Say it with Sang

For Chi­nese mil­len­ni­als tired of the rat race, de­spon­dency now has a brand name. By Yawen Chen and Tony Mun­roe in Bei­jing

Bangkok Post - - ASIA | FOCUS -

Chi­nese mil­len­ni­als with a dim view of their ca­reer and mar­riage prospects can wal­low in de­spair with a range of teas such as “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 of­tenironic de­featism, is fu­elled 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’s a re­ac­tion to cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion for good jobs in an econ­omy that isn’t as ro­bust as it was a few years ago and when home-own­er­ship — long seen as a near-re­quire­ment for mar­riage in China — is in­creas­ingly unattain­able in ma­jor cities as apart­ment prices have soared.

“I wanted to fight for so­cial­ism to­day but the weather is so freak­ing cold that I’m only able to lie on the bed to play on my mo­bile phone,” 27 year-old Zhao Zengliang, a “sang” in­ter­net per­son­al­ity, wrote in one post. “It would be great if I could just wake up to re­tire­ment to­mor­row,” she said 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 Peo­ple’s Daily, the party mouth­piece, 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 clam­p­down on me­dia and cy­berspace in the run-up to next month’s Com­mu­nist Party congress has ex­tended even to neg­a­tiv­ity, with reg­u­la­tions is­sued in early June call­ing for “pos­i­tive en­ergy” in on­line au­dio-vis­ual con­tent.

Later that month, some young ne­ti­zens were frus­trated when Bo­jack Horse­man, an an­i­mated Amer­i­can TV se­ries about a half­man/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,” Vin­cent, a 27-year old Weibo user, com­mented un­der a post an­nounc­ing the news.

A spokesper­son at iQiyi said Bo­jack Horse­man was re­moved be­cause of “in­ter­nal process is­sues” but de­clined to elab­o­rate.

The so­cial me­dia gi­ant Ten­cent 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. The move­ment is also a re­bel­lion against the striv­ing 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, peo­ple will sup­port age­ing par­ents and grand­par­ents.

Zhao’s on­line posts, of­ten tinged with dark hu­mour, have at­tracted al­most 50,000 fans on Weibo. She 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 — or those aged 18 to 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 8 mil­lion grad­u­ate from Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties — nearly 10 times the num­ber in 1997.

Even among elite “sea tur­tles” — those who re­turn af­ter study­ing over­seas — 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 was “far be­low” ex­pec­ta­tions.

Home own­er­ship is a nearly uni­ver­sal as­pi­ra­tion in China, but it is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to get on the prop­erty lad­der in big cities such as Bei­jing, Shang­hai and Shen­zhen.

An av­er­age two-bed­room home in Bei­jing’s re­sale mar­ket costs around 6 mil­lion yuan ($909,835) af­ter prices surged 37% in 2016, ac­cord­ing to, 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.

Me­dian per-per­son rent in Bei­jing, where most of the es­ti­mated 8 mil­lion renters are mil­len­ni­als, ac­cord­ing to Zi­room. com, 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, a sur­vey by E-House China R&D In­sti­tute found. The costs of­ten mean that young Chi­nese work­ers have to live on the edges of cities, with long, stress­ful com­mutes 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 frus­trated young adults to vent frus­tra­tion, a sur­vey of 200 Chi­nese univer­sity stu­dents by re­searchers at the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences (CASS) 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, said he ex­pects pres­sure on young Chi­nese adults only to grow, cit­ing the age­ing of the pop­u­la­tion as a par­tic­u­lar bur­den for the young.

Xiang has cap­i­talised on the trend with prod­ucts named af­ter pop­u­lar “sang” phrases. The chain has sin­gle lo­ca­tions 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 said he chose tame names for his prod­ucts so as not to at­tract cen­sure from au­thor­i­ties, lean­ing to­ward the self-dep­re­cat­ing.

He took is­sue with the crit­i­cal ed­i­to­rial in the Peo­ple’s Daily. “It didn’t try to se­ri­ously un­der­stand at all,” he said.

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 said in an in­ter­view out­side the Bei­jing stall.


have suc­ces­sour Our quiet­dia shoved protest sto­ries ‘Sang’and too against so­ci­ety­down manyis a so­ci­ety’spush for achiev­ing re­lent­less the tra­di­tional no­tion of suc­cess. It is about ad­mit­ting that you just can’t make it” ZHAO ZENGLIANG Au­thor and blog­ger

Cus­tomers pose with cups of tea named in the fash­ion of the sang sub­cul­ture at the Sung Tea shop in Bei­jing. The tea cre­ations are called “You are the fat­test” and “You don’t have noth­ing, you have a dis­ease”.

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