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Hard work is a point of pride in China. But a culture of slacking off is now in vogue

Younger workers in China are questioning the benefits of the daily grind as they face worsening prospects. The rise of "Sang culture" embodies the frustration and soul-crushing weariness.
Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Younger workers in China are questioning the benefits of the daily grind as they face worsening prospects. The rise of "Sang culture" embodies the frustration and soul-crushing weariness.

This story is adapted from the latest episode of Rough Translation. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or NPR One.

About four years ago in Beijing, a colleague dragged me out from behind my computer, where I had been laboring as a cub reporter.

She wanted to show me a trendy new bubble tea shop called Sung Tea, which celebrates the nihilistic attitude of China's post-'80s generation with fatalistically named drinks — names such as "Work Overtime with No Hope of a Pay Raise Green Tea" (perhaps too on the nose that day) and "My Ex Is Doing Better Than Me Black Tea."

Listen to this story's podcast episode

The brand is a pun on the Chinese character Sang, which literally means "mourning." Sang has taken on a multitude of new meanings in China, which has been ground down by successive lockdowns meant to contain the coronavirus as well as growing regulatory controls that have clamped down on businesses, especially in the internet sector.

Sang's rise is exceptional, because China is a country that loves to work. Grinding out a "996" schedule — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week — can be a point of pride. And it has paid off: During China's economic boom years through the 1990s and early 2000s, many Chinese reaped the financial gains of entrepreneurial hard work.

But attitudes toward work are changing.

Just as in the United States, people born after the 1980s in China are facing the prospect of worse outcomes than their parents. Property prices rise beyond their reach; college graduates have to compete over limited jobs; and a gender imbalance favoring males — made worse by decades of the one-child policy — puts marriage out of reach for poorer men. Hard work no longer seems to be worth it.

The soul-crushing weariness these conditions produce can be embodied in the single Chinese character, Sang. And once I learned about Sang, it became impossible not to see it popping up everywhere in mainstream Chinese culture, and not just in my daily cup of boba.

"Sang culture" is a popular shorthand for both a melancholic listlessness at the futility of one's current state of affairs and a bleak acceptance that life will be no better.

Here are several ways Sang culture is expressed in China:

Laughing away the pain

Sang culture-like threads of frustration have abounded in Chinese pop culture. Online, people share popular memes such as "Ge You Slouch" — a screenshot of a famous actor from a well-loved '90s sitcom slouched hopelessly on a couch — in chat groups and social media forums to express apathy.

Some of Sang's manifestations are cross-cultural, in unexpected ways: Pepe the Frog, a cartoon that has become a symbol of American far-right groups, has taken on a new life in China, where the green amphibian is toted around by Sang advocates. For whatever reason Sang people in China think Pepe looks Sang – haggard and worn down.

Li Xueqin, an irreverent, tough-talking comedian who graduated from one of China's most prestigious universities, has gained a cult following for subverting cultural expectations of women and academic high achievers. She has earned a place in the Sang community with her brand of self-deprecating jokes about the stress of work life, dating, and parental pressures.

And the American television show BoJack Horseman has accrued a surprise cult following in China, where viewers say they relate to the self-destructive, animated equine that is the show's main character.

Singing about sad

A host of independent record labels specialize in low-energy, lyrical music that can be the perfect soundtrack to your best Sang life.

One crowd favorite is indie band Trip Fuel, which has built up a devoted following across mainland China of other aimless, disillusioned millennials.

"Our generation has such anxieties: to change our social classes and to struggle to live a better life, but at the same time, we still have this utopian idealism that is difficult to balance," says Xiaozhou, the band's bassist.

At one recent Trip Fuel performance in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen — where many millennials work demanding tech startup jobs — many of their fans were so exhausted that they napped through parts of the concert.

The lead singer goes by Manager Chen, which is both his stage name and his day job. He works at a bank. At the end of the show, he thanked the crowd of fans — and his boss, who gave him the weekend off so Chen would make it to his own concert. It was back to work for the rocker by night, bank employee by day on the following Sunday morning.

Talking yourself down

Adherents of Sang culture can draw on a cohort of other terms that have entered the parlance of modern Mandarin Chinese. Jumping through the hoops of modern Chinese society is often dubbed neijuan. And there is "involution," meaning a race-to-the-bottom culture of overwork brought on by shrinking resources in a populous country.

Playing video games

In the Exhausted Man<em> </em>video game, players must manipulate a limp, snoozing office worker into completing deceptively simple tasks by slithering his exhausted body across the room.
/ Candleman Games
/
Candleman Games
In the Exhausted Man video game, players must manipulate a limp, snoozing office worker into completing deceptively simple tasks by slithering his exhausted body across the room.

Burned-out video game players can find an outlet in Exhausted Man, a strangely soothing game in which players must manipulate a limp, snoozing office worker into completing deceptively simple tasks such as turning off the lights or slithering his exhausted body across his room to get a cup of coffee.

"So many players say my game is exactly what their daily lives are like," says Gao Ming, the Beijing-based designer behind the video game, which plays on themes of tangping and Sang. "If that is the case, then why do they keep playing the game? Because by highlighting the absurdist nature of your exhausting lifestyle, the game lets you separate yourself from the day-in, day-out routine."

Actually, playing video games can be kind of productive, says Gao. He hopes players of Exhausted Man might reflect on the connections between the game and their own lifestyles — and find the motivation to change their lives if the two are too similar.

Slacking at work

You can also tangping, or lie flat in China: a lifestyle of extreme lethargy trumpeted as a form of social protest against overwork and unrealistic expectations.

It is the natural reflex for people exhausted by the extreme competitiveness of China's education system, facing mounting economic pressures, or fed up with the political posturing of an increasingly ideological political system.

Serial thief Zhou Liqi, featured in our Rough Translation episode, becomes an unlikely poster child for this form of hardcore chilling. In 2012, he was arrested for the second time for nabbing e-bikes, and he gave a jailhouse interview that somehow captures the hearts and minds of white and blue collar workers across China: "I can never work in this life," he says with a rueful smile. That's why he has to survive by stealing.

By the time he got out of prison for the last time, in 2020, Zhou had become an internet sensation.

Others are unwilling mascots of Sang culture. Last year, a Russian contestant who was cast on a Chinese reality TV show found himself trapped on the show: Viewers were so enchanted with his lack of motivation, they kept voting to keep him on week after week.

The contestant, who goes by the name Lelush, appears to have warmed up to the idea of stardom and of Sang. On his Instagram, Lelush regularly models loungewear and luxury pajamas: the perfect outfits for a discerning person who just wants to lie flat.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Aowen Cao