Have you ever felt like nothing matters, that you won’t ever achieve your dreams no matter how hard you try? Did you know that this exact feeling has been trending on Chinese social media for the past year and is known as “sang” — the state of demotivation and hopelessness? Well now you do.
The Chinese character sang (丧) traditionally means lost or losing, signifies the spirit of dejection and is related to death and mourning. The character recently gained a new cultural representation among Chinese millennials, though, who use it to express the disenfranchisement they feel in the face of unattainable standards of success, socioeconomic inequality and immobility.
The attitude of sang can be expressed through words of self-deprecation, or the “action” of doing absolutely nothing. Saying “I’m a waste of space” or moping around all day in your underwear can both be expressions of sang.
A brand called Sung Tea has even capitalized on the trend by making drinks with depressing names and selling them in the spirit of sang, such as “you’re-the-fattest milk tea,” “my-ex’s-life is-better-than-me fruit tea” and “waiting for death milk green tea.”
The cultural perpetuation of sang is no doubt triggered by a variety of social problems, including competition in the job market, the skyrocketing price of real estate in major cities and discriminatory household registration policies. But sang is equally triggered by the materialistic definition of success China’s adult youth have been spoonfed since childhood.
The yearning for wealth is ingrained in the minds of children under the guise of education. If America has the “American Dream,” then China has what I would call the “Education Dream.” It is a prescribed ambition that every Chinese person will instantly recognize, based on the supposition that good grades lead to a good life.
The logic behind the Education Dream is straightforward: good grades get you into a good university, from which you get a good job, which allows you to amass enough wealth (the minimal standard is to own a house and a car), which attracts a desirable spouse with whom you will have children and repeat the cycle. The Education Dream sketches out a set idea of the perfect life marked with a set sequence of milestones. Anyone who does not follow the plan is a failure by default.
For all of China’s emphasis on education, it is not used as a direct mean for self-fulfillment, but a tool to amass wealth, which, in turn, is supposed to bring fulfillment. People might personally value education intrinsically, but the system of education is practiced in such a way that quantifiable values and rewards are the endgame, rather than allowing for a more personal process.
To kickstart the first step toward this life-long happiness, Chinese parents allocate whatever resources they can into the education of their children. The popular slogan “Don’t let your kid lose at the starting line of the race” is the perfect ad campaign that fuels anxiety around competition for spots in good schools.
Such pressure is justified when considering that competition is indeed fierce because of China’s huge population and limited admission rates to top schools. The college entrance exam — gaokao — becomes the ultimate exam of the student’s lifetime and has created a $120 billion tutoring industry.
But, to put it more cynically, rather than creating a structure in which students are encouraged to access knowledge, grading is used as a mechanism of elimination and exclusion. It is this fear of being forsaken and disappointing others that the tutoring industry capitalizes on.
The new generation of Chinese youth grew up in a rat race, where they and everyone they know are going to after-class tutorials hoping to gain an edge on each other for the next exam. The hope from the family is that the expensive and timely investment will return in value once the kid gets into a good college and so on. But with so many students vying for good schools and a chance at upward mobility, intelligence and hard work might not cut it.
One has to wonder which kids do “lose at the starting line.” Not necessarily the lazy and unmotivated kids, but kids whose parents cannot afford to invest.
Even when only considering the millions and millions of children who got good grades and got into respectable universities, the toxic competition, over-working, and anxiety never ends. They have to compete for jobs that might be draining and unfulfilling.
Unlike the double-day weekend most Americans enjoy, it is common for Chinese companies to rotate a six-day workweek with a five-day workweek, or to demand overtime with no break at all. The prices of rent in big cities like Shanghai suck dry the average worker’s salary, and owning a house in the city is near impossible unless your parents are rich or already have a house. But, decades of government policies prioritizing urban development over rural development means that you’re better off staying in the city than not.
The happy future China’s millennials are promised never arrives, nor can they change the current societal structure through democratic processes. All they can do is motivate themselves to keep trying. Or not.
Thus, the sang culture is born. Part of the reason Chinese people sang is so they can rewrite the definition of happiness. In sang culture, an emphasis is put on treasuring temporary moments of happiness in everyday life, such as eating a bag of chips in bed while binging a new drama.
Sang is an honest moment of despair in which people look reality straight in the eye. It is no coincidence that people choose to adopt a persona that has to do with loss, death and mourning. Sang is the total abandonment of everything Chinese youth are programmed to pursue. A long-held vision of their futures and their senses of self is lost and needs to be mourned.
Even with the popularity of sang culture, it is important to note that Chinese millennials have not dropped out of work by the masses to mope around. Life goes on. But, behind the scenes, people collectively sang on social medias to reassure each other that they are not alone.
When my Chinese friends say to me “I sang for the whole weekend,” this means that they did nothing during the weekend, probably not even laundry. But when the weekend ends, they get to work as usual. Sang is a temporary mental state and affectation that they can don and slip off. Prolonged periods of despair and dejection is of course unhealthy and undesirable, but short periods of sang may help you recover from the stresses of daily life.
Looking at America, there is also the belief that if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams. Meanwhile, economic mobility has decreased and income inequality has never been worse. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. But, unlike in China, where citizens rarely make a political impact, Americans can vote for the country they want.
Still, America is also a nation that values competition, which puts a lot of pressure on young people to achieve more than their peers in order to compete for admission into college or a future job.
The truth is, a lot of people I know are overloading themselves with activities not because they want to (they want to mope and watch Netflix too), but because they feel like they have to since everyone else is so busy. They are afraid that if they stop even just for a second, they will forever fall off the track to a good life.
So, next time you feel overwhelmed, take a step back and allow yourself to sang for a day or even just a few hours. Consider the possibility that no matter how hard you try, the success of your life may be defined more by personal wellbeing than economic stability.