Workers in china are tired of 9-9-6, the 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six-day workweek, and are instead deciding to lie flat: 躺平, tǎng píng. The younger generation is in some instances choosing lower-paying jobs that grant more freedom or eschewing work altogether in favor of relinquishing ambition, refusing to be defined by work, opting out of the illusory catharsis of consumerism, and accepting downward social mobility as a form of protest against exploitation and alienation. After negative press, the government has publicly opposed 9-9-6, but it still thrives with pressure from employers and little-to-no regulation.
Inspired by comedian Ali Wong’s rallying cry, “I don’t want to lean in. I want to lie down,” I spent a week in a state of seeking my own flatlife. Always game for subversion, I begin writing this essay in a supine position from inside a hammock, not knowing what this spiritual calling might entail or exactly how to embody flatness. My directionless approach, I realized, was perfectly on brand.
Resisting the beginning of the workweek, I start my flatlife a day late. I arrive at a housesitting gig downtown and spend the morning reading about Luo Huazhong, who spent two years lying flat in China after quitting his job at a factory. During this time, he lived with his parents, rode a bike to Tibet, spent as little money as possible, and occasionally earned cash by playing a corpse on film sets. He documented his minimalist lifestyle on social media, titling one of his posts “Lying Flat is Justice,” birthing the movement.
I ride a bike to NYU to participate in a clinical trial. It’s a study on neurofeedback technology. The research associate places an electroencephalogram cap on my head that measures my brain activity. I watch a primitive animation of an office scene while a company in Israel records my brain activity. I think of farming comatose brain-bodies for energy in The Matrix. Is this clinical trial passive enough to constitute flatness, or am I just another human battery? The session pays $25.
In the afternoon, I talk to my therapist, who is from Beijing, about tǎng píng and explain the conditions that produced it. Running without knowing where you’re going, over-competition and interchangeability, velocity instead of progress, the lack of fulfillment from work that begets only more work, the ever-elusive feeling of control over your own existence where the disambiguation of life is only a Black Friday Peloton away. The term for this controlled capitalist chaos is involution: 内卷, nèi juǎn. She tells me that the characters indicate spinning inward so fast that you’re trapped inside, unable to stop. “There is no feeling in nèi juǎn. Your body is out of control,” she says. “But when you’re lying flat, your body is still; connected to the earth.” I like this somatic translation.
My friend Nat is also housesitting for a friend in Queens. He has been staying at different friends’ places for six months, cat-sitting and watering plants in lieu of paying rent for his own apartment. So far, he’s in high demand. He works a menial job with little possibility of advancement. He has no professional ambition. He’s low-budget itinerant and has taken himself out of circulation. Flatlife is flatter with him around.
We meet up at our friend Alex’s performance, which I can only explain as an unemployed clown’s freak-out where they repeat the refrain, “I don’t want to work anymore”; lament “Remember when the king gave us money?” (referring to now-defunct unemployment insurance payouts); collect donations of garbage in a passed-around bucket; and worship dirt while huffing compost lying on the floor surrounded by discarded objects, asking if anxiety and depression are products of capitalism. The ow in clown, ow as in pain, the clown as low, as one with dirt — we are all in pain, all low, all dirt, all clowns.
This is so flatlife. I am excited, feel lucky to attend this performance. Lying flat is a state of abjection. You can’t get more downwardly mobile than an unemployed clown. There is no opposition to power when you’ve accepted futility. A clown does not fight for fame and profit. A clown expounds threats to stability in the kingdom of capital. Incoherence as insurrection.
After the performance, we walk east to eat mediocre Thai food. Nat tells me that his bosses are surveilling him at work, tracking his daily clock-in and clock-out activity. He spent the day transcribing poetry from memory as a way to resist surveillance because, he says, “They can’t surveil my mind. It’s the last frontier.” Nat is my flatlife guru.
In the evening, I walk to a restaurant a couple blocks away from my housesit with my friend Ant. He lives on the next block. He had invited me to a worker appreciation party for a soup kitchen he volunteers at in the East Village.
