The story that melted netizens’ hearts this summer was that of runner Dion Leonard who found a true friend in a little stray dog during his participation in the Gobi March of 2016.
The stray dog joined the runner on his run after he hung around the runners’ camp on the first day of the march. The two became inseparable after running for days on end together. The love grew so big that Leonard decided to set up a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs for bringing the dog he named Gobi back with him to Scotland, where Leonard resides.
But during the first period of quarantine in the city of Urumqi, Gobi unexpectedly run away and went missing. Leonard did not hesitate and flew to China to look for his friend. The search started on August 15 and continued for nine days, with chances and hopes of finding the little stray dog growing smaller every day. Leonard and his helpers asked the help of Weibo netizens, who also spread the news about the missing dog.
Today Leonard and his search team announced on the Bring Gobi Home Facebook page that Gobi had been found:
“Gobi has been found!!! She’s safe & well, a wee sore leg but over joyed to see Dion as you will see in the video! Sticks to him like glue! A massive thank you to all the support, especially the group of Volunteers that have been working tirelessly to find her!
Thank you thank you from the bottom of our hearts, we are overjoyed!”
They also posted a short video that shows a happy Gobi cuddling with Leonard.
Gobi is expected to fly home to Leonard in Edinburg in December, when the quarantine period is finished. That will undoubtedly be one fluffy, merry Christmas.
©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at email@example.com.
Fangcang Diaries: China’s Makeshift Covid Hospitals, from Wuhan to the Future
Fangcang hospitals are here to stay as long as China sticks to its current zero-Covid path.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: Fangcang ohne Ende: Chinas Covid-Krankenhäuser damals und heute.
In February of 2020, the impressive construction of two enormous emergency field hospitals in Covid-stricken Wuhan captured the world’s attention. The Huoshenshan and Leishenshan Hospitals were constructed in a matter of days and combined they could take in 2,500 patients. The construction process was live-streamed by state media and sped-up drone footage of a large empty field transforming into a fully functioning hospital received millions of clicks around the internet.
Along with mass-testing and local lockdowns, the so-called ‘Fangcang’ shelter hospitals are seen as a key solution in ‘fighting Covid-19 the Chinese way’ to alleviate the pressure on public hospitals and lower Covid-19 mortality rates by quarantining and treating patients with confirmed infections.
Within a matter of 2,5 years, Fangcang emerged as a novel concept on China’s coronavirus battleground and then became a part of everyday life in a zero Covid society. Here, we will zoom in on China’s Fangcang phenomenon and changes in the public’s perceptions of it.
MORE THAN MASH: THE NOVEL FANGCANG CONCEPT
Fāngcāng (方舱) literally means ‘square cabin,’ referring to a modular or prefabricated mobile cabin hospital. Although the concept of an emergency field hospital or makeshift hospital is not new, Fangcang hospitals are labeled as a “novel public health concept” due to their specific use during China’s Covid crisis (Chen et al 2020).
Some studies say that China’s Covid-19 Fangcang hospitals were modeled after emergency cabins used during the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquakes in 2008 and 2010 (Wang et al 2020, 2). According to the biggest Chinese-language online encyclopedia, Baidu Baike, the term actually comes from the United States, where the U.S. Army first started developing such cabins – Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH units) – in the early 1950s and used them during the Korean War. The Chinese Fangcang hospital, however, is not really the same and the concept was implemented for the first time in Wuhan in February 2020.
In China, Fangcang hospitals are large, temporary hospitals for the isolation, treatment, and disease monitoring of Covid-19 patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms. By taking in and quarantining people who have tested positive for Covid-19, they are meant to reduce the transmission of the virus within households and communities, while also providing treatment to patients with mild symptoms (Fang et al 2020, 2). In doing so, they dramatically reduce the pressure on regular hospitals, which need their beds to solely treat patients with severe and critical conditions.
The 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital (火神山医院) was constructed within a matter of days, starting on January 23, 2020, and ending on February 2. The first patients were admitted a day later. The construction of the 1,500 bed Leishenshan Hospital (雷神山医院) started on the 26th of January and was completed on 6 February 2020.
Many other Fangcang hospitals were not constructed like these shelter hospitals but were built by converting large (public) buildings such as exhibition centers, stadiums, or schools into healthcare facilities. In Wuhan, over a dozen more Fangcang hospitals were opened in February of 2020 to provide beds for Covid-19 patients before all being suspended on March 10 of that year when the crisis was under control.
FANGCANG ON SOCIAL MEDIA: A CHANGING IMAGE
In the early stages of the pandemic, Chinese social media users got a glimpse of life inside the Fangcang hospitals through official media videos and through footage and photos posted by people staying there. Up to the present day, patients share their quarantine experiences on social media using hashtags such as “Fangcang Diaries” (#方舱日记#).
