Taking it Lying Down: China’s Bereavement Youth Culture

The Chinese subculture of dispirited youth called bereavement culture sangwenhua 丧文化 often symbolized by the reclining figure of a actor from a 90’s television show. One of the latest expressions of this culture is the call to tangping 躺平 “lie flat” or “lie down“ that has gotten attention in media outside China recently

One good reference is the Google Translated Wikipedia article on tangping I often find looking at Wiki articles relating to other countries that the article in the language of the country is often better than the Wiki article in English. Improvements in machine translation technology over the past five years makes doing that more feasible than before. Google Translate can help break free of the wretched bonds of the anglosphere!

See also the GT’d version of the PRC online Q&A website Zhihu on bereavement culture. You can find many more in Chinese if you search on 丧文化; copy the URL into Google Translate or the text into an online machine translation program like DeepL.

Does China’s Bereavement Youth Subculture Reflect a Decline in Social Mobility?

Thanks to the Communist Party’s guidance of Chinese media, the most interesting information and views are often buried deep in articles. Here some anonymous online discussion is quoted. Maximum deniability? Could be. Only Mao knows. Could declining social mobility and hardening class barriers (today called social layers shehui jieceng 社会阶层) in China be part of the reason for “bereavement culture” and “lying down”?

As I said earlier, the expression “Ge You lying down” arose the discouragement, despair, pessimism, hopelessness, lots of overtime work, over-eating, stress, and the hard time people have making a living that many people feel. Stress is easy to understand, but why that stress result in a China-wide craze of people not wanting to work hard? What led them to choose the picture of “Ge You lying down” to express honestly their deeply-felt desires?

I think it is because what was once traditionally possible – to work hard to make qualitative changes in your life and to rise on the social scale – is much harder today. In China today, the social capital investments needed to rise are so high opportunities for lower class people to reach the upper class have been gradually closed off. We all know the inspirational quotes such as “work hard or die” and “the harder you work, the luckier you are”. What is more certain is “working hard may not bring success, but not working hard will certainly be easy. “

Incomes and living standards have for most Chinese people have risen dramatically since the Second Founding of the PRC by Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping and others worked to repair the damage caused by the dash to utopian socialism by ostensibly materialistic, though actually both idealistic and paranoid Mao. In that rising tide, some got richer quicker and indeed far richer than others. There is a lot of relativity involved which is what people care about. I suppose I wouldn’t get far telling poor people in the US how they are almost certainly better fed and clothed and getting better medical care than poor people a century ago. The same is true for China. Income gaps between city and countryside and within urban areas keep growing. The desire to keep up with Zhangs is strong as anywhere else. Mass communication makes people even more aware of these gaps.

There has been a vast expansion in the number of Chinese attending universities as well as in the number of Chinese getting graduate education both within China and abroad. Getting a job commensurate with their education is getting harder.

As always, it is hard to get a clear picture especially thinking about the connection between a cultural and social phenomenon and social mobility. What people come to believe, their expectations, and “reality” all figure in to it. Looking at a recent People’s Daily article, I read that social mobility in China has been steadily increasing. A different view from Chinese journalist Li Jiazhang wrote in the New York Times in 2016:

Stanford report from earlier this year echoes what Chinese social scientists have found: China ranks high among countries in which citizens earn close to what their parents had earned. It is a country with low “intergenerational earnings mobility,” meaning China’s younger people are likely to be in the same socioeconomic class as their parents….

While some 800 million people in China have been lifted out of poverty in the last few decades, the economic reforms have produced a new underclass of low-paid urban workers, including migrants from the country’s rural areas. The new lower class is stuck at the bottom.

“Stuck at the Bottom in China” New York Times November 28, 2016

By way of comparison, according to the Social Mobility Report from the World Economic Forum, US social mobility across generation ranked well behind the Nordic countries on top, in 27th between Lithuania and Spain. China ranked 45th, between Costa Rica and Ukraine. As one might expect, there is a strong negative correlation between income inequality and intergenerational social mobility.

The relationship between a leading measure of economic inequality (the Gini coefficient14) and the degree to which one’s parents’ income predicts one’s own income (i.e. intergenerational income elasticity). This graphic, also known as “The Great Gatsby Curve”, reveals a strong linear relationship in which countries with high levels of relative social mobility—such as Finland, Norway or Denmark—also exhibit lower levels of income inequality.
Conversely, countries with low relative social mobility—such as China or Brazil—also exhibit high levels of economic inequality. As highlighted by thinkers such as John Rawls and Amartya Sen, in an ideal world, individuals would have the capabilities to prosper, irrespective of their background or personal characteristics.