ESG is playing — You’re no good, you’re no good… baby, baby you’re no good — as we head straight to the table of food. I bite into a dolma and think — cocooned in the blaring music — about an Applebee’s campaign offering “apps for apps.” Born out of the current labor-shortage landscape, companies are desperate for workers (who are refusing to return to low-paying jobs and exploitative conditions) and offering incentives like free appetizers for job applications or $50 bonuses upon hiring. Contemptible, you say? As if jalapeño poppers are equal to health insurance or a one-time check for $50 will replace maternity leave.
Remember when the king gave us money? Unemployment insurance payouts stopped for most people in September. How long will we be able to maintain the Great Resignation? I sit down at a table with two women. One tells me that she hasn’t yet returned to work as a server in the restaurant industry and is spending her time auditioning for the theatre. The other, a writer, says that they have been doing sex work to make money while they’ve been out of work. A lot of their early-20-something friends have either recently returned to or started doing sex work because of increased demand during the pandemic. It pays well — a lot better than the $7.25 federal minimum wage.
The music stops and someone stands on a stool to make a speech about how many different organizations and shelters around the city have received meals cooked by the volunteer kitchen. Everyone claps and when the music starts again, we get up and dance.
Flatlife is not only about resistance. It is also about community. Flatlife as mutual aid and autonomy. Does flatlife have the potential to develop into a form of collective action? Tonight, and throughout the week, I spread the gospel of tǎng píng. Everyone is excited. Everyone has something to contribute. Everyone wants to join. This growing body politic of fellow flatlifers fortifies my vision of what the movement is and can be. Flatlife is not passive. It is thrilling, dynamic. We are living it.
My friend from grad school, Achraf, is in town for a conference at the U.N. where he is an Arabic interpreter. He lives in Rabat. We have not seen each other in many years. I always prefer having people over for dinner to going out. We talk about a writer in our cohort who shoots elk and eats bears in the wilderness of Oregon where he now lives as a survivalist. He hunts and forages for most of his food, often posting photos of mudbugs he’s fried up, fresh chanterelles he’s picked, and a 5-foot halibut, pale as snow, his arms hooked through the fish’s bloody gills, a proud grin on his face.
Some tǎng píngers in China are moving to rural provinces with a back-to-the-land mindset to opt out of the professional pressures and high cost of city life. Disillusioned with the lives they’ve been promised by the government but haven’t received, bereft of the “iron rice bowl” safety nets and social services the previous generation received (the Chinese Communist Party once promised citizens lifelong jobs, guaranteed income, social benefits, housing, retirement plans, and health care; but once Deng Xiaoping began reforming labor in the 1980s, replacing a centrally planned economy with a free-market economy, the iron rice bowl was broken) these young tǎng píngers want independence, liberation from systems of government.
When Achraf leaves, I realize I’ve forgotten to ask him what happened with his grad school thesis, a project wherein he rewrote Camus’s The Stranger entirely from memory.
I watch videos of a Russian model, Vladislav Ivanov, who goes by the stage name Lelush, low-energy rapping on a boy band competition reality show in China. Barely moving, devoid of expression, he manages to lift a heavy arm before quickly dropping it. It is the most miserable thing I’ve ever seen. Lelush wants to go home. He is trapped on the show, shackled by the contracts he’d signed, drained from the brutal training regimes. The only way out is to get voted off by viewers. But there’s a problem. The audience loves his soggy act. Episode after episode, people vote for him. “Please don’t make me go to the finals. I’m tired,” he says. “While the others want to get an A, I want to get an F, as it stands for freedom.” Later, he eats a lemon with trademark surly verve. In video after video, Lelush’s own body is a burden. He’s often leaning against a wall, face-first, or draped lifelessly over furniture.
Lelush is a thirst trap for tǎng píngers, an antihero idol with a porcelain scowl. Instead of breakneck competition as entertainment, he shits on himself — figuratively speaking — and sinks to the bottom of the toilet bowl. True apathy is rare. His is a gift. The divination of tǎng píng’s essence in Lelush throws the other contestants’ perpetual productivity into idiotic, pointless relief.
Finally, after three months, he’s voted off. When asked if he will stay in China and mine his newfound fame, he balks. “I’m too old,” he says. “I can’t change myself. I’m 27. If a tree is young, it will bend. An old tree only snaps.” Spoken like a true flatlife lifer.
