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20 Oct 2021 1:01
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  •   Home > News > International

    'Lying flat': The millennials quitting China's '996' work culture to live 'free of anxiety'

    Li Chuang had a high pressure job in a Beijing publishing house. Then one day he quit and went to a monastery. He's never turned back.


    Two years ago, Li Chuang traded the bustling metropolis of Beijing for the tranquillity of an ancient monastery in central China. 

    At the age of 32, the daily grind of working as an editor at a high-profile publishing house had taken its toll. 

    "It wasn't about the pace being fast or slow but rather I felt it was meaningless," Li says. 

    So he quit his job and made the pilgrimage to Wudang Mountain in Hubei Province, renowned for its practice of Taoism and tai chi. 

    Among snow-capped peaks shrouded in clouds, Li lived with local monks, embracing the Taoist philosophy of living in harmony with nature. 

    After six months, he returned to the city.

    "I had a panic attack," he recalls. "Racing heartbeat, rush of blood ... I felt like I was going to die. I had to go to emergency. But the emergency ward wasn't the solution."

    Li didn't go back to an office job.

    Today he runs a small convenience store out of his grandparents' vacant home in the hutongs — the narrow alleyways of old Beijing.

    It's a working-class neighbourhood like the one he grew up in. 

    "I wanted to rediscover my roots, so I went back to my starting point in the hutongs," he says. 

    Li Chuang is among a growing number of young professionals in China rejecting the traditional narrative of success in favour of a minimalist lifestyle.

    Instead of working hard, buying a house, getting married and having children, some young Chinese are opting out of the rat race and taking up low-paying jobs — or not working at all.

    Lying flat

    This simple act of resistance is commonly known as tangping, or "lying flat".

    These days, Li often practices tai chi in the mornings and, when business is quiet in the evenings, he plays his guitar or guqin. 

    At almost 190cm tall, he appears like a giant in his 15sqm shop, stacked with everything from chips to toilet paper. 

    He admits he doesn't like labels. Instead, he prefers to describe himself as being "in a state of seeking".

    "Maybe [others] need these labels to understand how I can live with no ambition.

    "I'm not being rebellious. I just want to make myself comfortable and free of anxiety," he says, dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and scuffs.

    The lying flat movement emerged in April after a blog post by factory worker Luo Huazhong entitled, Lying flat is justice. 

    Burnt out from overworking, the 31-year-old quit and cycled more than 2,000km from Sichuan province to Tibet, working odd jobs along the way. 

    "After working for so long, I just felt numb, like a machine," he told The New York Times in an interview. "And so I resigned."

    His change of lifestyle became a source of inspiration for others. His post was celebrated as a manifesto against materialism. 

    Lying flat resonated with students overwhelmed by the pressure to compete with millions of others each year for a place at a top university and then again for well-paid jobs once they graduate. 

    It spoke to a generation of urban workers disenchanted by the notorious "996" work culture, where staff are expected to work from 9:00am to 9:00pm, six days a week. 

    So it was little surprise that some young Chinese started turning their backs on work and consumption as a common goal. 

    A national threat

    For Chinese officials, it is the exact opposite of what the nation has asked of its people. 

    The government wants a young generation of patriotic and productive workers. 

    "For the majority, there's no differentiation of lowliness or nobleness of one's job," said President Xi Jinping, in a video clip that has circulated widely on social media in and outside of China. 

    "As long as you're needed by society, as long as you're respected and earn a decent pay, that is a good job."

    More than anything, China is counting on continuing economic development, particularly as it grapples with an ageing population. 

    The Communist Party has labelled tangping "a threat to stability".

    The state media calls it "shameful" and online discussion of the movement is censored. 

    "We're living in a society that won't allow you to quit ... Maybe in other countries, people are allowed to dream of becoming a barber," Li Chuang ponders. 

    "But in our society, that's not acceptable because it means you're deviating from the path to a higher status. You become an oddball." 

    Li admits most of his friends and family, including his father, don't share his enthusiasm for his new lifestyle. 

    "There are people telling me, 'You should feel sorry for letting your parents down and wasting the resources of our country ... You got a master's degree with their support but you end up running a corner store?' " he says.

    "It's like I should say sorry to the whole country."

    Many of them dismiss his work choice as merely an attempt "to escape."

    "Some people ask me, 'Do you have a job now?' I say, 'Running the store is my job.' They're quite perplexed."

    Li's mother, who helps out at the store, is the only one who does support him. 

    "When he resigned, his father objected," she says.

    "He asked me, 'How come you're OK with this?' I said, 'He's my child, I know him. I know my child. Life is long and it's not even close to the end. If he's not happy, quit.'"

    A generational shift

    For generations, public servants were guaranteed lifetime employment and a pension under the so-called "iron rice bowl".

    Mao Zedong believed it was the duty of a communist state to provide everyone with a job. 

    The government assigned citizens a job for life with guaranteed wages. 

    Schooling, housing and healthcare were included, dispensed by a worker’s danwei or "work unit".

    But when Deng Xiaoping began, in 1978, to transform China from a centrally planned economy to a more free-market economy, his supporters insisted that the iron rice bowl had to be smashed if China was to modernise.

    Successive leaders have continued the overhaul as part of China's modernisation drive. 

    The Mao-era cradle-to-grave security offered to all citizens no longer exists. 

    Instead, today's generation of workers are given employment contracts, tested for competency, and benefits such as free housing and childcare are not linked to one's job. 

    "For my parents' generation, there weren't many choices," Li says. 

    "They just went to work and didn't need to think about changing jobs because the salaries were all the same."

    He believes their identity was "formed in the context of collectivism."

    In contrast, Li says his generation is "more pluralistic because we face more choices and we live in a more fragmented time."

    "The opportunities and the challenges we face are probably greater than before."

    Therefore, Li surmises, the older generation's way of thinking "will inevitably conflict with ours." 

    It's the great paradox many young Chinese now contend with. 

    Like their parents, they’re expected to show loyalty to the state, but without the state benefits that their parents once enjoyed.

    They face both the pressure to compete in a market economy and the pressure to conform in an authoritarian society.

    According to Li, in today's China, happiness is no longer handed out by the government but is meant to be found in material success.

    "Everyone is given their quota of 'happiness'," he says.

    "If you get your quota, you have 'happiness'. But is this happiness the real happiness for you?"

    Read the story in Chinese: ??????

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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