Global Social Mobility Report 2020, p. 10

Shared Trends in US and China: Increasing Inequality, Lower Social Mobility

In a case of unplanned parallelism, income inequality has been growing and social mobility has been declining in both the United States and China over the past four decades. While I am no seer, I have wondered at how the economic crisis of 2008 in the United States spawned both right (Tea Party) and left (Occupy) populist movement fueled by anger at self-serving elites due to the economic hardships much of the country suffered while the rich and corporations benefited, perhaps for the sake of overall economic stability, from government loans and bailouts. That U.S. econquake may have led to some of the political quakes seen in the years since. So I wonder about the implications of declining social mobility, especially in urban areas, among unemployed educated youth for China’s future.

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping was once himself an educated youth sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants. Shipping the “lie flat” bereavement subculture urban youth off to the countryside is not an option available today.

Related Translations:

Translation of Baidu Article “Bereavement Culture”

Bereavement culture [sangwenhua 丧文化] refers to a cultural trend among some young people in their teens and twenties who express their frustration online or in their daily lives, mourning for their difficulties in life, in studies, in their career, in their personal and emotional life and so forth.

“Bereavement culture” refers to speech, writings and drawings that express feelings of discouragement, despair and pessimism among young people. The emergence and popularity of “bereavement culture”, represented by the [Note: 2016 TV series] “Scrap Brothers” and “Ge You’s lying down” [Note: popular expression referring to the 1993 romantic comedy “I Love My Home wo ai wojia], is a microcosm of youth subculture in the new media era. This reflects the current spirituality and collective angst of youth and to a certain extent the mentality and social psychology of youth in the new era.

Chinese expression: Bereavement culture: Buzzword among Chinese young people in their teen and twenties. Associated with discouragement, despair, pessimism and other feelings.

Contents

  • 1 Background
  • 2 Meaning
  • 3 Manifestation
  • 4 The Reason Why
  • 5 Other representations
  • 6 What Does it Mean?

Background

A photo from back in 1993 exploded onto China’s social media networks. In the photo Ge You still has hair but is thin. He wore a grandmother’s flowered shirt with his mouth slightly open like his soul had gone for a hike, his expression is apathetic as he lies on a big comfortable and fluffy sofa. This picture is from the sitcom “I love my family”, the episode is about Ge You’s character Ji Chunsheng, in cadging food and drink from the Jia family.

Ji Chunsheng, is not only unattractive but he behaves despicably as well. The image conveyed by this character is that of a man who never does anything, who does not want to better himself, who does not care whether he is successful or not. He just wants to sit back and enjoy his life – a good-for-nothing of the 1990s.

This image runs contrary to the positive, healthy and upwardly mobile mainstream views that people of all generations favor. It does, however, fit in well with the youth culture of today. His decadence, despair, pessimism and hopelessness are exactly the inner state of this group of masses who work overtime, eat overtime, are under constant pressure and are having a hard time making a living.

Meaning

“I’m nearly an invalid”, “I don’t really want to live”, “aimless decadence”, “I don’t want to do anything “, “lying down to die”, “from discouragement to despair”, these words fit that picture of Ge You lying down. It is clear what thoughts and feelings this group of young people want to convey through this photo of Ge You. To put it simply, lie down, don’t want to think, don’t want to do anything.

Manifestation

For thousands of years countless people have been lying down. Ge You wasn’t the first. That “Ge You lying down” can be popular today is closely tied to the youth who identify with him. These youth retweeted “Ge You lying down photo” on their microblogs, write messages saying this is what they do every weekend, and want to be like this every day. Most of these people are are in their teens or twenties, the most active age group on social media.

The Reason Why

Media analysis from the internet:

We have seen a lot of studies about young people. They are growing up in a time China’s social and economic development has entered a new stage. They are under all kinds of pressures such as and education oriented around examinations, pressure to get higher education, difficulties in employment, and pressure from economic changes in society. They learn about changes around the world online and know from an early age that they are in a win or lose society. Unlike other generations who sought to move beyond their familiar world, today’s youth know that stepping outside their world is risky. Moreover, they enjoy better material conditions and better family and employment connection, and for them leaping into the outside world is not a necessity. What they talk about more often is “me” and about “being myself, being an individual”.

Internet tools become an outlet for their emotions. Some people reveal their personality (in this case, personality means inner thoughts) on the Internet. They vent their negative emotions and their cynicism online. The “me” they express online seems totally different from the “me” of their everyday life as if these were two souls inhabiting the same body. Even more often than this type of person, however, is another group of well-integrated young people. They say “I am me, I am a complete, independent individual who is brave enough to speak up for himself.”

