Young adults in China have recently embarked on a new trend called “tang ping,” the supposed antidote to the societal pressures of finding a good job and clocking in long hours.
In essence, “tang ping” (躺平), which literally translates to “lie flat,” is a deliberate rejection of the notorious rat race — a movement that does not advocate laziness but “having different choices,” as some put it.
A Culture of Overwork
Chinese business leaders, particularly those in the tech industry — from Alibaba founder Jack Ma to JD.com Inc. chief Richard Liu — have promoted a “996 culture,” which requires employees to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
That’s a total of 72 hours per week, a full day longer than the International Labour Organization’s maximum standard of 48 hours (eight hours per day). Just last month, the agency and the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report showing that long work hours led to an estimated 745,194 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016 worldwide, a 29% increase since 2000.
Ma explicitly endorsed the 996 culture in April 2019, amid online protests against overwork in the tech industry. A topic titled “996.ICU” emerged on GitHub with a warning that adherence to the schedule would lead to health problems that ultimately require admission to the intensive care unit.
The work culture also received criticism online after the deaths of several employees from a tech company were reported. On Dec. 29, 2020, a 23-year-old employee at e-commerce platform Pinduoduo collapsed and died while walking home from work past midnight, according to Fortune.
Less than two weeks later, an engineer who had been working for the same company for six months killed himself after taking leave and returning to his hometown. A third employee was allegedly fired for sharing a photo of an ambulance that came for a colleague who collapsed while working.
“Ten years ago, people rarely complained about 996,” Li Shun, a former employee of internet company Baidu, told The New York Times in 2019. “This industry was booming once, but it’s more of a normal industry now. There are no more giant financial returns. Expecting people to work a 996 schedule on their own like before isn’t realistic.”
“Tang ping” reportedly gained momentum in Chinese social media in the past several weeks, with at least two million users viewing a hashtag discussing its necessity. It appears to be a direct pushback on the buzzword “involution,” an old academic term that went viral last year and referred to “societies becoming trapped in ceaseless cycles of competition,” according to Sixth Tone.
First spotted on social media in September 2019, “tang ping” was originally used in the context of the phrase “doctors lie flat,” Caixin noted. The China Business Journal reportedly explained that new clinicians were openly questioning their career prospects, especially why they should struggle for a job in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangdong province when they can settle in a third or fourth-tier city and still have a good life.
“Tang ping,” which some have described as a “spiritual movement,” rejects overworking and celebrates contentment with more attainable achievements. It also encourages spending time to decompress.
“You’re beaten up by society and just want a more relaxed life… ‘lying flat’ is not waiting to die. I still work, but just don’t overstretch,” Wang, a 24-year-old lab technician, told AFP.
Lin, who works in human resources, said “lying flat” resonated as young people cannot become “winners in life” who are able to own apartments, buy cars, get married and have children. “So they choose to lower their goals and reduce their desires,” she told AFP.
Before “involution” and “tang ping,” urban, middle-class youngsters used the buzzword “sang wenhua” — literally “doomsday culture” — to “reflect the reduced work ethic, a lack of self-motivation and an apathetic demeanor” that they feel, according to CGTN. Vladislav Ivanov, also known as Lelush, a Russian man who felt “trapped” in a Chinese survival talent show, appears to be the latest icon of the “sang culture” after repeatedly trying to get eliminated, as per The Conversation.
An Asian Issue
While “tang ping” is uniquely Chinese, the problem of overwork extends to other countries in East and Southeast Asia. A 2020 Work-Life Balance Index published by wireless security developer KISI shows that the world’s most overworked cities are (1) Hong Kong, (2) Singapore, (3) Seoul, (4) Kuala Lumpur and (5) Tokyo.
By contrast, the top cities for work-life balance are European, namely (1) Oslo, (2) Helsinki, (3) Copenhagen, (4) Hamburg and (5) Berlin. It is worth noting that aside from key factors, the report took into account the impact of COVID-19 in areas such as restriction of movement, the severity of lockdown, overall economic impact and projected percentage change in employment as a consequence.
Japan is arguably another Asian country with a well-documented history of overwork. In fact, the East Asian nation has designated the term “karoshi” to refer to “death by overwork” — and thousands have allegedly succumbed to the phenomenon.
How deep “tang ping” penetrates Chinese society is yet to be seen. For a country whose elders had to claw their way up the social ladder to escape extreme poverty, the idea is clearly a subject of national debate.
In 2017, President Xi Jinping, for one, urged Chinese citizens to “roll up our sleeves and work harder.” And just recently, state-run Xinhua published a video of an elderly scientist’s 12-hour workday, accompanied by the now-deleted hashtag “the 86-year-old scientist who rejects lying flat,” according to AFP.
Censors are also at work. A “tang ping” group created on Douban, an IMDb-like platform, amassed 6,000 members before it was deleted, while searches for the hashtag #TangPing were banned on Weibo, the BBC reported.
China encourages a culture of hard work, but its own labor law states that employees should work no more than eight hours a day or 44 hours on average every week. And while hours can be stretched after negotiations, overtime should not exceed one hour a day or three hours a day in “special circumstances,” according to China Daily.
“The nation’s high-quality development is an endurance race, driven by the labor force’s physical and psychological health,” said Lyu Guoquan, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “Valuing people and protecting their health is the right way to generate fortunes.”