Lying Flat: Profiling the Tangping Attitude

In October 2021 at a forum organised by the US–Asia Institute, China’s Ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, updated his American audience about the situation in his country. China remained isolated from the world after closing its borders in March 2020 following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic:

I know that due to COVID-19, many of you have not been able to go to China for a while, and you want to catch up with the latest. There are so many new things going on in my country, but where should I start? Well, maybe it’s a good idea to share with you some buzzwords in China, from which you will know what is going on in China, what the Chinese people are thinking about, and what they are doing. (Qin 2021)

One of these buzzwords was tangping (躺平, ‘lying flat’).

As I read about this concept for the first time in the spring of 2021, I immediately felt connected to the term as I had started lying flat after completing my PhD in Chinese Studies in 2018. My life in China from 2012 to 2015 had shifted my understanding of the world and undermined my ambition to become an academic. After receiving my PhD, I decided to quit my academic career as an act of rebellion against both the labour market and a system in which knowledge had become an instrument of domination. The unemployment benefits granted by the French Government allowed me to lie flat to ponder the world’s problems and attempt to imagine a new way of life beyond the capitalist imaginary. The emergence of the lying-flat attitude in China and the way it echoed my personal experience revealed the universality of the phenomenon among younger generations who struggle to cope with the disintegration of the meaning of life at this stage of late capitalism.

In describing the concept of tangping, Ambassador Qin highlighted how many in China—especially among the older generations—hold a negative view of the phenomenon, frowning on it as selfish in contrast with ‘those who go against the current’ (逆行者): the everyday heroes dedicating their lives to helping others during the pandemic. Ironically, when the first lockdown paralysed France in March 2020, I started working in a home for poor elderly people, replacing employees who were quarantined. I worked there for a year, experiencing the ups and downs as a PhD-holding unskilled worker while many skilled workers were forced to lie flat on their sofas as the economy shut down.

In this sense, I believe that lying-flat-ism should be understood as a global phenomenon. Edward Snowden expressed his support for the tangping attitude in a tweet in August 2021 in Chinese: ‘The aim of the system is not to help you, but to control you. No matter how lonely you feel, please never forget that you are not alone. The exploitation of the new generations is a global struggle.’ The subtitle of the anonymously authored ‘Tangpingist Manifesto’ (躺平主义者宣言) published in English on The Anarchist Library asserts the same internationalism: ‘Tangpingists of the world, unite!’ (Anon. 2021a). In this vein, this essay seeks to examine the tangping attitude less as a sociological subject revealing the sociopolitical characteristics of contemporary China than as a philosophical and political subject pertaining to the universal issue of our relation to the concept of work. Considering the tangping attitude as a political subject, this essay also takes the tone of a manifesto, praising its subversive potential to help us face our contemporary global crises. Thus, its aim is not to depict the sociological landscape of tangping-ism but to underline the radicalism of tangping thinking.

Lazy Fat Cats

Some months ago, a Chinese friend posted on her social media photos of her (fat) cat lying comfortably on its back on a carpet with the following caption: ‘Tangping Monday. Tangping against neijuan’, ending with an emoji face crying tears of joy. These two terms became buzzwords on the Chinese internet in 2021 and 2020, respectively: the attitude of ‘lying flat’ is a reaction to the phenomenon of neijuan (内卷, ‘involution’)—a buzzword also mentioned by Ambassador Qin—which signals a rejection of the intense competitiveness of China’s education system and labour market. By relating these two terms to her pet, my friend’s post highlighted an interesting pattern in the viral use of the concept of tangping: house cats as the epitome of lying-flat-ism.

The parallel between the lying-flat attitude and cats has been drawn on extensively across Chinese social media with memes portraying cute cats lying flat on their back. In July 2021, amid the frenzy around the term, German writer Bernd Brunner’s book entitled The Art of Lying Down: A Handbook of Horizontal Living (2013)—a historical exploration of lying down, arguing against it being correlated with laziness and highlighting the subversive potential of this body position to challenge the verticality of our time—was published in Chinese with the title Tangping (躺平). While the cover of the German edition features the image of a man in a hammock, smoking and drinking in the company of wild animals, the Chinese version’s cover features an illustration of a fat cat lying on a comfortable pillow.

