In China, the culture of work has changed radically over the years. Alongside those changes came a whole array of viral phrases, forever immortalized in the lexicon of the Chinese workplace. What are those phrases, and how have their meanings shifted? Why do China’s entrepreneurs, who once wanted to “jump into the sea” of the private sector, now aspire to “swim ashore”? Why is the phrase “996,” once glorified by tech workers as a symbol of hard work, now declared illegal? Burned out by an endless cycle of competition, what does it mean for someone to “lie flat,” “run,” or “let it rot”?
Jump into the sea 下海
In 1992, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping embarked on his renowned “Southern Tour” to Guangdong province, calling for accelerated market reforms. The Chinese people began to leave their stable government jobs for the booming private sector — a process that became known as xia hai or “jumping into the sea.” The phrase, which once referred to women engaging in prostitution, now described those who pursued the daring path of the entrepreneur. Soon, everyone was taking the plunge: Party officials opened restaurants, professors moonlighted as corporate consultants, and an English-language teacher named Jack Ma quit his job to start an internet company.
It was not just urban entrepreneurs who plunged into the private sector. As China’s economy opened up, hundreds of millions of rural workers flocked to the cities in search of new opportunities. Although they changed jobs frequently, moving from one gig to the next in hopes of making money quickly, they never truly belonged: barred from the social services given to urban residents, but also unable to return home to the countryside. In 1995, after Chinese anthropologist Xiang Biao described migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta as “suspended” between the city and the countryside, the term was popularized. Imagine a “hummingbird, frantically vibrating its wings,” Biao writes. “The bird struggles hard but moves nowhere, yet it is incapable of landing.”
Fast forward more than two decades after Deng’s Southern Tour. Tech companies were no longer playgrounds for daring entrepreneurs. All kinds of white-collar workers had joined the tech industry, hustling hard in hopes of cashing in and climbing the ladder of success. But by 2016, the term 996, once used to describe their grueling work hours (9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week), was no longer being worn as a badge of honor. It was now being uttered with despair, and had even spawned new iterations like “007” (working 24 hours a day, seven days a week). Some tech workers were so frustrated that in 2019, they created a GitHub group called 996.ICU to share their inhumane work schedules and demand better working conditions. By 2021, the uproar had grown so loud that the government declared 996 working hours as “illegal.” How the new work hours are being regulated, however, remains unclear.
Good Morning, Laborer! 早安, 打工人
In 2020, “Good Morning, Laborer” became the new, ironic greeting among China’s tech workers, after the phrase went viral on social media platform Bilibili. The term “laborer” or dagongren was originally used to describe migrant workers who had moved to the city to work in factories and on construction sites. But in recent years, it has become one of the many words that white-collar employees have appropriated from blue-collar work to complain about their jobs: tedious, repetitive, and low-paying. Other phrases include ban zhuan (搬砖) or “moving bricks,” shechu (社畜) or “corporate cattle,” and jiabangou, meaning “overtime dog.”
Once an obscure academic term used by anthropologists to explain why agrarian societies failed to progress, “involution” or neijuan is now used to describe a widespread sentiment of burnout and ennui. Those who are “involuted” find themselves trapped in an endless and meaningless cycle of competition, unable to get out. In 2020, a university student riding his bike while working on his laptop was captured in a viral photo, and was dubbed “The Involuted King.” Since then, the term is used by people from all walks of life: software engineers clocking 996 hours at the office, delivery workers hustling from one gig to the next, and even stay-at-home mothers vying to get their children into the best kindergartens.
Lying Flat 躺平
In 2021, in response to the crisis of “involution,” Chinese workers began to stop working altogether. They decided to “lie flat.” Luo Huazhong, a factory worker in China who had quit his job, wrote a blog post titled “Lying Flat Is Justice,” which went viral as an anti-consumerist manifesto. One of its most popular slogans was: “Don’t buy property, don’t buy a car, don’t get married, don’t have children, don’t consume. Maintain the lowest possible standard of living. Don’t become a machine for others to make money or a slave to be exploited.” So popular was the sentiment that it was reincarnated in the U.S. in the form of “quiet quitting.”
Swim Ashore 上岸
In a stark departure from the early 2000s, when civil servants had quit their jobs to join the private sector, in 2022, Chinese workers began to ditch their entrepreneurial dreams for stable government jobs. Instead of “jumping into the sea,” they were now shang’an, or swimming back ashore. In November 2022, a record number of people registered for China’s annual civil service exam in pursuit of the security of state employment. “Civil servant chic” became popular on the social media app Xiaohongshu, which began featuring young men who dressed like government officials. Some even decided to become security guards, popularizing the hashtag #SecurityGuardDiary to glorify their low-key work lives.
If Chinese tech talent once hankered to come home, drawn to the once-abundant opportunities in China’s dynamic tech sector, the tides have turned. After 2021’s crackdowns on Big Tech, and 2022’s crippling zero-Covid lockdowns in metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, the nation’s best and brightest are once again looking for ways to leave. One of the hottest topics of discussion on social media is how to “run,” meaning escape or emigrate. It uses the Chinese character 润 whose Pinyin version is spelled like the English word “run.” On GitHub, users have created a “run philosophy” page to crowdsource information on “why to run, where to run, and how to run.” It’s even spawned the meme “China Resources Vanguard,” based on the name of a popular grocery store, which also translates to “Chinese are fleeing to all over the world.”
Let it Rot 摆烂
For those who do not want to swim ashore and do not have the means to run, there is one last option: to let it rot. The term bailan, which means to let something rot, allegedly comes from basketball. It refers to when a team deliberately tries to lose to hasten the end of a game. Now, the phrase also captures a more general attitude of nihilism towards work and life. Instead of trying to improve a dire situation, to let it rot is to not only accept failure but revel in it. In other words, as a Chinese proverb puts it, “dead pigs are not afraid of boiling water” (死猪不怕开水烫).