In the Wuhan days, there were videos of patients dancing together inside the hospitals, with people cheering on the positivity of patients and the dedication of the healthcare workers.
One photo of a patient reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order even went viral on Weibo. Many admired the patient for reading such heavy literature during his Fangcang stay and the man became famous overnight as ‘the invincible Wuhan-er.’
A young woman known as A Nian (阿念) also wrote on social media about her quarantine stay at one of Wuhan’s Fangcang hospitals in February of 2020. When her grandmother fell critically ill during her stay at the city’s Huoshenshan hospital, A Nian asked to be transferred to the same Fangcang so that she could take care of her. Despite having A Nian by her side, the grandmother passed away. A Nian’s experiences at the Wuhan Fangcang hospitals were eventually published in the book Wuhan Girl A Nian Diary (武汉女孩阿念日记). The book paints a picture of the Fangcang where resilience, warmth, and optimism dominate the overall atmosphere.
The Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan was a national war against the virus, and the Fangcang hospitals were described and represented as a necessary and praised tool within this united fight. The medical staff members working there were the heroes on the frontline, and many social media users honored and thanked them for their efforts.
After the shelter hospitals in Wuhan gradually closed, the social media focus shifted to how the Covid crisis became a pandemic and caused chaos in the rest of the world. By April of 2020, Wuhan had returned to a state of normalcy, and schools across the country reopened. When Huoshenshan and Leishenshan closed their doors, Fangcang soon seemed to become a thing of the past.
Although there were local outbreaks of Covid-19 in China throughout 2020 and 2021, the Fangcang hospitals did not really return to the public spotlight until Xi’an saw cases spike in late 2021 and early 2022, with the city becoming the epicenter of the biggest Covid outbreak and lockdown since Wuhan.
By January of 2022, the city of Xi’an had started to construct large sites for isolation of people who tested positive for Covid-19, in addition to designated hospitals. Besides ‘Fangcang,’ these were also called ‘Centralized Isolation Points’ (集中隔离点).
As later explained by Dr. Wu Jinglei, director of Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, Fangcang hospitals can also be used as ‘Isolation Points.’ The two are the same but using ‘Isolation Point’ instead of ‘Fangcang Hospital’ emphasizes the need to also isolate and observe patients who are asymptomatic at these health locations, besides treating those with mild-to-moderate symptoms. Later on, these locations also started to be referred to as ‘Fangcang Isolation Points’ (方舱隔离点) or ‘Isolation Fangcang’ (隔离方舱).
One story that attracted major attention on Chinese social media and indicated changing perceptions of the Fangcang phenomenon was the midnight eviction of residents of the Xi’an Mingde 8 Yingli community (明德八英里小区) in Xi’an. Just after midnight on January 1st of 2022, residents received news that they would be transferred by buses, and quarantined away from their compound due to new infections in their proximity.
Residents voiced their concerns on social media about the incident, saying they were unsure of where they were heading, and that they were put in buses together for hours until being driven off to a remote Fangcang without proper supplies. The term ‘bèi lāzǒu’ (被拉走) was used, ‘being dragged away.’
Old people, young children, and pregnant women were among those being taken away for quarantine without being provided with the things they needed, and without any measures to protect them against the dangers of infection. An image of an old man with a walking cane standing in line to be taken away for quarantine went viral online as many worried about his wellbeing. He was seemingly all alone and did not seem to have any luggage or food supplies with him.
Seeing photos of old buildings without proper facilities being turned into Fangcang, many residents wondered what the point of this kind of isolation was. One popular post by a Weibo user nicknamed ‘In Between Memories’ from January 2nd of 2022 said:
“I don’t understand why negative-tested families should be dragged away for isolation? Isn’t isolation at home also isolation? The Fangcang hospitals were built to focus on treating the mildly ill, separately from the seriously ill. But nowadays, after discovering one positive case, Xi’an wants to pull away the entire neighborhood to a centralized quarantine with poor conditions – even if everyone has already been in home quarantine for over a week. Is this all just so that Xi’an can say it has zero infections while ignoring the scientific basis that many families tested negative multiple times? While disregarding the special needs of families with elderly, young, sick, disabled, and pregnant people? Before transferring people, you never provided them with a policy basis, nor was there any warning or reminder given to the citizens of Xi’an that you would implement [this policy] on the spot in the middle of the night. Now that everyone is at risk, perhaps some will support this, hoping that there can be zero cases within the community in a time frame of three days. But there are more residents who are only worried that the next one to be dragged away will be them. After all, we will be taken away even if we stay well at home and test negative ten times for the nucleic acid test, what about the elderly and our children, what about our pets? No one cares, they only care about their hard target to clear the city of Covid within three days.”