Figure 2: Left: The cover of the German edition of The Art of Lying Down featuring a man in a hammock. Right: The cover of the Chinese edition featuring a lazy fat cat.

Lying flat has also become a marketing strategy in the pet industry to sell cosy cat-beds. The cat gear industry tugs at pet owners’ heartstrings by projecting human needs on to their furry friends. In one advertisement for cat-beds, a cat lying comfortably in its duck-shaped bed speaks to its owner: ‘Let’s lie flat together.’ While the recent boom in the pet industry in China can be explained by the emergence of a wealthier middle class, it is also tempting to see this proliferation of domestic cats as a way to soothe one’s anxiety as social pressure has intensified for younger generations.

Figure 3: Advertisement for cat-beds: ‘Let’s Lie Flat Together.’

For young people exhausted by overwork, frustrated by the stagnation of their purchasing power, and tormented by their loneliness (especially considering many do not have sufficient free time to socialise), having their cat waiting for them at home is one of the rare comforts in their life. This is exactly what the pet brand Pidan sells to its customers: ‘Humans need cats because they help us freeze the sorrowful mood we so easily sink into when we are alone into the beauty of serenity.’ This is also the motto opening director Bi Gan’s short film A Short Story (破碎太阳之心; 2022), which was commissioned by Pidan and premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival—a fantasy centred on an adventurous black cat which encounters lonely characters on a quest for the world’s most precious things.

The lying-flat cats shared on social media are often fat. The correlation stems from another worldwide phenomenon: the online frenzy for obese cats. This social trend can be observed globally, with people swiping Instagram accounts in search of cute cuddly cat fatness and with ‘chonk’, a new English internet slang term that appeared online in 2018 to describe an adorably fat house cat. In China, the attraction of fat animals can be understood, first, as a more rural mindset relating fatness to higher social status—for example, the owner of ‘the fattest cat in China’ in a 2007 video from a television channel proudly commented on his cat’s size: ‘When Chinese people improve their life, cats improve, too.’ And, indeed, according to a study published in 2012 (Sun et al.), at that time in Beijing, 23 per cent of cats were overweight and 6 per cent were obese—figures not too far behind that of humans in China, with the National Health Commission reporting in 2020 that more than half the adult population was overweight or obese. Second, it can be understood from a more urban perspective as part of the culture of cuteness expressed by the slang term meng (萌), influenced by kawaii culture in Japan.

The specular relation between humans and cats has deepened with the Covid-19 pandemic, when many employees started to work from home on their laptop with their cat sleeping next to them. In this situation, house cats reveal for pet owners the absurdity of their painful human condition in comparison with the cat’s comfortable and worry-free daily life. The relationship is even reversed when pet owners start calling themselves ‘officials who shovel poop’ (铲屎官) and their pets ‘masters’ (主子).

Although cat owners are inspired by their pets’ nonchalance, this amounts to a form of self-deception. Indeed, frustrated humans envy their cats for lazily sleeping throughout the day instead of realising that they have become apathetic because of their own boredom. The image of the sterilised house cat devoid of desires is the figure to which they tragically aspire. This is the self-deception of all the tangping believers who do not have the courage or the means to put their belief into practice. This is perhaps what the emoji face with tears of joy in my friend’s post expresses: it is less laughing at her cat’s comfortable life compared with her own than expressing her awareness that she cannot have such a coveted life. Interestingly, it has been reported that while the crying laughing emoji was listed as the most-used emoji on Twitter in 2020 (Yurieff 2021), it is considered ‘no longer cool’ by Generation Z, who prefer to use more sarcastic expressions such as the skull emoji—so much so that the crying laughing emoji is close to extinction on TikTok. The irony of Millennials has been replaced with the cynicism of the younger generations.