I go to a party that night where I’ve just missed a trick roper, a lassoed cowboy hired to enthrall benumbed art crowds by jumping through his own hoops and expertly whipping his rope around. His coup de grâce, reportedly, was snapping a flower off a stem held between someone’s legs from across the room with his rope. A few partygoers are morose, disappointed that he had not turned out to be a stripper. There are cakes from Balthazar, but everyone here is boring. Am I under Lelush’s disaffected spell? I leave and go to a party in another borough where writers are doing lines off books in a literary critic’s studio apartment. I’m telling someone about how electroshock therapy is back. I prop myself up against a wall, à la Lelush. I have no desire to be here either. Everyone’s eagerness, sociability, seems gauche. Work saturates the social space of this literary afterparty. I refuse the social relations by going home.
A friend of a friend who is a professor and writes about labor politics in postsocialist China sends me a comic to read, Bullshit Jobs in China by Krish Raghav. Among the most useless are a live TV airbrusher and censor artist who blurs tattoos on live broadcasts in the era of tattoo bans; machine babysitters who operate touchscreens for customers, rip paper towels from automated dispensers, and hand them to people.
“A lot of bullshit work is done to postpone questions of class mobility, of inclusivity. For many, these jobs are little more than a resigned acceptance of permanent precarity,” the comic reads.
My bullshit jobs:
- Beer girl. I sold beer at a popular bar in Echo Park when I was in undergrad. I sat beside a metal bathtub of beer and ice, which functioned as an overflow station for people who didn’t want to wait at the actual bar to order beer.
- Flyer distributor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. My mother’s friend in Taiwan owned a company that sold printers and cameras. He wanted young, attractive girls at his booth to entice businessmen at the convention. I was 16, with almost no eyebrows (having plucked them to emulate Gwen Stefani in her minibuns and — cringe — bindi phase), and a few weeks pregnant — hardly the Lolita whom he had ordered. I was scowling, insatiably hungry, truculent. The name on the badge I wore around my neck was misspelled: Sarah Dong. A girlfriend who had been hired with me on the trip laughed at my predicament, mocking me with a line from Sixteen Candles: “No more yanky my wanky, the Donger need food!”
- Executive assistant to the CEO of a film production company in Beverly Hills. All I did was shop for snacks, eavesdrop on the phone when celebrities like Paula Abdul and Sting called, and secretly read emails the other assistant wrote to her mother bragging about seducing the married CEO.
I leave the housesitting gig and go home, promptly collapsing in the hammock strung up in my living room. Construction outside — road resurfacing, ConEd jackhammering, roof repairs directly above my head — has left me bereft of sleep.
I put on Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, a film about Mona, a young woman drifting around the French countryside. The film’s original title, Sans Toit Ni Loi, translates to “Without Roof or Law.” Aside from cleaning the occasional car for a few francs, exchanging her blood for a meal, and asking a man at a cemetery if he’s got any work for her washing tombstones, Mona has no money, few possessions, and lives outdoors, pitching tents in fields. The price of freedom granted by her lifestyle soon becomes too much to bear, and by the end of the film, which is also the first shot at the beginning, we see Mona dead in a ditch, her face purplish-gray.
Varda’s film is not a cautionary tale about female agency but rather a condemnation of the world in which Mona exists. Everyone she meets tries to force her refusal of work and her politics of saying “no” through the die of legibility. They treat her as if she is a lost little girl, flesh to be pimped, someone whose problem is that she just needs to find purpose through labor.
The culpability of her death is placed on the systems and its enforcers who only allow for deference to roofs and laws, punishing those who fail to conform.
Throughout the week, I think of a line from Michael Apted’s Seven Up!, a documentary about a group of British children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. A little boy, when asked what he thought he would do when he grew up, answered, “I’ll just walk around and see what I find.” What if we all approached living by way of intention without expectation? Or said no to roofs and laws, kings and Black Friday Pelotons, A grades and jalapeño poppers, and being Lolitas in Las Vegas? I would rather spend my days lying flat. Wouldn’t you?
Sarah Wang has written for the London Review of Books, The Nation, and the New Republic, among others. She is a PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow, the winner of a Nelson Algren prize for fiction, and has been awarded fellowships from the Center for Fiction, Kundiman, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. See more of her writing at wangsarah.com.