A popular trend among the younger generation in China today is “lying flat.“ An article in ChinaSource Quarterly last year, “Meet China’s Gen Z,” mentioned the phenomenon. In this article from 有盏灯 we are reminded of another “lying flat” available to followers of Jesus.
There Is a Different Way of “Lying Flat”
“The Leisure Class” in the 21st Century
Thorstein Bunde Veblen, a famous American economist in the 19th century, wrote a sensational book titled The Theory of the Leisure Class. This book tartly criticizes some phenomena among the American upper class of whom he was a member, such as the deepening of class divisions, the rise of monopolies, and individuals pursuing interests and wealth in order to demonstrate their social status but looking down on laborers engaged in productive labor.
Veblen believes that in such societal circumstances, the measure of a person’s wealth and social status does not depend on how long he participated in labor, but how short. Since labor was considered evidence of poverty, a disgrace not to be spoken of; then “leisure,” meaning sufficient resources for lazy days, becomes convincing evidence of wealth and power without doing any labor. In other words, freedom of time, instead of financial freedom, becomes the ultimate goal in life.
However, Veblen could not have anticipated a new “leisure class” appearing in human society more than a century later. Different from Veblen’s “leisure class,” these people are not the ones who own top wealth and status. In fact, they fully understand that they will never be able to achieve a respectable life through struggle, competition, and hard work under the backdrop of the current social and economic structure. Therefore, they willingly reduce their desires and do not want to be exploited by capitalists. Instead of being “slaves” to their apartment, car, children, or consumerism, they choose to bypass financial freedom and go directly to “freedom of time.” To borrow lines from Haizi’s1 poem, their ideal state is: “Starting from tomorrow, be a happy lying-flat man, feeding horses, chopping wood, and travelling around the world . . .”
We call them the “lying flat clan.” They refuse to progress along the track predetermined by mainstream society and refuse to be bounded by secular success and struggle, but rather choose to have their own time and live at ease.
If you want to join the “leisure class” or “lying flat class” of this era, you do not need to have enough money or a high social status, but rather lower your desires and social expectations. After all, for the “lying flat clan,” life is short and bitter, so seizing the day and having fun is the only way to go. As long as you are willing, you can immediately become a member of the “leisure class.”
Faster but Not Better
In 1930, as the United States was facing the longest and most far-reaching economic depression of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, a famous economist, edited a speech that he gave at Cambridge University two years previously, and published it with the title “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” In this article, he argues that because of the coming “unemployment caused by technological progress,” people have to face an eternal problem, which is: When they are no longer constrained by pressing economic issues, how could they make full use of the freedom and leisure brought by technology and compound interest to live wisely and comfortably?2
Keynes was only right in part. In modern society, especially in cities, because of the rapid development of technology, people are no longer worried about questions of food and clothing. However, urban life has not, as a result, become leisurely and comfortable. On the contrary, it has become busier and increasingly anxiety inducing. Yet, the “lying flat” phenomenon is actually a non-violent protest against this strange phenomena of “faster but not better.”
There are many examples of “faster but not better.” For instance, in the era of the internet, various shopping platforms and payment means have simplified the shopping process, but also encourages people to spend tomorrow’s money and have to work even harder to earn money. Though the invention of social software has increased the speed of communication and saves costs, it also increasingly blurs the boundaries between work and life.
Furthermore, advertising and fast fashion not only increase profit through speed, but also suck away people’s time. According to Mark C. Taylor, advertisers not only respond to consumers’ needs, but, more deadly, they try to shape consumers’ desires. The fast fashion industry encourages impulsive consumption which speeds up the introduction and obsolescence of their goods, so that customers worry that the product they are debating over may no longer be available the next day.3 This creates a loop of “making money—spending money—making more money—spending more money.” The educational rat race is another example. It has pushed group after group of parents to invest huge economic and time resources in their children to try to help their children win at the starting line.
All these factors form the context of “lying flat.” Faster is not better. The more desires people have, the fewer rigid needs they have. The more they work overtime, the less health they have. The greater the pressures, the less clear one’s identity becomes.
Within this context, “lying flat” is a way to escape being controlled by inner desires and external pressures. It is a way to resist the alienation of speed and desire, and the harm caused by anxiety and pressures, and eventually to make man the measure of all things.4
Rest that Comes from Knowing God
From a certain point of view, no matter how rapid the transformation experienced by the outer world, the movement of history is defined by the collection of the movement of individuals. According to Hegel’s dialectics, history has its own direction and purpose, and no matter how tortuous the process is, the two opposing forces existing in each era can always lead mankind to a better epoch through constant competition.5
In contrast, the historical changes described by Karl Marx are more in line with the current situation. Marx believed that history often goes backwards, and is the continual process of people constantly being alienated and their relationship with the world continually deteriorating.6 Though it seems that people have created more and more tools to lead to a happy life, yet they are often defined by various ideologies and sympathies. While the life experiences of some people are improved, the greater number of people fall into confusion and bondage. The concept of “lying flat” is very popular among young people for this reason: It is their struggle for self-liberation under the oppression of the great conspiracy of capitalism, consumerism, the pursuit of success above all else, and the glorification of instrumental rationality.
This self-liberation reflects exactly the Preacher’s description of life: “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 2:22). Furthermore, the rat race always wears life down, as Job said: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope” (Job 7:6). It is also as Paul said: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). Because of the fall of the ancestors of mankind, human beings can only continue to survive “in pain” and “by the sweat of your face” (See Genesis 3:17–19).
However, the freedom obtained by the humanist “lying flat” still largely remains at the stage of “passive freedom”—shaking off external interference and demands, not having to run the exhausting rat race. This is not true freedom. Nineteenth-century Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth once said: “The first duty of every soul is to find not its freedom but its Master.” Jesus told us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). It turns out that in Jesus’ day, people also suffered pressures and burdens, but Jesus’ invitation stretches across the generations so that all with heavy burdens can find rest in him.
In Old Testament times, God set up the Sabbath for the people of Israel, demanding that they “lie flat” That they do not do any work, but “keep it holy” (See Exodus 20:10). The purpose of the Sabbath is not to allow people to spend the day lazily and without meaning, but to remember God’s grace. The true “lying flat” is the sense of security that comes from finding one’s ultimate purpose through knowing God. It is active freedom that pursues God as the source of meaning in our lives, instead of being enslaved by the endless desires in our hearts.
Because of knowing God, David knew what truly “lying flat” was. God not only taught him how to “lie flat” physically—”He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:2), but also to “lie flat” spiritually—”and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Paul was also one to “lie flat.” He once told Timothy ” but if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8), and even to “[suffer] the loss of all things and count them as rubbish” for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:8).
Though there is value in living a simple life of “lying flat,” not being bound by worldly desires, only through knowing God will you gain true freedom and true rest. Only then will your soul truly “lie flat.”
Editor’s note: This post was updated with correct link information on June 16, 2022.
- Translator’s note: A famous modern Chinese poet.
- “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” by John Maynard Keynes, available at: http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf. Accessed on June 14, 2021.
- Mark C. Taylor, Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left. (Yale University Press, 2014). Chinese version quoted was published by China University of Political Science and Law Press, November 2018, and the quote found on page 166.
- The line “‘Lying flat’ makes man the measure of all things” comes from a post titled “Lying Flat Is Righteousness.”
- For Hegel’s dialectics on the change and historical development of human consciousness, please refer to his book The Phenomenology of Spirit.
- For Marx’s theories on social exploitation and human alienation, please refer to his Manuscripts of Economics and Philosophy in 1844.
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