Lying Flat as Lying Low

The image of the lazy fat cat is the negation of the lying-flat attitude in that it is based on the capitalist imaginary that commodifies our relation to pets and animals in general. While tangping-ism aspires to the idea of autonomy, the portrayal of cats on social media conceals the fact that our relation to them is shaped by their dependency and their being dominated by humans. Radha O’Meara (2014) argues along these lines in an interesting article analysing how the consumption of cat videos functions through and reinforces the system of surveillance:

The lack of inhibition of cats in online videos means that we can exercise the power of surveillance without confronting the oppression this implies. Cat videos offer the illusion of watching the other without disturbing it, brandishing the weapon without acknowledging the violence of its impact.

The analogy between lazy fat cats and lying-flat-ism also contributes to ridiculing the very concept of tangping. The temptation to relate lying flat to laziness comes from the guilt and shame such a bodily position arouses, as expressed by Brunner (2013: 1) at the beginning of his book: ‘If you’re lying down right now, there’s no need to defend yourself.’ These are feelings we have all absorbed through our education and our experience of work. To contrast such a pejorative depiction of the lying-flat position, one of the most important anecdotes that comes to mind is the story of Michel de Montaigne—at a time before the alarm clock had been invented—asking his servant to wake him in the night so he could relish the inspiring experience of falling asleep a second time (Montaigne 1965: 494). As the servant shook his arm, the great essayist rose to sit and then fell back softly to lie flat in his bed. Montaigne’s philosophy argues that the pleasure of lying down is not simply lazy contentment but also a subject on which to ‘ruminate’ and thus a source of knowledge. Turning the concept of tangping into a headline, mainstream and social media have twisted its meaning, identifying it with lying down lazily, perhaps following the viral 2016 meme ‘Ge You lying down’ (葛优躺), showing famous actor Ge You slouching apathetically on a couch. A similar caricature was used by the Chinese Government, for example, in the official and repeated appropriation of the word tangping by the state press agency to disdainfully describe Western countries’ apparently more passive response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a ‘lie-flat approach’ compared with the zero-Covid policy enforced uncompromisingly in China until December 2022.

Figure 4: A still of actor Ge You slouching on a couch from the 1990s sitcom I Love My Family (我爱我家), which inspired the buzz-term ‘Ge You lying down’.

Mainstream and social media have often missed the deeper symbolic significance of the horizontal position. Luo Huazhong, the young man who popularised the concept of tangping with his post on the Baidu Tieba online forum entitled ‘Tangping Is Justice’ (躺平​即是正义), which was later perceived as the first manifesto of lying-flat-ism, described how he occasionally worked as an extra on movie sets at Hengdian World Studios (incidentally, the character heng [横] means ‘horizontal’), where he was sometimes paid to just lie on the ground pretending to be a corpse. Writing a post on the lying-flat attitude on his WeChat feed, Tsinghua University Professor of Sociology Sun Liping (2021) expressed how the tangping attitude could not be applied to the lowest classes of society: ‘To be able to lie flat you have to be alive, and if you’ve got nothing to live on, lying flat is not an option. Do we call “lying flat” lying flat when you’re dead?’ Based on Luo’s experience, we might contradict Professor Sun’s argument by stating that we can call the act of pretending to be dead ‘lying flat’. The image of the corpse also allows us to relate the concept of tangping to another slang term, tangqiang (躺枪)—the abbreviation of ‘躺着也中枪’, meaning ‘to get shot (even) when lying down’. It is an ironic, often self-mocking term that describes the absurdity of someone being unjustly or unintentionally targeted when innocent—for example, on the battlefield of internet slander. Thus, the horizontal position signifies our relation to the absurdity of our existence.

