But bai lan has a more worrying layer in the way it is being used by young people in China: to actively embrace a deteriorating situation, rather than trying to turn it around. It is close to other Chinese phrases, for example 'to smash a cracked pot' (破罐破摔) and 'dead pigs are not afraid of boiling water' (死猪不怕开水烫).
State media have taken note of this trend. "Why modern young Chinese like to 'bai lan'?" one recent article in official media outlet asked. "In fact, this is as a result of negative auto suggestion, repeatedly telling oneself I cannot make it… And this kind of mentality often leads people to adopt the 'bai lan' attitude."
But the reality is not quite as state media suggested, says Sal Hang, a 29-year-old creative industry professional in Beijing. He says that for his generation of young Chinese, this attitude of letting things rot is likely to be caused by a lack of social mobility and increased uncertainty in today's China.
"Unlike my parents' generation, young Chinese today have much bigger expectations, but there are many more uncertainties for us, too. For example, we cannot make any long-term plans for our lives anymore, because we do not know what is going to happen to us even five years down the road."