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Chinese college graduates embrace a laid-back lifestyle and reject the pressures of intense work culture


[A photo by Yaxin Xu, 21, celebrates her and her comrades’ graduation from Hunan University of Science and Technology. She sees “lying flat” not as a rejection of life but a decision to focus on one’s own happiness. (Yaxin Xu)

June 30, 2023 at 5:00 a.m. EDT

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They are not your ordinary graduation photos. There are no triumphant graduates holding their diplomas proudly or throwing their mortarboards into the air. There are no proud parents standing alongside their newly certified offspring.

Instead, a small but significant cohort of China’s Class of 2023 has commemorated the occasion by posting photos of themselves appearing completely exhausted. Reclining on the ground, their faces concealed by their tasseled caps. Leaning over railings with their hands hanging listlessly. On social media, they are often accompanied by hashtags like “zombie-style” or “lying flat.”

The unconventional graduation photos are a response to the ultra-competitive environment that Chinese graduates encounter as they enter the workforce.

With the economy struggling to recover from three paralyzing years of zero-covid policies, the unemployment rate is high, particularly among young people. According to the latest statistics, around 20 percent of individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed.

Simultaneously, a record-breaking 11.6 million people have just graduated from college. With their prospects looking bleak, some new graduates are adopting a “lying flat” – or “tangping” in Chinese – mentality.

Young Chinese take a stand against pressures of modern life – by lying down

Lying flat entails getting by with minimal effort, and the buzzword symbolizes subtle, passive resistance. The mindset has been publicly denounced and discouraged by the government.

Tangping has emerged as a rallying cry among Chinese millennials and Gen-Z’ers who have had enough of the rat race and wish to opt out of China’s intense work culture and the social expectations that come with it.

For some students, posting unconventional graduation photos online is not only a reflection of their mental state but also a final opportunity to have fun with classmates before leaving school.

Brenda Lu, 21, studied media and communication at Nanjing University

“My lying flat is entirely about avoiding repetitive and meaningless internal strife. It means that I want to choose my own way of life,” said Brenda Lu, a recent graduate of Nanjing University. “It’s not that I lie down and do nothing, but I don’t care too much about other people’s standards in an environment that doesn’t suit me.”

For the 21-year-old, the lying-flat graduation photos are an act of defiance against social expectations and China’s rigid educational system.

“Throughout the three years of the pandemic, my classmates were just stuck in the dormitory taking online courses, as if locked up in prison,” she says. “So many people have had no social life for three years and desperately want to find a way out. This year’s job search can only be described as particularly dismal.”

Jessie Hu, 22, studied English at Lanzhou University

After failing to get accepted to grad school, Jessie Hu sent her résumé to five companies earlier this year, but she got nowhere. “I didn’t even pass the first round,” said the 22-year-old, who graduated from Lanzhou University with an English degree.

Hu lay flat on the grass of her campus for her graduation photos, reflecting the overwhelm she feels when faced with choices.

“Most of my peers and I had only one goal in high school, which was to get high scores and go to a good college,” she said. “But when you are graduating from college, there are so many options. Take public servant exams, apply for grad schools, study abroad, or find a job… You can’t make up your mind because you don’t have a specific goal, so you just get slapped down instead.”

Walnut Liu, 21, studied at Xian University of Posts and Telecommunications

Ever since her freshman year, Walnut Liu has been worried about getting a job after graduation. Despite having a degree in automation technology, which should position her well for a job at a semiconductor company, she hasn’t had any luck.

“I started to think that I can’t find a good job based on my résumé, so I thought I’d go to grad school.”

She sent her résumé to about 300 e-commerce companies and eventually got two offers. But she turned them down because they paid only $830 a month.

Her lying-flat graduation photos were partly for fun, partly reflecting her pandemic college life.

“We didn’t get to experience much,” she said, noting that current students can go to music festivals and bars. She feels like she missed out. So she’s going to grad school, in a field she believes will be in higher demand: logistics.

Jingying Li, 21, studied financial management at Zhuhai College of Science and Technology

When she saw the first lying-flat graduation photos, Jingying Li was inspired.

“I thought it was very refreshing… really fun and exciting compared with the usual graduation photos,” said the recent graduate from Zhuhai College of Science and Technology. “Plus, you don’t have to worry about your facial expressions, and it’s nice to take pictures while feeling mentally and physically relaxed.”

Like the other new graduates, Li’s college experience was overshadowed by the pandemic. She recently completed an internship as a broadcast host and is trying to remain positive even in this challenging job market.

“Negative news is like a stone thrown into the sea: It sinks and disappears,” she said. “You can choose to spend your day happily or unhappily. I choose to be happy.”

Rain Xu, 22, studied digital media art at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in Hangzhou

Rain Xu and her friends wanted to join the graduation photo trend, so they sprawled on auditorium floors and flopped over rows of seats.

“This is what the mindset of college students looks like nowadays,” she said. “Three out of our four years of college life, we were in the pandemic. It’s like not having gone to college at all.”

Xu, who studied digital media art, has not yet found a full-time job and will do an internship as a secretary while she looks for a suitable position.

“There are layoffs, and salaries have been decreasing,” she said, noting that her employed friends are earning only $350 a month. “The rent in Hangzhou is so high. How do you live [on that]?”

She is considering studying abroad or going to grad school. Her parents want her to take the civil servant exam. As a backup, she has a teaching certificate. “If I can’t do anything right, I think there is still a demand for art teachers.”

Dexter Yang, 22, studied theoretical physics at the South China University of Technology

“I think the trend reflects how the years of the pandemic have affected people,” said Dexter Yang, who posed on the ground, covering his face with his graduation cap. Message: The job market is depressing.

“For new graduates, it’s a blow to our confidence, especially when you see layoffs from big companies.”

With a degree in theoretical physics from a prestigious university, the 22-year-old will stay at school. Perhaps he will pursue a doctorate and become a professor.

Yang still feels conflicted about his choice. He enjoys studying, but when he sees some graduates landing decent jobs, he can’t help but feel envious.

“Of course, the ideal scenario would be to choose what you like, but you also need to eat, right?”


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