Rather than lazy fat cats, there is another meme that better represents the concept of tangping that has been circulating for a while on Chinese social media: the image of chives (韭菜, jiucai) lying on the ground. Because they slump on the ground, chives escape the harvester’s sickle. It is a metaphor that stems from the slang term jiucai—an old expression that appeared online at the end of the 2010s to suggest that young people were like chives in the way they were continuously harvested by the state to serve as a workforce and consumers. In a recent study, Pang Laikwan (2022: 86) underlined how the metaphor works through the biological characteristics of the plant as being very adaptative and easy to grow. Highlighting the fact that the plant regrows after being cut, she points out that Mao Zedong used the jiucai metaphor in this sense in a 1956 speech to emphasise the fact that, unlike jiucai, wrongfully executed anti-revolutionaries could not be brought back to life (Pang 2022: 95). Today, the metaphor implies that instead of fearing having one’s head cut off by society, it is safer for the jiucai generation to lie flat. It is tempting also to relate the symbolism of chives to its property in Chinese traditional medicine of improving men’s erections and fertility. We can also think of the exhortation to ‘arise!’, exclaimed throughout the Chinese national anthem—‘起来! 起来! 起来!’—as the twin, but inverse, concept of lying flat.

When there is no justice and no way to fight back, it is better to keep a low profile. The temptation to lie flat springs from the crisis of individuality felt by the younger generations in China. Their aspiration for society to recognise them in their particularity is crushed when they perceive themselves as nothing more than jiucai stems growing in the giant national field. Lying flat is lying low, avoiding unnecessary trouble. The expression ‘to keep a low profile’ unveils the relationship between the idea of one’s profile and the concept of individuality, as analysed by French historian Georges Vigarello (2012) in his study of the art of silhouette, which is drawing the outline of a person using the technique of shadow puppets, which developed in France during the second half of the eighteenth century. The word ‘silhouette’ comes from Etienne de Silhouette, Controller-General of Finances under Louis XV, who remained in office for less than a year because of his unpopular ‘tax the rich’ reform plan. Himself passionate about the profile art form, his name was first used mockingly to describe something unfinished (‘à la silhouette’) and subsequently for the artistic technique using the simplicity of the line to create a portrait. According to Vigarello, the motor of the art of silhouette was the search for differences between individuals physically but also in terms of bodily posture, while Western art had in previous centuries been a quest for universal ideal proportions. A profile was thus a celebration of one’s particularity. But within China’s current context of state capitalism based on standardisation, young people who have learned how to identify themselves through subjectivity can only protect their individuality by stepping out of the game. By avoiding the attention of the social order on their silhouette, the lying-flat-ers affirm their uniqueness.

The Horizon of Horizontal Living

The tangping attitude has been widely understood as a phenomenon of the young middle class. Professor Sun Liping (2021) draws the same analysis in his WeChat post:

For people at the bottom of society, the word ‘hope’ is often a luxury. Sure, they may lie down from time to time, but this is not a lifestyle they are looking for, this is just resting, or taking a break. And before they’ve caught their breath and rested up, they have to get back up and go to work.

Curiously, this type of comment seems to ignore the fact that Luo Huazhong, the instigator of the virality of the lying-flat attitude, was a factory worker when he decided to quit his job to travel by bike around China. Shawn Yuan (2022) reveals a similar profile for his interviewee Du Min, a woman who sells handmade wallets in the streets of Dali, Yunnan: ‘I quit my job as a fabrics factory worker a few months ago and have been roaming around the country doing random things or sometimes nothing … I like this—being free.’

The idea that young people from a poor social background do not have the privilege to imagine hope overlooks the fact that the digital divide between rural and urban youth has been considerably reduced in recent years with the popularisation of smartphones. Beyond the China Dream (中国梦) promised by the government, young people from rural areas dream through social media platforms, too. Even before smartphones became common, the ‘Smart’ (杀马特, Shamate) movement of the 2000s—–that is, the beginning of the epoch of QQ (or Tencent), the ‘grandaddy’ of China’s social media scene (Chen and Deng 2018)—showed how young people from poor rural backgrounds could adopt nonconformist ways of life despite their low economic and cultural capital. At that time, teenagers who had dropped out of school and left their villages to become underage workers in the factories of China’s major cities started donning extravagant hairstyles and coming together in groups for solidarity.