Within three weeks of lockdown, Xi’an was the first city to have so many patients admitted to Isolation Points: nearly 50,000 people were isolated at 443 different Fangcang quarantine locations across Xi’an (Southern Weekend 2022).
The fears of being taken away to Fangcang hospitals and Isolation Points also became a reality for Shanghai residents after an unprecedented Covid-19 spike in the city, starting in March of 2022. As the city entered a phased lockdown, photos and videos of a local quarantine site where babies and small children were kept in isolation – separated from their parents – went viral on Chinese social media.1
Not long after, patients at Fangcang hospitals started posting on social media about their experiences, complaining that there was a lack of basic supplies, that they were not given the medicine they needed, and that vulnerable patients were left to their own devices without proper care.
As the Covid-19 cases continued to spike throughout March and April, videos also started surfacing showing chaotic scenes at some Fangcang sites in Shanghai where patients were fighting over supplies such as blankets, water, and food, some crying when they were unable to get anything but some bottles of water – or nothing at all.
The apparent disorganization at quarantine facilities from the city’s Pudong to Minhang Districts triggered discussions on Chinese social media about why asymptomatic patients were taken off to these ill-equipped centralized Fangcang locations at all and why they were not allowed to isolate at home instead.
One Weibo user wrote in April 2022:
“They took us to an isolation site. If the conditions had just been a bit better, we’d be okay with it, but this is just unimaginable. These are the facts. Over 800 people have entered this facility since April 9, their ages varying from seventy or eighty years old to babies just a few months old. 1. Inside the factory building, there are plank beds without mattresses, there are no people to clean. 2. There is no supervisor, we need to fight over our food. 3. There are not enough supplies, not even enough toilet paper. 4. 80% of the toilets are clogged, there’s nobody to clean them. 5. There are no doctors and nobody to take care of patients with a fever. 6. There is no one to dispose of the garbage. 7. The weather’s hot, but there’s no place to shower or change clothes.”
Stories also started coming out of patients being taken away to Isolation Points many days after they had first tested positive for Covid. By the time they were finally taken away for quarantine, they had recovered and tested negative for Covid-19, yet still had to go and stay together with patients testing positive.
To create more beds for patients, Shanghai opened China’s largest-ever Fangcang hospital on April 8 at the National Exhibition Convention Center. This Fangcang, built by the same people who had helped build Huoshenshan and Leishenshan in Wuhan, had a capacity of 50,000 beds for Covid-19 patients.
These bigger, modern, and central Fangcang locations are generally neat and orderly, providing regular meals and medicine, as well as offering various activities or even setting up classrooms for quarantined students.
But photos, footage, and online diaries posted on social media exposed the stark differences in living conditions between different Fangcang hospitals. By late April of 2022, patients staying at one Fangcang location in the city’s Putuo District – an office building converted into a makeshift hospital – complained about the crowded living conditions, the lack of washing rooms and showers, and the inadequate supply of food and drinking water. At other facilities, patients posted videos of water pouring into the building after heavy rain.
From Wuhan in 2020 to Shanghai in 2022, the public perception of the Fangcang phenomenon in China changed dramatically. While it was initially seen as an effective, efficient, and celebrated response to the outbreak of Covid, many Shanghai-based residents, during the peak of the city’s Covid crisis, feared the Fangcang more than the virus itself, as stories about overcrowded, disorganized and unequipped facilities kept surfacing online.
THE FUTURE OF FANGCANG
By mid-May of 2022, after seeing over 60,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in total, Shanghai retired half of its Fangcang locations due to rapidly declining cases. Nevertheless, the restrictions to keep Covid under control are still stringent.
As Chinese leadership remains adamant on sticking with its zero-Covid strategy, state media emphasize the need to uphold the mandatory quarantine system as part of this public health policy, which basically means the country will not opt to ‘live with the virus’ but instead will continue to implement strict measures to eliminate a Covid outbreak as fast as possible once it emerges.
Fangcang are here to stay as long as China stays on its current zero-Covid path. The country’s top epidemiologist Liang Wannian (梁万年) maintains that patients need to be isolated at a centralized location because they can be easily monitored and treated that way, while also minimizing the risks of them spreading the virus to others in their household or community.
In preparation for potential future outbreaks, cities across China are building new Fangcang or are improving existing ones. Authorities are making sure that the country is ready to manage more local outbreaks, avoiding messy Fangcang scenes like the ones in Xi’an or Shanghai.
On May 13, China’s National Health Commission called on all provinces to build or renovate city-level Fangcang hospitals, and to make sure they are equipped with electricity, ventilation systems, medical appliances, toilets, and washing facilities.
