In China, there’s an office culture known as ‘996’. It refers to working from 9am to 9pm, for six days a week, often at a start-up that pays no more than $600 AUD a month. As a reward, you get to keep a (mediocre, rental) roof over your head. If you’re in a big city like Beijing, this will take up roughly 60 per cent of your income. Unless, of course, you dream of buying your own place one day. Though at $1.1M AUD for a two-bedroom apartment — or 70 times the average annual take home wage — it more or less means living with your parents until the very last shred of hope for independent adulthood slips gently away.
Which begs the question: Is it even worth trying?
Increasingly, millennials in China are answering ‘no’. Or, at least they’ve been hitting back in the form of darkly humorous social media posts that rebel against traditional notions of ambition and the crushing pressures of work.
In China, the sense of competition is so huge that most young people don’t really have the luxury of taking time off to reflect on what their options are.
The result is a new subculture known as ‘sang’ — a term that loosely translates to feeling hopeless or dispirited — and refers to a kind of ironic defeatism fuelled by pop culture, internet celebrities and social media platforms like WeChat and microblogging site, Weibo.
The humour of sang culture is witty and deeply self-deprecating. It subverts the plight of the underdog, and dares you to laugh — unapologetically — at what would’ve once been seen as shameful shortcomings. A typical ‘sang’ social media post might sound like a punchline straight out of ‘sadcoms’ like Bojack Horseman: “If you feel like you’re plain-looking, broke, and useless, don’t despair. Because at least your sense of judgement is intact.” Or, “There’s no point in setting a PIN for your savings account. Why use a six digit number to protect a single digit amount?”
Offline, the ‘sang’ culture is doing for some millennial brands what the Emo culture did for the eyeliner business. In July, a new Beijing-based tea stall ‘Sung Tea’ became a viral sensation when it launched with a menu featuring the likes of “my-ex‘s-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea", “can't-afford-a-house macchiato” and “achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea”.
Elsewhere in China, there is ‘Hopeless Drinking Yoghurt’, which boasts of being ‘fat-free and aspiration-free’; and ‘sang’ style T-shirts with slogans like ‘I don’t want to do this s—t’, so that wearers may proudly display their gripes around the office. At the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, an original composition by conductor Jin Chengzhi even became an anthem for China’s ‘sang’ working class — with the song, “So far, the sofa in so far” now considered an ode to “millions of underpaid millennials working long hours for abusive bosses”.
“The sang subculture is a bit of a safety valve. It’s self-mocking and ironic. And allows young people to — if not completely undermine — then at least really question what’s happening. It’s a signal that you’re aware of the situation you find yourself in,” says Merriden Varrall, Director of the East Asia Program at Lowy Institute.
“In Western societies, you can maybe take a year off, dye your hair a crazy colour, be very introspective and you’re probably still going to be OK. But in China, the sense of competition is so huge that most young people don’t really have the luxury of taking time off to reflect on what their options are,” says Varrall.
‘Sang’ is a quiet protest against society’s relentless push for achieving the traditional notion of success.
Meanwhile, the nation’s richest one per cent own over one-third of the entire country’s wealth. Millennials today can see their peers driving Maseratis, drinking expensive red wine (sometimes with Coca Cola), and posting Instagram updates of their North Pole holidays — all the while conscious of the fact that material achievements don’t necessarily line up with personal effort. The Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality across a nation, rose to 0.465 in China at last count. This compares to 0.479 in the United States — with 0.40 being a sign of severe income inequality, according to the United Nations.
“Our media and society have shoved too many success stories down our throat,” 27-year-old author and internet personality Zhao Zengliang told Reuters. “‘Sang’ is a quiet protest against society’s relentless push for achieving the traditional notion of success. It is about admitting that [sometimes], you just can’t make it.”
While the Chinese Government has denounced the ‘sang’ movement as ‘mental opium’, there’s something undeniably life-affirming about staring reality straight in the eye and refusing to be fed blind optimism. In many ways, to be ‘sang’ is to take back some power. It’s to take heart in “fleeting moments of joy” by giving the collective middle finger to stifling expectations that no longer ring true to us. As an attitude, it resonates not only with millennials in China but also children of migrants across the globe.
“For first generation Chinese and Chinese students who are in Australia temporarily, those pressures are partly exacerbated by the fact that their families have put an enormous amount of investment into giving them that opportunity. There’s a sense that they ‘owe’ their families not to mess it up,” says Merriden Varrall.
But rather than buying into a culture of toxic competitiveness — where limited opportunities means one person’s gain is seen as another person’s loss — the internet has created a kind of solidarity between those who are stoically striving against the odds. And while success is not guaranteed, or indeed — particularly likely, it sure as hell helps to be able to laugh about it.
Follow Candice on Twitter: @candicechung_
Wondering what Chinese millennials are up to? Watch If You Are The One on SBS On Demand: