Recently I read about the new “lie flat” movement in China. Lie flat (or tang ping) essentially means to “reject grueling careers for a ‘low-desire life.’” It sounds very similar to the voluntary simplicity movement of the 1970s and ‘80s* (work less, earn less, want less), and is being adopted especially by young Chinese burnt out from years of rigorous schooling and working 12 hours a day, six days a week. As one article describes: “tang ping is an action rather than a feeling—resolving to just scrape by, exerting the bare minimum effort at an unfulfilling job, as opposed to the futility of raging against the capitalist machine.”
Now, this may be an exaggerated trend picked up by the western media (including the AP, New York Times, BBC, and Guardian), or it may truly be a reflection of and response to the burnout felt by workers in China. Truth be told, there’s a fine line between the two anyway as media often heightens one-offs into memes and trends. But once you have popular Internet forums, famous Chinese novelists discussing the idea in well-known business magazines, and the Chinese government scrubbing all traces of tang ping from the Chinese Internet, then whether it was something or not, you suddenly do have a movement.
The Humble Beginnings of Lying Flat
Tang ping seems to have started with one guy, Luo Huazhong, minimally employed for some years, writing a manifesto declaring he was choosing to lie flat. He wrote: “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 movement. Only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things.” Clearly, he never read the Taoist poem, “Returning to the Farm to Dwell,” written by poet, burnt out government bureaucrat, and early ‘lie flat’ proponent, Tao Qian, around 405 AD, or Luo might have realized others had grappled with this in their land before.
But tang ping is a trend (and lifestyle choice) that’s certainly worth watching, perhaps even stoking—depending on what lying flat truly means. As one Chinese literature professor studying youth culture, Huang Ping, explained, this is a rational choice. “When you can’t catch up with society’s development — say, skyrocketing home prices—tang ping is actually the most rational choice.”
I certainly understand that. And to a degree, I did that. Three years ago my family and I abandoned the US capital for a place where rents are half as much, insurance premiums are lower, costs of services costs are cheaper (along with the place being closer to family and far more resilient to climatic changes), meaning that I can write more, help cultivate the Gaian community, spend more time with my son, and learn new and interesting skills (instead of working a third more to pay for rent in a frenetic consumeristic city).**
The Many Ways to Lie Flat
But ultimately, it depends what is meant by a low-desire life. If that means streaming movies or playing video games all day, that’s certainly low-desire (and you can watch nonstop for almost no cost—just a subscription and Internet access). And ecologically speaking, that’s better than working in an office 12 hours a day, joining colleagues at bars afterward (if that’s expected as it can be in Japan) living off packaged meals, and sleeping all Sunday, too exhausted to do anything else.***
Yet Tao Qian returned to the village to farm and care for the land (he mentions clearing scrub specifically). It wasn’t exactly the simple life (his cottage had “8 or 9 rooms”—so many he couldn’t even properly count them it seems—and he spent much of his time drinking wine) but it was productive. He reconnected with nature (returning “to the natural way”), he grew food, wrote poetry, and considering his wine drinking habits, he surely spent much time literally lying flat, certainly enjoying his slower pace of life.
If young Chinese, with their fatigue and savings, return to villages to farm, or choose to volunteer, or tutor, or carefully become environmental activists, or even philosophers, musicians, writers, monks, or stay-at-home parents, helping to raise their children, cooking healthy foods for their families, all of those seem like legitimate lie-flat paths—ones that are good for their bodies, minds, and the planet as well. But if this becomes more of a GINK-style movement (what Grist celebrated some years back as a “Green Inclination No Kids” lifestyle)—where child-free living creeps easily into spending ones’ earnings on consumeristic luxuries, from “nights on the town,” to “travel that’s truly impulsive or leisurely or adventurous”—then that’s a real lost opportunity.****
Hopefully, Chinese lie-flat influentials will encourage the former, tapping the anti-establishment energy to encourage volunteerism, activism (that is safe within the Chinese context), permaculture farming, spreading these ideas of desiring less and slowing down, and rediscovering the ancient Chinese wisdom that has promoted low-desire living for the past two millennia. That’d be a great outcome to this seemingly humble trend—one that, if the Chinese government were wise, it, too, would encourage—at least on the curbing-desire side. After all, consumerism cannot be the cornerstone of the Chinese economy without destroying China. But whether China (or the rest of the world’s governments) figure out that truth in time to stop the raging climate catastrophe will be a tale reserved for future poets.
*And today sort-of, though, for the most part, the voluntary simplicity movement seems to have faded to a memory (or even from memory for younger environmentalists). However, voluntary simplicity in one form or another has been around since Diogenes or even Lao-Tzu.
**Though I do miss the free museums!
***Yes, yes, I know using the Internet all day takes a lot of energy (though maybe not as much as is feared), but if you were at an office, you’d probably be using the Internet as well, plus office lighting, transportation to commute, etc. etc. Obviously doing nothing all day, even in front of a computer or TV has a smaller impact than working in an office.
****Fortunately with less discretionary income due to working less, at least the worst environmental abuse, travel, will be harder to sustain.