The country-wide Fangcang preparation plan is now in full swing. In Zhengzhou, for example, construction workers are building a new Fangcang from the ground up. The city of Zhoukou recently issued a promo video on Weibo showing off their local brand-new Fangcang location with 356 private rooms equipped with air disinfection systems, private showers, and free Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, Shanghai even introduced its first Fangcang location for pets.
When it was announced that China would withdraw as the 2023 Asian Cup host due to the pandemic, netizens joked that the stadiums constructed for the sports event could now be turned into Fangcang instead.
“The Fangcang will become a regular facility in the next few years,” some social media users commented. Others wrote: “This is good news. It’s better to be prepared for what’s coming,” and: “Better to prepare to build the Fangcang now than to prepare to build our future graves.”
Generally, despite worries over a lack of medical care and supplies at facilities, many people do support the idea of their cities being prepared for an immediate Covid response once it’s necessary. “I don’t get why people are being negative about building new Fangcang,” one Weibo user from Hebei Province writes:
“People think that they should stay home if they get infected but want other people to quickly go away to a Fangcang hospital if they’re sick. Our little town is now also building a Fangcang, and I think it’s a good thing. Before, there were too many infections in the neighboring village, and they took them for isolation to the hotel in our city center and all stores in the vicinity had to close. (..) It was scary, people didn’t want to visit the center anymore. Now, they’re building a Fangcang at the town border, away from the people, and it’s a relief for all of us.”
Meanwhile, Fangcang patients keep sharing their journals online. “Today is day seven for me,” one Shanghai resident wrote on Weibo: “I finally had an egg for the first time here. I’ve been constipated all week (..) This morning, I heard I meet the conditions to be discharged [two negative tests in a row], but due to the lack of capacity I’m still waiting, and it might still take two or three more days before I get to go home.”
“It’s day twelve. I can’t wait until I’m released from ‘prison’,” one person wrote.
“It’s my first night at the Fangcang,” one Weibo user writes in another online ‘Covid journal’: “There’s too much light and noise, and my dad and I took turns in waking up. Eventually, he decided to get up, thinking it was 5 am, until we discovered it was just past 2 am. I felt light-headed as I headed to the bathroom.”
One patient at another Shanghai Fangcang writes: “My stay at the Fangcang is better than I had expected. I am sleeping better than at home and don’t have to think about what I am going to eat. But there are many elderly people inside here, and I see them suffering. I’m not sure if this policy really helps them.” They also write: “I’d better record all of this. I think this is going to be an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
1 On April 6, 2022, Shanghai changed the policy and announced that parents can apply to accompany their children during central quarantine after signing an agreement, regardless of whether they’ve tested positive for the virus or not.
References (other sources linked to inside the text)
Chen, Simiao Chen, Zongjiu Zhang, Juntao Yang, Jian Wang, Xiaohui Zhai, Till Bärnighausen, Chen Wang. 2020. “Fangcang Shelter Hospitals: A Novel Concept for Responding to Public Health Emergencies.” The Lancet, April 2 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30744-3/fulltext [May 12, 2022].
Fang, Dongpin, Shengjie Pan, Zaishang Li, Ting Yuan, Benran Jiang, Di Gan, Bai Sheng, Jing Han, Tao Wang, Zhongmin Liu. 2020. “Large-Scale Public Venues as Medical Emergency Sites in Disasters: Lessons from COVID-19 and the Use of Fangcang Shelter Hospitals in Wuhan, China.” BMJ Global Health 5: 1-7.
Luo, Hanbin, Jiajing Liu, Chengqian Li, Ke Chen, Ming Zhang. 2020. “Ultra-Rapid Delivery of Specialty Field Hospitals To Combat COVID-19: Lessons Learned from the Leishenshan Hospital Project in Wuhan.” Automation in Construction 119 (103345): 1-10.
Southern Weekend 南方周末. 2022. “The Largest Centralized Quarantine: 49,678 People in nearly One Month, What Has Xi’an Invested 最大规模集中隔离：近一月49678人，西安付出了什么” [In Chinese]. Sina News, January 13 https://news.sina.cn/2022-01-13/detail-ikyamrmz4934227.d.html [May 13].
Wang, Ke-Wei, Jie Gao, Xiao-Xiao Song, Jiang Huang, Hua Wang, Xiao-Long Wu, Qin-Fang Yuan, Xiao-Shan Li, Feng Cheng, Yang Cheng. 2020. “Fangcang Shelters Are a One Health Approach for Responding to the Covid-19 Outbreak in Wuhan, China.” One Health 10 (100167): 1-6.
Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.
This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.
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Resisting the Rat Race: From China’s Buddhist Youth to Lying Flat Movement
Supporters of China’s ‘lying flat’ movement says it is a form of collective emotional catharsis, but state media suggest it goes against the Chinese Dream.
