The growing supinity of Chinese youth

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"Lying flat", "Buddha whatever", "Kong Yijiism", "involution" — China today has so many memes for opting out.  Helen Gao explains the reasons for their profusion:

How China’s Education System Trapped a Generation

Young people have been trained into competition and hopelessness.

Foreign Policy (6/22/23)


From 2003 to 2005, I was a student at rendafuzhong (the High School Affiliated to People’s University) a notoriously cutthroat institution in the Chinese capital. It was well before the term “lying flat” was coined to describe opting out of the unwinnable race of Chinese academic and career competition. But some of my classmates seemed to have already cottoned on to the reality of what lay ahead. At the time, they made little sense to me. Looking back, I see they were the first victims of what the school was doing to us—and what the state is doing to us now.

They were not many, though we all knew who they were. They concealed themselves in the back of the classroom, with Japanese manga or video-gaming manuals tucked inside textbooks as teachers held forth from the lecterns. They wore large headphones over their ears, eyes to the ceiling during study hours, while the rest of us hunched over our desks. After midterms and final exams, when rankings were posted at the entrance to the main school building, attracting large crowds of students, they drifted noiselessly by, not bothering to look up their places, because they already knew what they were.

After graduating from high school, most of those students headed to second- or third-tier colleges outside of the capital. When reunions came around, they did not show up. If they did, however, they might discover that they were no longer the outliers they once were.

In recent years, an increasing number of Chinese of my generation and younger have decided to “lie flat,” a phrase invented in 2021 that refers to the growing defeatism among 20- and 30-something Chinese in response to out-of-control competition. It is cited by Western media and Chinese state newspapers alike as a cause of major social problems like record low marriage and fertility rates.

Among the lamentations about out-of-reach real estate prices and grueling hours at tech behemoths by the frazzled millennials around me, some piece of the puzzle is missing. The answer can be found in those lonely figures in the background of our high school years.

The main image I have of my high school is the whiteboard where our class rankings were posted. Academic competition ruled our lives and our psyches, but it was never a competition on our terms. The state curriculum drove into us early on the understanding that not all subjects were equal. Math and science were the rungs on the ladders leading to the city’s most prestigious secondary schools and the nation’s best universities. As a consequence, endless drills on those subjects consumed the majority of our time.

Essentially they're saying, "Hébì 何必?" ("Why bother?).


Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    July 11, 2023 @ 12:11 pm

    My 15-year-old son Eric was a (foreign) student there Spring semester 2005, during one of my Beijing sabbaticals. He sat in on math and any other of the classes where English was spoken.

  2. wanda said,

    July 11, 2023 @ 10:09 pm

    Some times the only way to win a game is to not play.

  3. E. Harding said,

    July 12, 2023 @ 10:24 am

    And remember -if one is against lying flat, one must lie on one's chin.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 12:06 pm

    "Young Chinese are getting paid to be ‘full-time children’ as jobs become harder to find"

    Laura He and Candice Zhu, CNN (7/27/23)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 5:08 pm

    How Bad Is China’s Economy? Millions of Young People Are Unemployed and Disillusioned

    Nation needs workers, but college graduates shun low-skill work; many opt out of job market, ‘lying flat’

    Brian SpegeleJuly 26, 2023 at 9:33 am ET

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