"That's easy for you to say", planting grass and idioms about ulterior motives

Slow Chinese Newsletter 每周漫闻


Welcome to Slow Chinese 每周漫闻.

My words of the week:

  1. Colloquialism of the week: what people are saying about Lying Flat-ism (躺平主义)

    站着说话不腰疼 (Zhànzhe shuōhuà bù yāoténg): standing up talking doesn’t give you backache - “That’s easy for you to say”

  2. Word of the week: how to sell China Chic (国潮) products online through influencers

    种草 - Zhòng Cǎo: planting grass - “targeted selling”

  3. Idiom of the week: China’s response to the lab leak theory

    居心叵测 (Jūxīnpǒcè) - ulterior motives

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1. What people are saying about “Lying Flat-ism” 躺平主意 (Tǎng píng Zhǔyì)

China’s Generation Z are are lying flat in the face of ‘involution’ (内卷 Nèi juǎn) - unfair or intense competition in Chinese society.

From SCMP:

The attitude [of lying flat] is seen to represent a silent protest to unfairness, often the result of structural and institutional factors that can no longer be altered by personal efforts

Definition of lying flat-ism:



No consumption, no work, and no communication with the outside world; do not buy houses, cars, don’t marry, don’t have children; maintain the minimum standards of survival, refusing to be profit-making machines and be exploited as slaves for others. "Lying flat-ists" only care about themselves, not others.

The official narrative on lying flat-ism is that young Chinese need to:

保持清醒认识,一哂之后仍然砥砺前行、勇于逐梦 - Keep a clear mind, continue to forge ahead and bravely work towards their dreams

But, this misses the point that lying flat-ists are making, and underestimates the challenges they face. It’s…

  • 站着说话不腰疼 (Zhànzhe shuōhuà bù yāoténg) - “standing up while talking, doesn’t give you backache”; meaning - ‘easy for you to say’ or ‘easier said than done’


    To avoid talking about what has caused lying flat, and simply criticising this behaviour, to put it mildly it’s evading key issues; to put it more seriously, this is easy for others to say [but they have no idea what they are talking about]

The unfairness faced by lying flat-ists is captured in this single confusing sentence:


Edited Google Translation:

"Small town expert test takers" thought that when they went to college, the Carp would Jump through the Dragon's Gate. But after falling down, they fell into a spicy hot pot and found that they had become "985 trash."

To understand it, you need to know these three phrases:

  • 小镇做题家 (Xiǎo zhèn zuò tí jiā) - ‘small town expert test taker’

    Students from small towns at prestigious universities who got there with brilliant test scores from school. Once at uni, they realise there’s a huge gap between themselves and kids from middle or upper-class families in big cities, who have ‘better resources, more vision and more confidence’.

  • 鲤鱼跳了龙门 (Lǐyú tiàole lóngmén) - the Carp Jumped the Dragon Gate [becoming a dragon]

    Ancient Chinese folklore about the Yellow River Carp (黄河鲤鱼 - Huánghé lǐyú), a golden-scaled fish and one of the few that can survive the muddy water of the Yellow River. Legend has it that if the carp jumps over the Dragon Gate (in Yellow River Canyon in Hejin City, Shanxi Province) it will become a dragon. It’s a metaphor for describing brilliant people who have succeeded against all odds through hard work.

  • 985废物 (Jiǔbāwǔ Fèiwù) - [Project] 985 trash

    Project 985 (985工程 - Jiǔbāwǔ gōngchéng) was a programme to develop China’s elite universities announced at the 100th anniversary of Peking University on May 4, 1998. The name derives from the date of the announcement - May 1998, or 98/5. Its ‘waste products’ or ‘trash’ are students who have have graduated from elite universities but not gone on to have successful careers. On 10 May, 2020, a small group on Dou Ban was formed called 985废物引进计划 - ‘985 trash introduction plan’ for graduates to share their experiences. Within 3 months nearly 100,000 members had joined the group.

Useful Words

There are some useful three-character words in this story:

  • 气不过 (Qì bùguò) - colloquial way to say ‘furious’, ‘beside oneself with rage’

    回老家气不过,留在北上广深则受尽压榨 - going back to their family home fills them with anger; but staying in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, they are squeezed for everything they’ve got

  • 拖下水 (Tuō xiàshuǐ) - dragged under water; pulled down [slightly different to 拖后腿 which means to hold someone back - see 8 May newsletter]

    就像是一个激流中的“漩涡”,要把游近的人拖下水 - it’s like being [trapped within an] eddy in a torrent of water, it sucks anyone down who swims into it

  • 费脑筋 (Fèi nǎojīn) - rack one’s brains

    他不愿意费脑筋,就这么无所事事地混日子 - he doesn’t want to bother racking his brains [for a solution], he simply wants to waste his days away


Here are five idioms about how China’s involuted society makes you feel:

  • 筋疲力尽 (Jīn pí lì jìn) - exhausted

    不愿意被卷入这种令人筋疲力尽的社会现实 - not willing to be sucked into the reality of this exhausting society