This article was commissioned and produced by the Goethe-Institut for the Standstill Magazine: www.goethe.de/stillstand“. For a German-language version of this article, please see “Keine Lust auf das Hamsterrad.”
In March of 2022, the term tǎng píng (躺平), ‘lying flat’, was trending on Chinese social media. Since the word became popular online and was selected as a 2021 buzzword of the year, it has become part of everyday internet language in China and often pops up in online discussions.
By now, ‘lying flat’ has been adapted by Chinese state media and is painted in a different light from how it initially emerged when it was used by young people to address their views on life.
What actually is ‘lying flat’? How has its meaning shifted, and what does it have to do with Covid19, a ‘Buddhist-like mindset’, and the problem of so-called ‘involution’? Here, we will explore these terms and zoom in on discussions surrounding China’s ‘Lying Flat’ movement.
“Buddhist Youth” and Other Tribes
Every year, the Chinese language magazine Yǎo Wén Jiáo Zì (咬文嚼字) selects the most popular new words and expressions that often reveal trends among young people and also shed light on China’s rapidly changing society.
One of the Chinese top ‘buzzwords’ of 2018 was fó xì (佛系), a term from Japanese that started to be used in China to describe a “Buddha-like mindset.” In Japan, the term emerged in the media in 2014 to describe a specific type of male, “Buddhist men” (佛系男子), who are solely focused on their own hobbies and interests and self-indulgence without wasting any time on dating or love. The term also became popular among Chinese web users in late 2017 after a viral essay1 by WeChat account Xin Shixiang (新世相) used it to describe the lifestyle and mindset of many Chinese born in the 1990s (Sun 2017; Wu & Ren 2018, 15).
In the Chinese context, fó xì youth (佛系青年) mainly refers to people in their twenties or thirties who are pursuing a peaceful lifestyle in a fast-paced society. Despite being labeled as a “Buddhist mindset,” the term does not have a lot to do with Buddhist traditions. Instead, it refers to a laissez-faire attitude where one does not take on any responsibility and just goes ‘with the flow’ in order not to waste any time on trivial things.
According to an analysis by Hongjuan Wu and Ren Ying (2018), the term is not a ‘positive’ one per se, but more one of anxiety and negativity where people are merely divulging in their own interests due to a lack of motivation and loss of willingness to interact with others and function in a highly competitive environment. The authors claim that China’s “Buddhist youth” are looking for ways to escape the pressures they face in an everyday life where so much is expected of them, while they still struggle to pay for housing, medical care, and education – even if they work very hard.
Instead of joining the urban struggle and striving for a better everything (better housing, better jobs, better education), they just accept their reality as it comes: it doesn’t matter if you win, if doesn’t matter if you lose, it doesn’t matter if you’re happy, it doesn’t matter if you’re sad. The 2018 popularity of the somewhat self-deprecating term ‘Buddhist youth’ reflects a collective feeling of a certain helplessness among China’s post-90 generation urban dwellers who are trying to take back control by letting go.
The internet age has made these kinds of social sentiments and movements more visible than ever before, and some buzzwords spread so rapidly that they can turn into subcultures within a matter of weeks. Some specific terms and memes resonate with millions of people who identify with them, and they are also a way for people to connect to each other and create a sense of belonging. That sense of having some shared identity is underlined by the fact that these terms are often described as modern-day ‘tribes’ or ‘clans’ (族).
When the Chinese housing market experienced surging house prices over a decade ago, the term ‘Ant tribe’ (蚁族) first saw the light – a neologism to describe a huge group of low-income, urban graduates who are hoping to find a job and settle down but end up living in poorer, crowded communities on the outskirts of the city where the rent is cheap (Michels 2014, 31).
Similarly, the same period saw the emergence of the ‘Moonlight tribe’ (月光族), those younger workers who always spend their entire monthly salary on material things and having fun, enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future. You also had the ‘Flea tribe’ (跳蚤族) (job hoppers who are always looking for the next opportunity), the ‘Latte tribe’ (urban dwellers doing things at their own pace), and many more different subcultures or social buzzwords.
There was also a major group of Chinese internet users who started labeling themselves as diǎosī (屌丝), basically meaning “losers”, using self-mockery and satire as a form of humoristic self-medication to deal with the hardships of everyday life and growing social inequality in contemporary China. The term diaosi became one of the most popular Internet memes of 2012, signaling a growing disillusionment among (low-income) Chinese youths about being able to climb the social ladder (Szablewicz 2014, 259 -260).
Involution and Lying Flat
Over the past decade, the Chinese internet has seen more and more memes and buzzwords relating to the ‘rat race’ of modern-day China. Two of the most prominent one are ‘involution’ and ‘lying flat,’ which were also both selected for the annual buzzword lists of Yǎo Wén Jiáo Zì for 2020 and 2021 respectively.
