Tangping and Involution: Decelerators Have Their Say

From ideals to reality, China’s young workforce can find balance away from the 996

The news looks rather surreal when Byte Dance, Tiktok’s holding company announced to cancel the weekend working policy in China, almost as surreal as the hype this social media app has managed to evoke around the world in the past 24 months. China, once falling behind others on the map of top workaholic cultures, with neighbours like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore taking the podium, is now making headlines with “996” (9AM to 9PM, six days a week), and even “007”. The country’s leading technology and internet companies such as Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent have become a representation of the modern-day rat race.

But things don’t end there. Such announcements from corporate giants are believed to be a gesture in alignment with the latest three-children policy, that affects the country’s young workforce today. They are the first and perhaps the only one-child generation destined to support themselves, their parents and their children at the same time. Under such a pressured environment, Tǎngpíng 躺平 (lying flat) whirred as a popular buzzword across Chinese social media earlier this year that reflected the young generation’s frustration with society’s increasing demands.

Social commentary also circled around the topic both inside and outside of China, dubbing this generation as China’s ‘involuted’ generation or Nèijuǎn 内卷 literally meaning 'inward curling'. Individuals began labelling themselves 'five' which has a similar pronunciation to Fèiwù 废物 (trash). They question the established working culture reigning today, with some even refusing to work at all, maintaining below-average living standards and using second-hand or disserted goods only.

Is there really no middle ground? Are Chinese workers forced to choose between absolute cynicism and endless competition? TONG speaks to three young individuals across different cities who managed to strike a balance between self-empowerment, consumerism and freedom. They confront the realities of living, but rather than succumbing to entrapment, avoidance or apathy, have instead taken the road of mindful subsistence that prioritises wellbeing and a slow down of work as we know it to be.

别卷了 命要紧 'Don't go involuted, life is what matters'.
别卷了 命要紧 'Don't go involuted, life is what matters'.

Reasons to Choose a Decelerated lifestyle

For those fresh out of university, workplaces in contrast can be hierarchical and mundane. Miss Xu, a 25-year-old music educator and performer in Hefei, got a decent job at a state-owned company after graduating from her university. But, she was unhappy about the way she was treated. “Just because I’m young and junior, I was asked to work as a receptionist. It made me insecure, and I felt I could be replaced at any time. On the other hand, the way some of my friends work with only one day off in a week really scared me.”

She resigned a couple of months later and picked up what she is passionate about and excelled at high school - music. Since then, she works for two intense months during summer almost without breaks to teach children. For the rest of the year, she has fewer classes and can concentrate on improving her own skills and enjoying life with family and friends. “I am a happier person now. My students respect me for my expertise and I have time to focus on myself and adjust my own schedule and lifestyle.”

Miss Xu, a 25-year-old music educator and performer based in Hefei.
Miss Xu, a 25-year-old music educator and performer based in Hefei.

Murosu, a 35-year-old freelance French interpreter in Shanghai, who has never set foot in an office after graduation, was a hard hit by Covid-19 because his clients stopped travelling to China. “I started to think about the stability of my job, but luckily I had developed so many hobbies and skills that helped me through the difficulties.” Over the years, he self-taught Japanese, photo and video editing, photography, computer programming and even pottery. Off the usual schedule as an interpreter, he travels and learns new things. Murosu believes being a Decelerator contributes a diverse network for him. “I’ve made new connections through different spaces such as from a trip, or a fair, and even made friends playing video games who later referred me for jobs.”

Indeed, this is a far reality for somebody that sits in an office but for Murosu, this role reversal would be similarly a leap for him. “I didn’t think it was necessary to have fixed job when I was younger, and as time goes by, I wouldn’t want to change my lifestyle now. As a matter of fact, I don’t oppose those who work hard, but that’s not what I want.”

Like any other major life decision, working and living seems always at conflict. For Miss Xu and Murosu, the cost-benefit analysis is one of trial and error. Whilst they have both found suitable solutions and have no regrets choosing against the pace of modern life, it is still a decision bound to commitment which does not come without its challenges.

Murosu, a 35-year-old freelance French interpreter in Shanghai.
Murosu, a 35-year-old freelance French interpreter in Shanghai.

More Conscious Living and Shopping

From a consumerism perspective, living a decelerated lifestyle naturally indicates a reduction in consumption. However, amongst Decelerators there is still a respect for individual choice and a recognition of compromise.

“The only time I bought some clothes in recent years is when I had to go to work. But when I stay at home, I rarely buy anything. Even the costs for meals are really small,” says Xiao Shui, a 31-year-old freelance writer in Shanghai who holds a master’s degree from one of the highest-ranking universities of China, primed for the competitive job market. However, she did not find meaning in the “earn more to spend more” logic. “Salary is what you get compensated for being cut off from your own time and energy. If I don’t go out often, I don’t have much need to spend.”

But, being minimalist doesn’t mean giving up on everything either. Xiao Shui and her husband prioritise transport convenience among other costs, and would not hesitate to choose a taxi over public transport when they need to get around. Likewise, Murosu spends generous amounts of his income travelling and invests heavily in books. “I may not have much in savings, but there are so many interesting things to learn and wonderful places to go. If I work eight hours a day, I won’t have time for them.”

Xiao Shui, a 31-year-old freelance writer in Shanghai.
Xiao Shui, a 31-year-old freelance writer in Shanghai.

Another challenge on top of conscious consumption is sustainability, which becomes clear in practice that it means different things to different individuals. The only commonality that arises is simply, the ability to continue with the lifestyle created in a self-sufficient and self-serving manner. Choosing to be sustainable, whether it be an environmental, financial or community-driven is a privilege, one not everyone can pursue.

Young as Miss Xu is, she sometimes deliberates about going full time, her parents wish for her. “I might consider becoming a schoolteacher, or creating my own business, there are loads of options.” Xiao Shui sharply points out the difference between a decelerated lifestyle and Tangping: “My family do want me to be happy. They know I did not stop pursuing my own goals, be it thinking, or writing, I just stopped following to become what the social conventions demand of me.”

Whilst it seems Decelerators have found their sweet spot between freedom, contribution, and reward, this lifestyle is still one of dedication, desire for recognition and finding spaces to thrive. It’s a commitment to a slower, more sustainable pace of life that can only be realised by individuals on their own journey both psychologically and physically. As a window into a growing trend today, it’s proof that China’s young workforce are mindful and proactive to make things work on their own terms. The social pressures felt by those in China are not a stark contrast to other countries, but how young Chinese find restorative places and nourishment in the “996” will extend as a desire for brands to give meaning and serve a purpose.

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