Their disillusionment with exhausting and uninteresting mechanical work and their dreams of a freer life were well portrayed in Li Yifan’s 2019 documentary We Were Smart (杀马特我爱你). Some of the ‘Smart’ interviewed in the film described how they felt the need to transform their hair to become fearless and to avoid being cheated by others, as well as to not remain invisible. For them, wearing colourful extravagant hairstyles was both a way to find some enjoyment in their extremely dull, hopeless, and painful lives and a way to defy the enslavement of their body and mind by the factory system. While they attempted to maintain their subjectivity within this exploitative system, their factory managers soon began to disapprove of their marginal silhouettes and to forbid the ‘Smart’ hairstyle on the assembly line. Consequently, some of these teenagers quit their jobs and started gathering in parks, lying flat and often hungry. Others eventually went back to their villages to farm, like a young man whom Li filmed working alone in his fishpond with his stylish long hair. With the development of social media in the 2010s, Shamate became the target of online mockery, and the continuous attacks eventually put an end to their attempt to live a horizontal life through the verticalisation of their hairstyle.

[Left] Figure 5: A still from Li Yifan’s film We Were Smart (2019) with young ‘Smart’ girls hanging out in the street. [Right] Figure 6: A still from Li Yifan’s film We Were Smart (2019), in which some ‘Smart’ youths express their willingness to stop working at the factory and do what they like.
The example of Zhou Liqi also demonstrates the existence of lying-flat-ism among lower social classes. A man from a poor social background, Zhou became famous in 2016 after a 2012 television interview of him while he was handcuffed at a police station in Shenzhen resurfaced online. On that occasion, he said he would never work for someone else (打工) in his lifetime, preferring instead to steal and spend his time in prison, where he could enjoy the presence of talented and interesting people whom he could not find in a ‘normal’ life. Nicknamed ‘Qie Guevara’ (qie [窃] meaning ‘to steal’) by netizens, he became a heroic figure for many young people in China. Apart from its comical appeal, his life philosophy went viral among people from different social classes because it addressed their feeling of alienation from work. After he was released from prison in 2020, he was approached by live-streaming agencies, offering him large sums of money, but he declined, preferring to follow his principle of never working for someone else. He later expressed publicly his desire to become a farmer.

Figure 7: A sketch portraying Zhou Liqi handcuffed at the police station created by a young graduate of a Chinese fine arts academy who was himself detained for a misdemeanour. He sent the photo of his drawing to my husband, Hu Jiamin, who was his cellmate when they spent several days in detention together. PC: The young graduate, with his permission.
Figure 7: A sketch portraying Zhou Liqi handcuffed at the police station created by a young graduate of a Chinese fine arts academy who was himself detained for a misdemeanour. He sent the photo of his drawing to my husband, Hu Jiamin, who was his cellmate when they spent several days in detention together. PC: The young graduate, with his permission.

There are numerous terms in Chinese that convey the idea of stepping out of the socioeconomic system, to the point that it is difficult to untangle their specificities. However, the first element that sets tangping apart from similar buzzwords is that it is less abstract as it concretely refers to a body position (lying flat) and an action (to lie down). Contrary to other ‘anti-system’ terms, tangping represents an attitude, not a lifestyle—the ‘Tangpingist Manifesto’ uses the word ‘posture’ (Anon. 2021a, 2021b). It is precisely because it is not a lifestyle that it can best transcend the differences between social classes. The young middle-class Chinese who move to the countryside forming communities that have a neo-hippy hue are not tangping-ers. The ‘Tangpingist Manifesto’ calls them (as well as other groups) ‘fellow travellers’ (同路人)—that is, people who travel out of the system but who are not genuine tangping-ers (Anon. 2021a, 2021b). Although its followers hope for a collective future, the tangping attitude today is synonymous with urban solitude. It is mostly in the city that tangping-ers find the temporary jobs that allow them to survive financially without committing themselves to the tyranny of stable employment.