The concept of nèijuǎn (内卷), “involution,” describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. The term originally comes from a 1963 work by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz describing the dynamics of an Indonesian fast-growing population caught up in high-labor intensive wet-rice cultivation without making real progress (Koetse 2021).
In the Chinese context, the term has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic and professional settings where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking. In a work and education environment where people continuously work harder and longer, increased work efforts become the new normal without becoming more rewarding.
One scene from the popular Chinese television drama A Love for Dilemma went trending on social media in 2021 because many netizens thought it perfectly captured the essence of ‘involution.’ In the scene, two fathers discuss the Chinese education system, comparing it to a crowded movie theater where everyone is trying to watch the show together, until one person stands up to see more, forcing others behind them to also stand up to be able to see the screen. Then people stand on their seats, or even bring in ladders, so that they can rise above the rest. Consequently, the others are also scrambling to get higher up, but in the end, nobody is comfortable. The entire audience is stressed out and they all experience difficulties in watching the movie, while they could have just comfortably watched together if they would have remained in their seats (Koetse 2021).
One photo that has come to represent the concept of involution shows the ‘Tsinghua Volution King’ (清华卷王), which is the nickname of a student who is cycling at the campus of Tsinghua, one of China’s top universities, while simultaneously working on his laptop – not wasting a single moment to stay ahead of his peers.
The generation that is most affected by a sense of being stuck in a ‘rat race’ of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record-high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the Chinese job market while many industries recruited fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the pandemic. These young adults end up in a pressure cooker where they are stressed when they do not have that top job, afraid of missing the train, and where they are also stressed when they do have that top job, afraid of falling off the train (Koetse 2021).
Closely related to the concept of involution, offering an alternative to the rat race, is the social trend of ‘Lying Flat’ (躺平), also known as ‘Lying Flatism’ (躺平主义, 躺平学) or ‘the Lying Flat Clan’ (躺平族). Young people who believe in ‘lying flat’ are fed up with ‘involution,’ do not buy into social expectations about marriage and children and refuse to participate in the competitive struggle that starts at early as kindergarten and is all about the upcoming exam, the best result, the top school, the promising job, the longest hours, the next promotion. By ‘lying flat,’ Chinese young adults from middle and lower classes basically refuse to sweat over climbing higher up the social and economic ladder. They will only do the bare minimum and believe that upward social mobility has become an unattainable goal (Gong & Liu 2021, 2).
“I was chatting with my colleague after work,” one Weibo user wrote in November of 2018: “We were talking about how unfortunate it is that if you don’t work, you don’t have money, and that if you work, you still don’t have money. You might as well stop working and lie flat. No pain, no feelings, no involution.”
Although the term ‘lying flat’ seems to indicate that the movement is all about passivity and weakness, it is actually more about social skepticism and taking matters into your own hands. One WeChat article by blogger Mao Talk (2021) compared the lying flat movement to the views held by the Greek philosopher Diogenes who believed society placed too much value on status, wealth, and material possessions, and was determined to live a simple life. He did not work and never married.
The Chinese originator of ‘lying flat,’ according to Mao Talk, is the philosopher Zhuangzi, who advocated that the best form of being is without a “sense of self” (“no-self”) and “to go with the flow” instead of being driven by social intercourse and power structures.
In an article published by the Guangming Daily in 2021, author Sun Xiaoting (孙小婷) also explained the Lying Flat movement in a similar light:
“Indeed, nowadays, people are able to look more dialectically at the various norms set by society and other people, and have a more multidimensional, tolerant viewpoint and wide-ranging definition of what constitutes ‘success’ and who is considered a ‘winner.’ They are also able to rationalize or even reject the values instilled by consumerism, success philosophy, and inspirational quotes, and they are brave enough to choose the lifestyle they believe is more comfortable. In fact, these young people who believe in ‘Lying Flat’ are not entirely like ‘salted fish’, and they are also different from the ‘Ge You Slouching’ and ‘Funeral Culture’ that appeared online a few years ago.3 Many of them have their own views on the meaning of life. They just do not want to be drawn into a social system where the order is already set up for them; they do not wish to get into this fast and crowded process in which people are traditionally pursuing the realization of “promotion and salary increase” and “buy a house and a car” through overtime work and other achievements. They are choosing to voluntarily withdraw from the pursuit of success and happiness within this social system, and the inner acceptance of the state of self is the preferred standard they are considering. This also explains why some young people quit their positions in big Internet companies and state-owned enterprises and choose to return to third- or fourth-tier cities to become ordinary coffee shop assistants or delivery riders, which means they take control of their personal time and regain more determinacy and leadership.”
Although the Lying Flat movement resembles the Buddhist Youth mentality and some other subcultures emerging over the past decade, there are clear differences.