This group of young people who are the same online as in person are happy to be themselves, and do not need to play the perfect image of “Three Goods” young people [Note: san hao: morally good, good students, good physical condition. End note] in the minds of others so admitting that they are social trash is not hard for them to admit. They accept their own imperfections, accept their own defects, and live for themselves, accept themselves as the person they are, and accept themselves.

Now that this picture of “Ge You lying down” associated with bad feelings has become popular on the microblogs, these young people have been coming forward courageously, passing it along, sharing their difficult life experiences, and telling others “I am like that”, “I think lying down doing nothing is pretty great. If you think about it in a different way, in the old day, if at heart I desperately wanted to be a person who did not work and got what they wanted, if they could get clothes and food simply by sticking out their hands and opening their mouths, they would have been too shy to say so, wouldn’t they?

As I said earlier, the expression “Ge You lying down” arose the discouragement, despair, pessimism, hopelessness, lots of overtime work, over-eating, stress, and the hard time people have making a living that many people feel. Stress is easy to understand, but why that stress result in a China-wide craze of people not wanting to work hard? What led them to choose the picture of “Ge You lying down” to express honestly their deeply-felt desires?

I think it is because what was once traditionally possible – to work hard to make qualitative changes in your life and to rise on the social scale – is much harder today. In China today, the social capital investments needed to rise are so high opportunities for lower class people to reach the upper class have been gradually closed off. We all know the inspirational quotes such as “work hard or die” and “the harder you work, the luckier you are”. What is more certain is “working hard may not bring success, but not working hard will certainly be easy. “

Desperate statement like these and the rise of “bereavement (sàng 丧) culture” show that young people today have seen through this and realize that they just can’t get anywhere.

Academic Analysis

The reasons for the emergence and popularity of the youth “bereavement culture” includes the alternative reality of the virtual network, young people seeking notoriety, the nature of the Chinese collective “unconscious” and “conscious”, and emotional contagion of the “microblog era”: from the “microblogs” online to society at large. We should adopt a “rational and cautious” approach to the youth “bereavement culture”, find useful perspectives from which to study the youth “bereavement culture”, guide youth in establishing correct values, and promote the cultivation of a positive social mindset among the youth. [ 1]

Other Representative Characters

In addition to “Ge You lying down”, other representative figures of the bereavement culture include PEPE the frog, the salted fish with limbs, and the imported lazy egg, and so on. They are invariably conveying a self-deprecating message of “I’m already a loser”.

What Does it Mean?

These images are neither cynical nor a “loser” in the traditional sense of being incapable and unintelligent. In my opinion, they express the despair of youth who feel that they are drowning in today’s society. These young people despair that no matter how hard they try, they will never breaking through the ever-harder class barriers in society. The way ahead is too confusing, there are too many twists and turns down the road ahead. They feel profoundly that they are trapped with no possibility of escape. In that case, let’s just lie down down, just lay there until death comes. [2]

Some bereavement culture images and cartoons circulating online in China, some likely copied from foreign media.

Ge You’s character Ji Chunsheng in the 1993 Chinese TV sitcom “I Love My Family”

Translation of text: “I depend on income from the art studio my mother runs for income. Perhaps something untoward could happen to my mother so I don’t have much time. I don;’t know what to do. I sit here all the time thinking. Finally I reached a conclusion. I need to find a foster mother whom I can be my new parasite’s host. Later that host will be my wife.”

Text of translated article from Baidu online encyclopedia

丧文化

丧文化指一些90、00后的年轻人在现实生活中因为生活、学习、事业、情感等的不顺,在网络上、生活中表达或表现出自己的沮丧而形成的一种文化趋势。“丧文化”是指青年群体当中的带有颓废、绝望、悲观等情绪和色彩的语言、文字或图画,它是青年亚文化的一种新形式。以“废柴”、“葛优躺”等为代表的“丧文化”的产生和流行,是青年亚文化在新媒体时代的一个缩影,它反映出当前青年的精神特质和集体焦虑,在一种程度上是新时期青年社会心态和社会心理的一个表征。