While there seems to be a tendency among researchers in the social sciences to doubt or deny the potential of the tangping attitude among the lower social classes, they should perhaps reconsider how visionary thinkers like French philosopher André Gorz (1989: 192–93) described the way the middle class monopolises ‘skilled, complex, creative and responsible occupational activities’ to the detriment of lower social classes precisely by overworking. Thus, the fight for liberation from the ideology of work is not the fight of middle-class people whose aim is to ‘defend the rank and the position of strength their work affords them’ (Gorz 1989: 235), but rather the fight of the lower social classes. If the examples of the Shamate, Luo Huazhong, Du Min, or Zhou Liqi cannot be considered sociologically representative of a general tendency among the lower social classes, their very existence proves—politically—the potential of the tangping attitude to pertain to lower social classes. Tangping is further from Buddhist detachment and closer to Marxist radicalism. It is the most rebellious of all the anti-system buzzwords, and it includes all kinds of individuals. In the words of the ‘Tangpingist Manifesto’: ‘It tries to contact all those who refuse coercion and obedience, men and women, workers and the unemployed, citizens, farmers and nomads, hooligans, students and intellectuals, heterosexuals, homosexuals and other queer people, vagrants and pensioners’ (Anon. 2021a, 2021b).

More generally, tangping-ism aims to challenge the determinism of one’s social class and to conceive of social mobility beyond ascending hierarchical movements. By refusing the social power of the working position their education could grant them, some young middle-class people indirectly unite with the tangping-ers from lower social classes. An example can be seen in a young man interviewed by ABC News named Li Chuang, who went to live with monks in the Wudang Mountains after quitting his job as an editor, then returned to Beijing and opened a small grocery shop in the hutongs (Feng 2021). Or a friend of mine who, after five years living and studying in Europe and the United States, returned to her hometown in China to stay with her parents, living the life of an ‘unemployed roamer’ (无业游民). It is also the path I have chosen as a middle-class woman by quitting my academic career to fight against social stratification and for anticapitalist feminism.

The Philosophy of Stray Dogs

The inclusiveness of the tangping attitude corresponds with its universality. Following the internationalism of lying-flat-ism, I propose a French translation of tangping: ‘tant pis’. I believe the most revealing Chinese translations of concepts are the homophonous ones, like the translation ‘jishi’ (忌屎, literally, ‘to avoid shit’) for ‘kitsch’ proposed by a Taiwanese translator, which is both homophonic and etymologically close to Milan Kundera’s concept of kitsch. Tant pis conveys the idea of ‘whatever’ or ‘never mind’, with ‘pis’ meaning ‘worst’. Expressing resignation, it reveals one’s cynicism. Cynicism is a universal disposition adopted by young generations to make sense of the absurdity of their life under capitalism. In his post advocating for tangping, Luo Huazhong mentioned the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who gave up his mundane life to live in a barrel on the street. Like Diogenes, the ‘dog philosopher’ (the Greek etymology of cynicism, kynikos, means ‘dog-like’, and the Chinese translation, quanru 犬儒, follows the same etymology, with quan meaning ‘dog’), the horizon of horizontal living is not the philosophy of house cats but the philosophy of stray dogs who roam freely and determinedly, like the ‘calamitous dogs’ sung about by Charles Baudelaire in the last poem he wrote before his death, Les Bons Chiens (The Good Dogs), which made Richard D.E. Burton (1994: 466) describe Baudelaire as an ‘aristocratic cat poet’ turned into a ‘democratic dog poet’.

