Meet the despondent Chinese millennials binging on ‘mental opium’
"Sang" culture, which revels in often-ironic defeatism, is viewed as a reaction to the cut-throat competition for good jobs in a slowing economy, and, by China's authorities, as unpatriotic. Having developed online, it now even has its own brands, such as the best-selling "sitting-around-and-waiting-to-die" tea
Chinese millennials with a dim view of their career and marriage prospects at least have the luxury of being able to wallow in despair with a range of teas with names like “achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea,” and “my-ex’s-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea.”
While the drink names at the Sung chain of tea stalls are tongue-in-cheek, the sentiment they reflect is serious: a significant number of young Chinese with high expectations have become discouraged and embrace an attitude known on social media as “sang,” after a Chinese character associated with the word “funeral” that describes being dispirited.
“Sang” culture, which revels in often-ironic defeatism, is fueled by internet celebrities, through music and the popularity of certain mobile games and TV shows, as well as sad-faced emojis and pessimistic slogans.
It is viewed by many as a reaction to the cut-throat competition for good jobs in an economy that isn’t as robust as it was a few years ago and where home-ownership – long seen as a near-necessity for marriage in China – is increasingly unattainable in major cities as apartment prices have soared.
“Our media and society have shoved too many success stories down our throat. ‘Sang’ is a quiet protest against society’s relentless push for achieving the traditional notion of success. It is about admitting that you just can’t make it”
“I wanted to fight for socialism today but the weather is so freaking cold that I’m only able to lay on the bed to play on my mobile phone,” writes 27 year-old Zhao Zengliang, a “sang” internet personality, in one post. “It would be great if I could just wake up to retirement tomorrow,” she says in another.
Such ironic humour is lost on China’s ruling Communist Party.
In August, Sung Tea was called out for peddling “mental opium” by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, which described sang culture in an editorial as “an extreme, pessimistic and hopeless attitude that’s worth our concern and discussion”.
“Stand up, and be brave. Refuse to drink ‘sung tea’, choose to walk the right path, and live the fighting spirit of our era,” it said.
China’s State Council Information Office did not reply to a request for comment for this story.
While “sang” can be a pose or affectation, despondency among a segment of educated young people is a genuine concern for President Xi Jinping and his government, which prizes stability.
The intensifying censorship of media and cyberspace in the run-up to autumn’s Communist Party congress, held once every five years, extends even to negativity, with regulations issued in early June calling for “positive energy” in online audiovisual content.
Later that month, some young netizens were frustrated when Bojack Horseman, an animated American TV series about a half-man/half-horse former sitcom star, and popular among the “sang” generation for his self-loathing and cynicism, was pulled from the Chinese streaming site iQiyi.
“Screw positive energy,” commented Vincent, a 27-year old Weibo user, under a post announcing the news.
A spokesperson at iQiyi said the decision to remove Bojack Horseman was due to “internal process issues” but declined to give further details.
Social media and online gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd has even gone on the counterattack against “sang” culture. It has launched an ad campaign around the Chinese word “ran” – which literally means burning and conveys a sense of optimism – with slogans such as “every adventure is a chance to be reborn.”
Undermining “sang” may take some doing.
“Sang” is also a rebellion against the at-all-costs, striving culture of contemporary urban China. Tied to that is intense social and family pressure to succeed, which typically comes with the expectation that, as members of the one-child generation, offspring will support aging parents and grandparents.
Zhao’s online posts, often tinged with dark humor, have attracted almost 50,000 fans on the microblogging site Weibo. Zhao turned the subject into a book last year: “A Life Where You Can’t Strive for Success All The Time.”
While China’s roughly 380 million millennials – now aged, according to most definitions, between 18 and 35 – have opportunities that earlier generations would have found unimaginable, they also have expectations that are becoming harder to meet.
The average starting salary for college graduates dropped by 16% this year to 4,014 yuan (US$608) per month amid intensifying competition for jobs as a record eight million graduate from Chinese universities – nearly ten times the number in 1997.
Even among elite “sea turtles” – those who return after studying overseas, often at great expense – nearly half of 2017 graduates earned less than 6,000 yuan per month, a Zhaopin.com survey found, with 70% of respondents saying their pay is “far below” expectations.
Home ownership is a near-universal aspiration in China, but it is increasingly difficult to get on the property ladder in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
The average two-bedroom home on Beijing’s resale market costs around 6 million yuan (US$909,835), after prices surged 36.7% in 2016, according to Fang.com, China’s biggest real estate website. That’s about 70 times the average per capita disposable income in the city; the ratio is less than 25 times for New York City.
A survey by the E-House China R&D Institute found that median per person rent in Beijing – where, according to Ziroom.com, most of the estimated eight million renters are millennials – has risen 33% in the past five years to 2,748 yuan a month, in June, equivalent to 58% of median income in the city. The costs often mean that young Chinese workers have to live on the edges of cities, with long, stressful journeys to work.
Financial pressures also contribute to young Chinese waiting longer to get married.
In Nanjing, a major eastern city, the median age for first marriages rose to 31.6 last year, from 29.9 in 2012, official data showed.
“Sang” contrasts with the optimism of those who entered adulthood during the years of China’s double-digit economic growth in previous decades. That generation was motivated by career prospects and life quality expectations that their parents and grandparents, who had learned to “eat bitter” during tougher times, could only dream of.
“Our media and society have shoved too many success stories down our throat,” said Zhao. “‘Sang’ is a quiet protest against society’s relentless push for achieving the traditional notion of success. It is about admitting that you just can’t make it.”
It is also a symptom of the lack of channels for young adults to vent their frustrations, a survey of 200 Chinese university students by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), essentially a state think tank, found in June.
“The internet itself is a channel for them to release pressure but due to censorship it’s impossible to do so by openly venting,” Xiao Ziyang, a CASS researcher, told Reuters. “It’s necessary for the government to exercise public opinion control to prevent social problems.”
Sung Tea founder Xiang Huanzhong, 29, says he expects pressure on young Chinese adults will only grow, citing the aging of the country’s population as a particular burden for the young.
“The internet itself is a channel for them to release pressure but due to censorship it’s impossible to do so by openly venting. It’s necessary for the government to exercise public opinion control to prevent social problems”
Xiang has capitalized on the trend with products named after popular “sang” phrases. The chain has outlets in 12 cities after opening its first permanent tea stall in July in Beijing, where a best-selling “sitting-around-and-waiting-to-die” matcha milk tea costs 18 yuan.
Xiang says he chose “tame” names, leaning towards the self-deprecating, for his products so as not to attract censure from authorities.
He takes issue with the People’s Daily’s critical editorial. “It didn’t try to seriously understand at all,” he says.
Wang Hanqi, 21, a student at Nanjing Audit University, sought out Sung Tea after hearing about it on social media. “I’m a bit disappointed that the names for the tea are not ‘sang’ enough,” he says in an interview outside the Beijing stall.