Buddhist Youth mentality seems to come from a more negative mindset of anxiety and frustration, with people trying to find some sense of stability by adapting an ‘anything-goes’ attitude toward their life to protect themselves from disappointment and failure while they are perhaps still pursuing a path laid out for them by others. Those who believe in ‘lying flat,’ on the other hand, have readjusted their desires and goals for the future and decided to follow their own path.
Going Against the China Dream
Chinese official media tried to put an end to the diaosi trend after it first emerged by urging China’s young people to adopt a positive mindset, with state media outlet People’s Daily publishing an article titled “The Belitting of Oneself, Can We Give it a Rest?” (Zhou 2017, 243). Ever since the Lying Flat movement became an online trend, Chinese official media have also been condemning it.
In May of 2021, one commentary published by state media outlet Xinhua called the Lying Flat movement a “disgrace.” Although the article acknowledged the pressured faced by Chinese youth today, it stressed the necessity to uphold a confident and positive attitude. In 2022, ‘lying flat’ is still presented by Chinese officials and media as the road not to take.
In a recent interview with National People’s Congress representative Li Nannan (李楠楠) that was promoted on Weibo, the young delegate shared his take on involution and Lying Flat, urging Chinese youth to embrace competition and choose ‘involution’ over’ ‘lying flat’, since the latter is supposedly only about giving up and spreading “a negative atmosphere.” Another state media news report focused on Chinese under the age of 27 (post-95 and post-00 generations), their positive outlook on their career possibilities and their refusal to ‘lie flat.’
One reason why official channels label the ‘Lie Flat’ movement as such a negative one is because it goes against the ideals of the Chinese dream. The idea of the ‘China Dream’ has been ubiquitous in Chinese official media since Xi Jinping became president in 2013. The concept refers to a form of ‘national rejuvenation’ and a revival of the Chinese nation. At the National People’s Congress in March of 2013, Xi stated that, in order to achieve the Chinese dream “(..) we must spread the Chinese spirit, which combines the spirit of the nation with patriotism as the core and the spirit of the time with reform and innovation as the core.” He also stressed:
“In face of the mighty trend of the times and earnest expectations of the people for a better life, we cannot have the slightest complacency, or get the slightest slack at work.”
In the context of China’s road to rejuvenation, Chinese youth and young adults are seen as the “builders of socialism” who are supposed to contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream by having clear goals, strong ideals, and by working hard and actively start businesses and raise families. Youth subcultures such as the “Diaosi,” “Buddhist Youth” or “Lying Flat” are seen as having a negative impact on Chinese society since they allegedly do not contribute to a Chinese common ideal of socialism and reject the kind of lifestyle that is propagated by the Party (Wu & Ren 2018, 17).
Lately, the term ‘lying flat’ has also been used by official media in the context of China’s approach to fighting Covid19, following a surge in local outbreaks. While many other countries around the world are letting go of Covid19 measures, China is still adhering to its strict ‘zero Covid’ strategy, with millions of people facing yet another lockdown. It has triggered online discussions on whether the aggressive measures taken to prevent further spread of the virus are really the way forward for China’s Covid approach. But after the renowned Chinese doctor Zhang Wenhong stated that China cannot “lie flat” at this point of the Covid19 outbreak due to the potential death toll it might cause, a related hashtag went trending on social media platform Weibo (“Zhang Wenhong Does Not Agree with Lying Flat” #张文宏不同意躺平#).
The term was previously used in a similar way by the Communist Youth League, which published a post on social media titled “Modern-day Youth Should Never Choose to Lie Flat” (“当代年轻人从未选择躺平”). In their post, the League honored China’s young frontline health workers, soldiers, scientists, and those defending the motherland with their lives, writing:
“They have faith, they have dreams, they face the struggle, they are dedicated – they never choose to ‘lie flat’!”
By construing a clear distinction between those fighting for the nation and those “lying flat,” Chinese media suggest that ‘lying flat’ is an unpatriotic act, a type of behavior that shows a lack of devotion to one’s country.
While those ‘lying flat’ are criticized, those ‘going against the tide’ are praised; nìxíngzhě (逆行者) is another buzzword from 2020 often used by state media to describe frontline workers and others as the ‘people going backward’, referring to those who dare to go back and face problems when everyone else is turning away.
The state media message that ‘lying flat’ is counterproductive seems to resonate with many online commenters. Although the movement was previously described as an “act of resistance” by Washington Post and other media, there now seems to be more resistance against this form of resistance.