Several authors cast doubt on the agency of the tangping-ers because of their individualist attitude. Lili Lin and Diego Gullotta (2021: 27), for example, underline Pang Laikwan’s scepticism: ‘Pang does not romanticise the agency of jiucai and tangping; in her view, it is not this “subject” that can perform social transformation.’ The word ‘romanticise’ is Pang’s own lexical choice: ‘I do not want to romanticize this jiucai agency’ (Pang 2022: 96). Although Pang does not conclude with a definitive statement, she sees the lack of ‘intersubjective awareness’ (2022: 96) as an impediment to the agency of the jiucai. However, what appears unclear in her argument—and in the way Lin and Gullotta quote her—is that the term jiucai is used to indicate both the people being harvested by the socioeconomic system without being consistently aware of it (who can be called jiucai by the people who are aware of it; in Pang’s words, ‘every citizen becomes jiucai’ [Pang 2021]) and the people who are aware of being harvested by the socioeconomic system. Moreover, jiucai and tangping cannot be understood on the same analytical level: tangping-ers are jiucai who decided to step out of the system; they are jiucai who are lying flat and not just jiucai in general. It is precisely on the analytical level of tangping that the question of agency should be examined. In this sense, we can argue against the idea of a lack of ‘intersubjective awareness’ among the tangping-ers.

Figure 8: Stray dogs napping in Taiwan, recalling the poetics of Tsai Ming-liang’s film Stray Dogs (2013). PC: Marine Brossard.
Figure 8: Stray dogs napping in Taiwan, recalling the poetics of Tsai Ming-liang’s film Stray Dogs (2013). PC: Marine Brossard.

This is the point made by the ‘Tangpingist Manifesto’ when it takes the example of Diogenes to contradict the critiques analysing tangping as a selfish and reclusive attitude:

When Diogenes lay in his barrel and looked out at the world, he did not appear isolated. He did not shy away from advocating his ideas to passersby, and he placed the wooden barrel in the most prosperous road in the centre of the ancient Greek world. (Anon. 2021a, 2021b)

Non-individualistic individuality—which I would call ‘interior individuality’—is precisely the attitude that allows one to be available to others. This was well depicted by Milan Kundera in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, with its solitary characters, such as Franz, who prefers nature over prosaic civic matters: ‘What political party did Franz vote for? I am afraid he did not vote at all; he preferred to spend Election Day hiking in the mountains’ (1999: 258). Kundera praises individuality as the true subversive force towards the kitschification of reality. It is not selfishness, not egotism, but non-participation in kitschified collective forms with the hope of a new imagined sense of collectivity. Similarly, the tangping attitude is a political (and thus collective) act that demonstrates intersubjective awareness, as stated by the ‘Tangpingist Manifesto’: the tangping-ers ‘do not provide more leisure for themselves, but for others. They did not erect these shelters for themselves, but for all the oppressed’ (Anon. 2021a, 2021b).

Beyond the various criticisms of the tangping attitude, the challenge for horizontal philosophy is that it must defy the ideology of verticality that defines our existence under capitalism, the fluctuations in the graphs of economic growth and even in the materialisation of heartbeats. While everlasting fluctuation currently defines life, horizontalism envisions life through the stability of precariousness and the aesthetics of fragility. The anthropological etymology of the concept of involution (first used by anthropologist Clifford Geertz) invites us to imagine human life beyond our current socio-historical context. It is what anticapitalist anthropologist David Graeber proposed in his visionary work by drawing from anthropological and archaeological data that proved the potentiality of non-capitalist social models to develop a new imaginative force:

I was drawn to the discipline [of anthropology] because it opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence; because it served as a constant reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine. (Graeber 2007: 1)

In our globalised world, Graeber’s vision and more generally the philosophy of degrowth can enlighten the quest of the young generations for a path towards individual and collective fulfilment.


Featured Image: A man reading a book in the street in Paris, December 2021. PC: Hu Jiamin.


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Marine Brossard

Marine Brossard completed a PhD in Chinese Studies in France in 2018. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Riverscape of the Yangzi’s Three Gorges: Landscape and the National Imaginary in the People’s Republic of China’, examines the fate of a transformed national landscape and the exhaustion of the concept of ‘landscape’ by state capitalism in contemporary China, arguing for the subversive potential of the imagining of a new landscape appreciation in opposing the commodification of reality.

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