The phrase “lying flat,” which captures the longing of exhausted young Chinese to quit the rat race, has resonated with people around the globe this year amid the mounting fatigue many are feeling in the face of the never-ending pandemic. And despite president Xi Jinping’s distaste for the philosophy, it’s topping Chinese lists of the year’s most notable memes, including one compiled annually by a state-run language center.
The National Language Resources Monitoring and Research Center, which is part of the country’s education ministry, released the list of the 10 most popular memes for 2021 this week. The center said it compiled the results based on an analysis of more than 1.1 billion “bullet curtain” comments—a commenting system that allows users’ remarks to fly across the screen of the videos they are watching—as well as over 350,000 internet posts. The center will also release the Chinese character of the year later this month, continuing a tradition of 16 years. Chinese search engine Sogou, meanwhile, put “lying flat” at the top of its list of most trending memes for 2021.
For some, lying flat is a way to cope with the pressure to study hard, get into a good college, then find a good job, climbing one endless rung after another to “success.” For others, it’s also a way to quietly log out of the national project of pursuing more productivity, and keeping China’s economy growing. But the thought of young people working only halfheartedly or as little as possible, or forgoing marriage and children, is a concern for an aging China, whose workforce is shrinking. The meme faced partial censorship when it first gained popularity around June, as authorities worried about the sentiment of passive resistance associated with it. In August, Xi mentioned the term for the first time in a speech, saying citizens should avoid this tendency and instead work hard to eventually achieve common prosperity, or more widespread affluence.
The impact of the slang has even spilled over to the US, where many are using it to express their exhaustion and frustration with life, making the meme a successful organic export from China’s pop culture.
In addition to lying flat, the meme lists reflect other currents in China’s internet culture this year.
The language research center’s list also includes patriotic memes, such as “the Awakening Age,” the name of a popular TV series about the founding history of the Chinese Communist Party, set in 1921, as well as “the strong country has me, a popular line used by youngsters to show their loyalty to the party. Metaverse and “double reduction,” a Chinese policy aimed at reducing the burden for students and upended the tutoring industry, are also on the list. Overall, China’s annual lists of top memes showcase phrases that are far less critical of the authorities than they used to be in recent years, yet another sign of Beijing’s tighter grip on online speech.
Given the suspicious official attitude towards the meme, many Chinese media outlets put a more positive spin on the slang’s meaning when reporting on the release of the lists. “Lying flat” only reflects the desire to have “a nap” in the course of one’s hard work, and is a way to regather energy for starting again, according to an article about the list by state TV broadcaster CCTV. “It is not the daily status of people nowadays,” said the outlet.