  • 疲惫不堪 (Píbèi bùkān) - exhausted

    没想到这些工作让人疲惫不堪 - who would have through that this work would have been so exhausting

  • 不堪重负 (Bùkān zhòngfù) - overwhelmed

    让他们羸弱(Léiruò)的身体不堪重负 - overwhelms their weak bodies

  • 外焦里嫩 (Wài jiāo lǐ nèn) - ‘burnt on the outside, tender on the inside’ [normally means ‘surprised’; similar to 被雷到了; but here it means ‘exhausted’]

    被“内卷”得外焦里嫩了 - involution has burnt them to a crisp

  • 同流合污 (Tóngliúhéwū) - ‘flow with the polluted river’; be led astray; taken to a dark place

    不愿意同流合污地被“内卷” - not willing to led astray [into a dark place] by involution


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2. How to sell China Chic: by “planting grass” (种草 - Zhòng Cǎo)

Domestic brands are on the rise in China.

Here are three words you need to know to talk about it:

  • 国潮 (Guó cháo) - ‘China tide’; China Chic

    主打国潮与国风,用年轻人喜欢的方式展现手工布鞋的独特魅力 - Mainly focusing on China chic and China style, showing the unique charm of handmade cloth shoes in a way that appeals to young people

  • 国货 (Guó huò) - Chinese brands; domestic brands

    在消费升级、产业升级两大趋势下,诸多新国货品牌崛起 - many new domestic brands have risen with the two major trends of consumption upgrading and industrial upgrading

  • 爆品 (Bào pǐn) - ‘explosive product’; best selling product [also, bào kuǎn - 爆款)

    成为爆款之前,99%的国货死在了路上 - 99% of domestic products fail on the way before becoming a best selling product

According to a Baidu report:


Attention on China Chic (国潮) has increased by 528% in the past 10 years. In 2021, the attention on domestic brands (国货) will reach three times that of foreign brands.

A 13 min documentary by online selling superstar, Li Jiaqi, “Proudly Made in China” (爆款中国), is worth a watch for language learners wanting to get into the topic.

Li Jiaqi is one of China’s biggest live e-commerce (电商直播 Diàn shāng zhíbò) sellers. This kind of targeted selling is called:

  • 种草 (Zhòng cǎo) - ‘planting grass’ - to promote or talk about about how fantastic a product is in order to get people to buy it; I would translate as ‘targeted selling’

    用各种方式跟用户沟通、销售和种草 - use all kinds of ways to communicate with customers, sell to them and promote [products] for them to buy

Here, ‘grass’ (草 - cǎo) means ‘desire’ or ‘need’. There are three other related words:

  • 拔草 (Bá cǎo): ‘pull up grass’ - stopping yourself from wanting to buy something (you’ve either gone off it, or you don’t have enough money)

  • 长草 (Zhǎng cǎo): ‘growing grass’ - once you’ve bought the product, the desire to buy another keeps growing; you become a true fan

  • 草族 (Cǎo zú): ‘grass tribe’ - someone who spends most of their income on a particular brand they love [also called 月光族 - ‘spend all wages tribe’]

Useful words

Li Jiaqi uses some useful colloquialisms (ancient and modern) in the documentary:

  • 遇到风口,猪也可以飞起来 (Yù dào fēngkǒu, zhū yě kěyǐ fēi qǐlái) - ‘a pig can fly if it catches the right wind’

    Also known as 飞猪理论 - “flying pig theory”. It’s a famous quote from Xiaomi founder, Lei Jun, which has become Chinese entrepreneurial legend. Finding the right 风口 (‘the next big thing’ - see 20 Feb newsletter) is trying to become the next flying pig.

  • 初生牛犊不怕虎 (Chūshēng niúdú bùpà hǔ) - ‘newborn calves are not afraid of tigers’

    Baby cows don’t know fear - referring to young Chinese entrepreneurs who are fearless and will be able to achieve anything. [Also - 无知者无畏 (Wú zhì zhě wúwèi) - the ignorant are fearless; ‘ignorance is bliss’]

  • 天时地利人和 (Tiānshí dìlì rén hé) - ‘Favourable weather conditions, geographic advantages, and the unity of the people’

    From Mencius (孟子) - meaning being in the right time, the right place with the right people around an opportunity; ‘favourable conditions’


Finally, must-know idioms for entrepreneurs in China - all of which can deployed in converstional Chinese:

  • 向死而生 (Xiàng sǐ ér shēng) - ‘moving towards - death - living’ - meaning pushing yourself to the absolute limit (also has a feel of ‘reinventing yourself’ through continued failures and hardships)

    本来做创业,就是向死而生 - being entrepreneur means you push yourself beyond your limits

  • 必争之地 (Bì zhēng zhī dì) - critical battle ground

    国货彩妆崛起,底妆成为“兵家必争之地” - foundation makeup has become a key battleground with the rise of domestic makeup brands in China

