into the rat race soon, but for now I just feel freer and healthier lying flat.”

A threat to Xi?

While young Chinese people who let go of expectations and want more free time may not sound like major resistance, “doing nothing” has become one of the greatest sins in Chinese society, according to Ying Feng.

“We are taught from an early age that leisure should be filled with productive and stimulating activities.”

This is reflected in statements by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping calling on young people to work hard, think big and remain faithful to Chinese socialism.

“Chinese youth are at the forefront of the challenges facing our nation on the road to rejuvenation,” Xi said in May at a ceremony marking the centenary of the establishment of the Communist Youth League of China.

Both the embrace of tang ping and bai lan and the comments of Chinese leaders come at a time when several crises seem to converge.

“Demographic and economic challenges loom 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 do their utmost for the Chinese economy. Especially now that the high growth that has determined the Chinese economic miracle in recent decades is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in the future.”

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

While Xi urges young people to think big and work hard to achieve their goals, tang ping is all about lowering expectations and work intensity. And when Xi emphasizes rallying around patriotic values ​​formulated by the CCP, tang ping is about individuals finding peace within themselves.

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

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

The attacks on ‘lay flat’ were not limited to rhetoric, however. Last year, The New York Times received a directive from the Chinese internet regulator that ordered online platforms to strictly limit new reports of tang ping.

“I was part of an online forum where we discussed lying flat,” Lu recalls.

“We had reached around 100,000 members when suddenly we couldn’t put anything new on the site.”

Yao, the academic, says the CCP is unlikely to let the phenomenon evolve into a political movement that could threaten the dominance of the party or Xi, who is expected to win an unprecedented third term in office at a party congress later this year. .

“Given that the Chinese authorities are aware of tang ping, any attempt at organization would be destroyed.”

But if tang ping continues to spread and younger Chinese adopt a lifestyle that rejects hard work, it could endanger 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 best not discussed on WeChat.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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