Why so Sang? Pessimism in Chinese youth culture
“Sang” has become a famous term that more and more young Chinese use to describe themselves. The term 丧文化 sàng wénhuà, which literally means “mourning culture,” refers to Chinese middle-class youths' feelings of defeatism, loss, and pessimism. The sang culture could be better defined as a subculture since it emerges within the mainstream culture of positive energy (正能量 zhèng néngliàng), which is at the very heart of political discourse in the Xi Jinping era and is associated with an optimistic attitude, an inspiring ethos, and a healthy lifestyle.
酷 kù vs. 丧 sàng: who wins?
In the 2000s urban youths defined themselves as 酷 kù (a transliteration from English and means “cool”). The term referred to a well-educated, healthy, and confident person. By contrast, the term 丧 sàng (which literally means “to mourn, lose” and was originally a funeral term) emerged around 2016.1 It became predominant on social media when some images were taken from mainstream culture and transformed into memes with a pessimistic and ironic style.
‘Paralyzed Geyou,’ ‘Salted Fish’ or ‘Sad Toad’?
‘Paralyzed Geyou’ is one of these iconic sang culture memes. The original image was taken from the TV show I Love My Family, where the actor Ge You played the role of a paralyzed man, unemployed and broke.
‘Salted Fish’ is another of these famous sang memes. Besides designating the food made by preserving fish in salt and then hanged out to dry, in Cantonese, ‘salted fish’ also means a corpse. Its usage thus extended to designating someone unable to improve their lot in life. The phrase “don’t stop me, I’ll jump into the sea to kill myself” became famous thanks to the Hong Kong actor Stephen Chow in the film Shaolin Soccer and is used to describe people that have no dreams or aspirations in life.
'Sad Toad ' is another symbol of sang culture. In this context, Matt Furie’s ‘Pepe the Frog’ (created in 2015) illustrates the disconsolate youth in contrast with the official Chinese dream (中国梦 Zhōngguó mèng) that promotes harmony, positivity, and dreams.
But why so ‘sang’?
Various factors led to this feeling of being at loss among the Chinese urban youths. New generations experiencing a lot of pressure from society is a worldwide reality. In China, it is best exemplified by the ‘996’ phenomenon, which means working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for six days of the week. Various companies have adopted this as their official work schedule.2
This situation, alongside the rising house prices, the difficulty of finding a well-paid job, and the degradation of urban living environments, has generated a situation where Chinese young people feel trapped regardless of their desire to have accomplishments in life. In addition, the pressure generated by the高考gāokǎo (the most critical exam after high school which allows students to apply to university) has also become an important factor.
Vladislav Ivanov: “If you love me, don’t support me”
Vladislav Ivanov, a Russian model, has been ‘trapped’ in a Chinese reality show (Produce Camp 2021) and has been considered the face of the sang culture. The TV show was set on Hainan island in 2021 and lasted for ten months. He applied but soon regretted it and tried in every possible way to be kicked out of the show. However, the more he tried to appear “sang” in order to be disqualified, the more people sympathized with him. They voted for him until he reached the finals. During the show, he even said: “The others want an A, while I want an F as Freedom.”3
“Sung Tea (丧茶 sàng chá)”: I would like to order an “Achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea”
The sang culture has also been a source of profit. A tea stall in Beijing named 丧茶sàng chá (’Sung Tea’) has become extremely famous because of its creative menu, there you can buy a “can’t-afford-a-house ice tea lemon” （买不起房冻柠茶 mǎi bù qǐ fáng dòng níng chá）or a “my-ex‘s-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea” (前男友过得比我好果茶 qián nányǒu guòdé bǐ wǒ hǎo guǒ chá).4
In conclusion, the phenomenon of sang culture, which is making its way more and more in Chinese society, should not be discarded as a simple trend. It has been caused by different factors, primarily a capitalistic and individualistic way of life for the middle-class urban youth, which has led to fatalism. The rush in everyday life, the race for money, and the rising of inequalities are representative of today’s life and bring along the new social changes and challenges that the sang culture captures.
References / To go further
K. Cohen Tan and Shuxin Cheng, “Sang subculture in post-reform China," February 20, 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339389460_Sang_subculture_in_post-reform_China, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2059436420904459.
Michael Lozina, “The many Subcultures of China,” Global Culture, February 4, 2021, https://fashionindustrybroadcast.com/2021/02/04/the-many-subcultures-of-china/.
Tessa Wong, “利路修：俄罗斯“懒虫”模特如何成为中国的“丧文化”偶像.” BBC News, May 7, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/chinese-news-57019732.
Candice Chung, “Why Chinese millennials are proud to be “hopeless,” SBS, December 5, 2017, https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/voices/culture/article/2017/12/04/why-chinese-millennials-are-proud-be-hopeless.
Wang Jia, “‘Sang’-culture: The current mood of young Chinese,” CGTN Live, July 6, 2017, https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d63444d7759444e/share_p.html.