"Let it rot"

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Another new term for expressing lack of interest in the present and future in China:

The rise of ‘bai lan’: why China’s frustrated youth are ready to ‘let it rot

Phrase bai lan gains popularity as severe competition and social expectations leave many young people despondent

Vincent Ni, The Guardian (5/25/22)

This one is borrowed from NBA usage:  "let it rot", referring to players who are on astronomical contracts but are not performing well.  As the son of an organic gardener who also raised earthworms, I can attest that the NBA metaphor was borrowed from the language of composting.

Before proceeding further, I'd better say a bit more about the Chinese phrase in question:

bǎi làn 摆烂 (lit., syllable by syllable, "to put on; to assume [air]; to display" – “rotten; spoiled; decayed; well-cooked; soft; mushy")

Wiktionary gives this very interesting definition:

(neologism, slang) to strive instead for shoddiness (especially when knowing that one cannot succeed)

"Bǎi làn 摆烂" ("evince / display / put on an air of rottenness") was preceded in recent youth speak by tǎng píng 躺平 ("lie flat"), which we have previously discussed at length on Language Log (see "Selected readings").

From The Guardian article:

In recent days, this phrase – and more previously ‘tang ping’ (lying flat, 躺平), which means rejecting gruelling competition for a low desire life – gained popularity as severe competition and high social expectations prompted many young Chinese to give up on hard work.

But bai lan has a more worrying layer in the way it is being used by young people in China: to actively embrace a deteriorating situation, rather than trying to turn it around. It is close to other Chinese phrases, for example ‘to smash a cracked pot’ (pòguànpòshuāi 破罐破摔) and ‘dead pigs are not afraid of boiling water’ (sǐ zhū bù pà kāishuǐ tàng 死猪不怕开水烫).

By the time we get the Chinese version of "let it rot" all figured out, there will be a couple more pessimistic, jaded phrases pop up.  Meanwhile, enjoy these "let it rot" memes — ràng wǒ xiào pò dùzi 让我笑破肚子 ("make me laugh till my belly aches").


Selected readings

[h.t. Philip Taylor]


  1. Geoffrey McLarney said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 7:31 pm

    I'm put in mind of Mother Alice Goodman's libretto for Nixon in China: " This is the fate of all who set small against great. Leave it to rot."

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 8:42 pm

    The musical allusion is to the (possibly fictitious) https://rutles.fandom.com/wiki/Let_It_Rot_(album)?

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 9:31 am

    re: NBA usage / "let it rot"…
    I don't think there is such a phrase/usage…
    It seems the relevant English is 'tank (v.)', as in to "tank" for a high draft pick (esp. in NBA). Bai3lan4 摆烂 seems to have been used to translate this English verb — but I can't tell if it had some life prior to this specific usage.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 10:40 am

    "Bǎi làn 摆烂" ("evince / display / put on an air of rottenness") and NBA / basketball

    And see The Guardian article cited in the o.p.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 11:16 am

    oops; to rephrase the above, original connection with NBA basketball indeed looks pretty solid. The statements in the Guardian article aren't clear as they don't mention the relevant English word 'tank (v.)'. As far as "let it rot" = "players who are on astronomical contracts but are not performing well," not sure if accurate but not connected to bai3lan4 which originally (?) means 'tank (v.)' i.e. "[field] non-competitive teams to take advantage of league rules that benefit losing teams" (from wikipedia article).

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 11:49 am

    On second look, embarrassingly this word (bai3lan4) appears to have been in use in Taiwan Mandarin for several years meaning exactly 'disengage/go apathetic/撒手不管‘; it could be a Taiwan creation only later applied to the world of sports to mean 'tank (v.)'. Perhaps native speakers can inform…

  7. wanda said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 11:16 pm

    I once participated in a program promoting the secrets of success for assistant professors. They said that assistant professors who wanted tenure should "lower one standard a day" when it came to everything except research and self-care. That "everything" included teaching, service, housework, and family. They were serious about it- they made us keep track of the standards we were lowering and discuss them with a peer accountability group. Is this "摆烂"?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 1:42 pm

    "RUNning away from Shanghai" (5/13/22)


    Following up on my last post concerning this subject several days ago:

    The “run philosophy” and the “last generation” are the rallying cries for many Chinese in their 20s and 30s who despair about their country and their future. They are entering the labor force, getting married and deciding whether to have children in one of the country’s bleakest moments in decades. Censored and politically suppressed, some are considering voting with their feet while others want to protest by not having children.


    By Li Yuan
    May 24, 2022

    As China’s youth grapples with strict Covid rules, a once-nationalistic generation dreams of escaping, our New New World columnist writes.

    ‘The Last Generation’: The Disillusionment of Young Chinese
    Many believe that they’re the most unlucky generation since the 1980s as Beijing’s persistent pursuit of the zero Covid policy wreaks havoc.


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