目录

背景

一张来自1993年的照片,就这样毫无预警地在国内社交网络上爆红。图片上的葛优还有头发,但一样削瘦。他嘴边续着胡渣,穿着奶奶花衬衫,嘴角微张宛如灵魂出窍,一脸生无可恋,瘫躺在舒适松软的大沙发上。这张图出自情景喜剧《我爱我家》,这集说的是葛优所饰演的季春生,在贾家蹭吃蹭喝的故事。季春生,这个男人不仅在个人仪表糟糕,而且行为举止也惹人鄙夷。这个角色的传递出来的形象,就是个每天无所事事游手好闲,不想自我奋斗,获不获得成功也没有关系,希望坐享其成的生活方式 —— 一个90年代的社会废物。这样的形象跟所有年代所提倡的积极、健康、向上主流精神相悖,但却在此时此刻,恰好跟这个时代青年文化无缝切合。他的颓废、绝望、悲观、生无可恋,正是这批超时工作、超额吃饭、压力大、挣钱难的大众内心状态。

词汇表达含义

“我差不多是个废人了”、“其实并不是很想活”、“漫无目的的颓废”、“什么都不想干”、“躺尸到死亡”、“颓废到忧伤”,这些搭配在葛优躺图片上的文字,也从来都没有掩饰过这批青年人想通过葛优来传到什么思想感情。简单说,就是想要躺着,不想思考,什么都不想干了。

表现

千百年来已经有无数人这样躺着了,葛优并不是第一个。但是“葛优躺”能够在此时此刻走红,跟它背后青年人息息相关。这批人转发带有“葛优躺”照片的微博,纷纷留言说自己每到周末就是这个样子,而且想要每天都是这个样子。他们大多数是 90 后,是微博上最活跃的用户年龄段。

原因分析

网络媒体分析:关于90后的研究我们也看过不少。他们所身处的成长环境,是中国社会和经济发展进入了一个新阶段。他们经历了应试教育、升学压力、就业困难、经济转型等种种压力,他们通过互联网得知全球范围的动态,他们在很早的时候就知道这是一个风险社会。跟其他年代寻求外部扩张不同,90 后知道外部扩张是要承担风险的。并且,他们享有更好的物质条件,和更为扁平的家庭和就业关系,对他们来说外部扩张不是必须的。他们更经常谈论的是“我”,是“成为我自己,成为一个独立的个体”。

互联网工具成为他们情绪的宣泄口。有一部分人通过互联网释放自己的里人格(在这里,里人格指内心想法),他们把负面情绪、犬儒的理想释放在网上,而在日常生活的这个“我”,似乎跟互联网上的那个“我”没有半点关系,他们看起来就像是共用一具躯体的两个不同灵魂。但更多的是另一部分的人,他们是内外统一的青年人 —— 我就是我,我是一个完整、独立,并勇于为自己发声的个体。

这批内外统一的年轻人乐于做自己,不需要扮演别人心目中三好青年的完美形象,所以承认自己是垃圾也不是什么困难的事。他们接受自己的不完美、接受自己的缺陷,并为自己而活,接受自己是一个这样的人,与自己和解。

像葛优躺这有带有负面情绪的形象在微博走红,是青年人勇于去转发、去分享、去倾述、去再创作,去告诉别人“我就是一个这样的人”,“我觉得躺着什么都不用做的状态挺棒的”。换个角度想想,如果在以前,内心迫切希望当一个不劳而获,衣来伸手饭来张口的人,也会羞于开口吧。

先前我已经说了,葛优一躺表现出来的颓废、绝望、悲观、生无可恋,正是这批超时工作、超额吃饭、压力大、挣钱难的大众内心状态。压力大很容易理解,但为何压力大导致的不想努力会成为全民狂欢?是什么导致了他们选择了葛优躺来传递内心的渴望?

我认为,这是因为传统努力已经难以实现生活的质变和阶层的上升了。在这个国家,由于社会成本高居不下,下层通到上层的空间逐渐已经堵塞。我们都知道“不努力就去死”、“越努力越幸运”诸如此类的励志名言,但是更有把握的是“努力未必会成功,但不努力一定会很轻松。”

这样绝望特质的发言,是青年人洞悉并受困于自身无能的“丧(sàng)文化”的崛起。

学术界分析:

青年”丧文化”产生与流行的原因主要包括虚拟网络的现实”拟构性”、青年自我的”主动污名化”、集体和社会的”无意识”和”有意识”、”微时代”的情绪感染:从”微”到”大”等四点。应当采用”理性与谨慎并行”的方式对待青年”丧文化”,应当运用优势视角对青年”丧文化”展开研究,应当引导青年树立正确价值观,促进青年积极社会心态的培育。 [1] 


About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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1 Response to Taking it Lying Down: China’s Bereavement Youth Culture

  1. Pingback: sàng - Mandarin Expression of the Week

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