  • 舍命狂奔 (Shěmìng kuángbēn) - ‘giving your life and running fast’ - giving everything you’ve got

    当机会来的时候,你要舍命狂奔 - when an opportunity presents itself, you have to go for it with everything you’ve got

  • 摸爬滚打 (Mō pá gǔn dǎ) - struggling through

    摸爬滚打了那么久,突然间发现在前面又一束光 - having struggled for so long, we could finally see a glimmer of light before us

  • 添砖加瓦 (Tiānzhuānjiāwǎ) - adding bricks and tiles; ‘adding more’

    为国货美妆添砖加瓦 - bringing more [value / variety] to the domestic makeup market


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3. Idiom of the week: ‘Ulterior motives’ - 居心叵测 (Jū xīn pǒ cè)

The Covid-19 lab leak hypothesis has gained momentum again this week.

  • 中国实验室泄漏论 (Zhōngguó shíyàn shì xièlòu lùn)

From the BBC:

US President Joe Biden has ordered intelligence officials to "redouble" efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19, including the theory that it came from a laboratory in China.

There are no surprises in China’s response. But there are some good idioms that can be used in daily life:

  • 居心叵测 (Jū xīn pǒ cè) - having ulterior motives

    美国发表了一份居心叵测的声明,发起新一轮病毒溯源说,将目标再次对准中国 - America has published a report that has ulterior motives, starting another round of discussions about tracing the virus, putting the focus on China again

    In daily life you can use this one if someone pays you an over-the-top compliment. It means - ‘what are you up to?’ ‘Why are you being so nice to me?’

    Another similar idiom is: 居心不良 (Jūxīn bùliáng) - ‘negative intentions’ (not so useful in daily life)

    居心 (Jūxīn) also means ‘negative intent’, which Zhao Lijian used in the MFA press conference in responding to a question about the report:

    美国不深刻反思,反而企图甩锅中国。我想问一问,他们居心何在,良心何安?The US does not reflect deeply, but instead tries to blame China. I would like to ask, where are their [negative] intentions, where is their conscience?

  • 志同道合 (Zhìtóngdàohé) - likeminded

    美国将继续与志同道合的伙伴合作,敦促中国参与全面、透明、以证据为基础的国际调查 - The US will continue to work with like-minded partners to urge China to participate in a comprehensive, transparent, evidence-based international investigation

  • 疑云重重 (Yíyún chóngchóng) - layer upon layer of suspicion

    我还想强调,德特里克堡基地疑云重重 - also want to emphasise that the Fort Derick Base is full of suspicions

    Ok, so this is not that useful in daily life but I included it anyway. I first spotted this word in the Sup China Access Newsletter.


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Further Reading

More on Involution 内卷 and Lying Flat-ism 躺平主义:

  • The New Yorker: China’s “Involuted” Generation - This is the best and most comprehensive article I’ve found on the subject so far, concluding that:

    China’s affliction of involution is no different from America’s cutthroat meritocracy. But China’s crisis is unique in the severity of its myopia and its methods of entrapment. The young high schooler, disillusioned with the monotony of school, cannot easily access subversive subcultures or explore alternative ways of living, because, increasingly, that information is deemed “vulgar” or “immoral” and banned by the government, scrubbed from the digital sphere in the name of “promoting positive energy.” The delivery driver, seeking better working conditions, can’t protest his grievances or organize his fellow workers in an independent union, because he rightly fears that he will be detained. The disillusioned office worker, instead of taking action, will more likely sink deeper into his desk chair. Involution is a new word that helps keep an old system, and those who control it, in place.

  • Sixth Tone: Tired of Running in Place, Young Chinese ‘Lie Down’ - A great background read into how Lying Down-ism came about, and what it means.

    [L]ying down can be seen as the opposite of involution… In a relatively good social environment, people may feel involuted, but at least they’re trying…. If it’s worse, people will tang ping.

  • Sixth Tone: In ‘Involuted’ China, Eating Disorders Are a Hidden Epidemic - another excellent read from Sixth Tone (eating disorders in Chinese: 进食障碍 - Jìnshí zhàng'ài), with the best translation of 内卷 I have found:

    Cases of anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder have skyrocketed in recent years, with health experts placing blame on China’s social “involution” — or intense social competition — and toxic beauty standards that encourage extreme weight loss.

  • Slow Chinese: You're not listening, conspiracy theories and unhealthy competition - my original translation of 内卷:

    The English translation is ‘involution’. Not very helpful or useful in my opinion. 

    The definition in Chinese is: 

    某个领域中发生了过度的竞争,导致人们进入了互相倾轧、内耗的状态 - fierce ‘over-competition’ in one sector which causes in-fighting and internal friction

    So it’s better translated as: “unhealthy competition” [Tbh, I prefer the Sixth Tone translation]

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That’s it for this week. 

Thanks for reading. 

I’ll see you in your inbox around the same time next Saturday. 

AND please do help share this newsletter with fellow Chinese learners and China watchers…

Thank you!

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