Nevertheless, there is still a huge group of netizens supporting the ‘lying flat’ movement for the ideas it represents. One Weibo user says that the ‘Lie Flat’ movement should be viewed as an online “collective emotional catharsis” that helps people pull through their everyday life. Another post by one popular blogger that recently gained some traction online said:
“The post-1990 generation has seen the Foxconn Suicides, they saw the tragedy behind the [Bytedance] worker who collapsed, they’ve seen the world and have now discovered, the most important thing is to live (..). The capitalist exploitation has forced young people on the road of a ‘Buddhist mindset’. Are they resisting capital or are they forced to ‘lie flat’? That’s the essence of the problem.”
One commenter responded: “We are living in a socialist country, but judging the way in which workers are treated it might as well be a capitalist society.”
Ironically, not too long after tǎng píng or ‘lying flat’ became a buzzword, news came out that Chinese tech giant Alibaba had applied for trademark registration of tǎng píng to create an e-commerce app by that very same name.
Many people mocked the move. One person wrote: “You are shameless.” Another comment said: “The implied meaning behind ‘lying flat’ is about wanting less and reducing consumerism, but you capitalists really seize every opportunity, you are even willing to squeeze the last bit of values out of young people.”
Despite the changing meaning and different views on the Lie Flat trend in China’s online environment, one Chinese news article on the issue recently captured a common ground: “We need to find a balance in between ‘involution’ and ‘lying flat,’ so that life can be full of colors while also leaving blank spaces, because you can only find your best life when you can find the balance between tension and relaxation.”
1 Title: “The First Batch of the Post-90s Generation Has Taken the Cloth” (“第一批 90 后已经出家了”).
2 “躺平即是正义” (“Lying Flat is Justice”) was written by a blogger named “Kind-hearted Traveler” (好心的旅行家) on April 17, 2021. In the article, they described how they lead a minimalist lifestyle and explained the lying flat subculture as an alternative approach in life.
3 ‘Salted Fish Mentality,’ ‘Ge You-esque Slouching’ and ‘Funeral Culture’ are all buzzwords and online trends used by netizens since 2016 to express a sense of passivity and laziness in response to the ruthless job market and pressure to marry (also see Colville 2021).
Colville, Alex. 2021. “Stop Trying to Make ‘Lying Flat’ Happen!” The World of Chinese, June 10 https://www.theworldofchinese.com/2021/06/stop-trying-to-make-lying-flat-happen/ [March 15, 2022].
Gong, Jing and Tingting Liu. 2021. “Decadence and Relational Freedom among China’s Gay Migrants: Subverting heteronormativity by ‘lying flat’.” China Information (December): 1-21.
Koetse, Manya. 2021. “The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media.” What’s on Weibo, April 22 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/the-concept-of-involution-neijuan-on-chinese-social-media/ [March 13, 2022].
Mao Talk. 2021. “躺平主义：历史、现实、真相 [Lying Flat-ism: History, Reality, Truth.” WeChat, June 26 https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzIxMDQ5NTQ3OA==&mid=2247483688&idx=1 &sn=9de2d27e74c354c91470436a9efe194c&chksm=9762f3b1a0157aa705ab15ca7f 4e6a7c8feaa8f8f448a4afae8a23db2c8009975a3b29fd2cee&scene=21#wechat_redirect [March 13, 2022].
Michels, Veronique. 2014. China Online: Netspeak and Wordplay used by over 700 million Chinese Internet Users. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
Sun, Xiaoting. 2021. “拒绝’内卷’年轻人开始信奉’躺平学’了? [Refusing Involution, Are Young People Starting to Believe in ‘Lying Flatology’”?]” (In Chinese). Guangming Daily, May 15 https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MjM5NzM0MzQ4MQ==&mid=2654670779&idx =1&sn=f9e01056429a196c701a223580d2a1aa&chksm=bd14d62d8a635f3b42b2c6fe04175fd807d1017a6a0d030fbc7bc995cb8f36aaede7bfdf78f2&scene=0&xtrack=1#rd [March 14, 2022].
Sun, Jiahui. 2017. “How to Be a ‘Buddha-like Youth’.” ECNS, December 26 https://www.ecns.cn/learning-Chinese/2017/12-26/285916.shtml [March 12, 2022].
Szablewicz Marcella. 2014. “The ‘Losers’ of China’s Internet: Memes as ‘Structures of Feeling’ for Disillusioned Young Netizens.” China Information 28(2): 259-275.
Wu, Hongjuan and Ren Ying. 2018. “佛系青年”人生观误区及其引导 [A Brief Analysis on and Guidance for Fever in Buddha-like Youth]” (In Chinese). Journal of Wuhu Institute of Technology. 2018 (02): 15-18.
Zhou, Cao. 2017. “Internet Meme Songs in China and the “Diaosi” Identity of Youth Culture.” In: Ethnic and Cultural Identity in Music and Song Lyrics, Victor Kennedy and Michelle Gadpaille (eds), 241-249. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Any other sources not listed here are hyperlinked within the text.
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