In these times of historical transition, volatility has become the norm. China, despite its autocratic discipline, is unlikely to be spared. A young generation has begun calling into question some of the orthodoxies associated with three decades of prosperity and growth.
Max Weber famously identified the Protestant work ethic as the historical foundation that supported the emergence of Europe’s capitalist economy. China’s Confucian culture, two millennia before Martin Luther and John Calvin, cultivated an ethic of hard work with a focus on prosperity that has underpinned every period of its history since the philosopher’s death in 479 BC.
Western media believe they can detect a widening crack in the foundation. A new generation of Chinese youngsters appears to have discovered the joys, not of the hippie dictum, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” but of the potentially more radical idea of just tuning out and dropping out. Whether this trend is significant or not, Western media have now chosen to highlight it. In an era in which the news has learned to obey the strict laws of entertainment media, and self-indulgence has been elevated to the status of an ideal, the traditional work ethic has clearly lost some of its ancient prestige both in China and the West.
The New York Times Has Feelings for China
This weekend, The New York Times featured an article with the title, “These Chinese Millennials Are ‘Chilling,’ and Beijing Isn’t Happy.” A month ago, the BBC proposed this headline: “China’s new ‘tang ping’ trend aims to highlight pressures of work culture.” The idea they express is that a rising China, seeking to wrest global leadership away from the US, is suddenly being challenged by a generation that eschews President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” of collective happiness. Could Xi’s alternative to the two-century-old “American dream” of individual happiness already be moribund?
Western news agencies have every reason to play up rumors stating that Chinese millennials may be on the verge of betraying the fabled industriousness of their nation. Chinese youth appear to have discovered what the Italians and even the French approvingly call farniente. For the Italians, dolce farniente has long been the “sweet” art of “doing nothing.” It’s a prized ingredient of Latin, non-Protestant cultures.
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Táng ping (lying flat):
A logical variation from China’s traditional prosperity culture voluntarily distorted by Western media to attribute to it a non-existent political significance
The BBC describes tang ping as “an antidote to society’s pressures to find jobs and perform well while working long shifts.” It consists of “not overworking, being content with more attainable achievements and allowing time to unwind.” Though the origin of the term appears to be a TikTok video, some characterize it as a “spiritual movement.” The BBC mentions an online site that attracted 6,000 members before being deleted by the government. Since China is a nation of 1.3 billion souls, some might be tempted to call that evidence of a microscopic cult rather than a spiritual movement.
The New York Times digs deeper. “They are now defying the country’s long-held prosperity narrative by refusing to participate in it,” writes Elsie Chen. The “they” in that sentence appears to refer to Chinese youth en masse. She sees it as a growing movement. The 6,000 the BBC mentioned a month ago has now become 9,000 according to Chen. And she cites a forum with 200,000 members, a veritable tsunami. It is worth bearing in mind that the Times, in 2010, already wrote that “the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief,” citing Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and even Islam as emerging trends.
Chen nevertheless appears to acknowledge the current marginality of táng ping when she writes: “While plenty of Chinese millennials continue to adhere to the country’s traditional work ethic, ‘lying flat’ reflects both a nascent counterculture movement and a backlash against China’s hypercompetitive work environment.” Could it be a serpent’s egg, to quote Ingmar Bergman quoting Shakespeare? According to Chen, it isn’t a spiritual movement as the BBC claims but a countercultural movement. In other words, the Chinese equivalent of hippies. Like the hippies, as one professor explains, “People realize that material betterment is no longer the single most important source of meaning in life.”
In the US and other dominantly Protestant countries, farniente has traditionally been excoriated as sinful, as in the often cited Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper, or the proverbial “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” The devil is credited with keeping busy in his workshop, making him less evil than the lazy (and potentially concupiscent) human beings to whom the proverb’s wisdom is addressed.
One curious result of this state of cultural affairs in the West is that the ethos of prosperity that drove the Protestant work ethic in the past has now been transformed by its own success. For three centuries in which the work ethic remained dominant, the public display of prosperity via one’s material possessions served as proof of Christian virtue. An all-knowing God had predestined such people for success and offered material proof of their virtue. The righteous prospered because it was preordained, and the signs of their prosperity inspired others to be virtuous.
The consumer society eventually turned that logic of that moral (and economic) system on its head. People no longer sought the essential signs of virtue in mere possessions but in acts of conspicuous consumption. By the late 20th century, successful people had to put on display their pleasure-seeking and their mastery of the art of having fun. Nothing is more admired in the media than the successful quest of modern cultural heroes to fulfill their every random desire. It is the contrary of Puritanical virtue that prized the acquisition of property and condemned all forms of self-indulgence.
Donald Trump, John McAfee, Jeffrey Epstein, Elon Musk, the Kardashian family, Jeff Bezos, assorted media celebrities and rock stars, each in their individual way demonstrate the triumph of this new avatar of the Protestant work ethic. It contains an implicit message: that, to cement your image, you must do some serious, prestigious work in the early stages of your rise to fame. Then, when your value is confirmed, you assert your commitment to having fun in ways other people will envy.
Like Musk, the technical innovator, and Trump, the real estate (and political) deal-maker, you may continue exercising your basic professional skills. But there comes a moment when your assets alone assume the task of making money and supporting your lifestyle. Your job then becomes a game of public relations in which you dedicate yourself to self-indulgence. Your pleasures are something common mortals could never aspire to, from penning outrageously narcissistic tweets to space travel. Those acts define the divine grace of a new generation of divinities.
At one point, Chen highlights a government-inspired warning against the practice of “lying flat before getting rich.” The Chinese thus appear to have accepted a major component of the Western ideal. The point of getting rich is to offer yourself the option of lying flat or simply carrying on and getting richer. Wealth dispenses you from the drudgery of work and liberates you for farniente (the Italian model) or even conspicuous self-indulgence (the American model), except that conspicuousness has always been suspect in Chinese culture.
Chen’s story has a hero, Luo Huazhong, a dropout from Chinese workaholic culture who now “lives with his family and spends his days reading philosophy and news and working out. He said it was an ideal lifestyle, allowing him to live minimally and ‘think and express freely.’” This is very different from the American countercultural model represented by the hippies. But it happens to be consistent with a rooted Chinese tradition, evident in Chinese art and literature, that celebrates contemplation and personal discipline.
In other words, where English-speaking media appear to be seeking visible signs of cultural disruption typical of Western history, táng ping demonstrates cultural continuity. Lying flat sounds to Westerners like a variation on their ideal of self-indulgence. In reality, it reflects a deep connection with China’s contemplative Taoist culture that has consistently provided a serene backdrop to its political, economic and often imperial activism.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.