Why not have a “My Ex-boyfriend is Doing Better than Me Black Tea?” suggests a sign at Orz Cha, a pop-up tea shop that opened in Shanghai in late April. Orz Cha, or Sang Cha in Chinese, which can be translated as “Life Sucks Tea,” instantly saw long lines form outside and generated a buzz on social media due to its eccentric menu. Among other drinks, visitors could choose from an oolong macchiato called “You are Not a Loser Who Owns Nothing, At Least You Have a Mental Illness,” a black tea called “Come On, You Are the Fattest,” and a green tea called “Work Overtime With No Hope of a Pay Rise.”
Orz Cha has proved a huge success. Three months after the first pop-up store closed, (it was only ever meant to open for four days), more than a dozen stores had mushroomed in cities like Beijing, Chongqing, Shenzhen and Jinhua.
Life Sucks Tea is just one of many embodiments of sang or “demotivational” culture. Sang, which literally means loss or deprivation, now describes a mentality of idleness, depression, apathy and lack of self-motivation. In recent years, sang culture has become an increasingly prominent life attitude and cultural phenomenon among young Chinese, especially the “post-90s” – those who were born in the 1990s. Behind the self-deprecating black humor lies a bitter truth: as economic growth slows, the country’s youth finds traditional notions of success increasingly unattainable.
In Orz Cha, the idea of sang has been amplified and the tea transformed into a medium of sang culture.
“A tea store that makes tea from tears. Drink up this cup of sang.” is how Orz Cha introduces itself to every customer who enters the store. Its staff, who are required “not to wear a smile,” even caution their customers in advance that their products might be too sang to be tasty. Among its weird selection, “Kill Time and Wait to Die Green Tea” is the most popular drink.
On its website, the brand uses a popular saying as its slogan: “The salted fish will have its day to turn over, but after that it is still a salted fish.” The phrase, more like a self-mocking joke, means that no matter how hard the unprivileged struggle to change their fate, in the end they will just find that their attempt was futile.
“Orz Cha is not about selling tea. It’s a kind of emotional consumption,” the chief founder of the Orz Cha brand, Xiang Huanzhong, told NewsChina. “After drinking too much self-motivational ‘chicken soup’ [self-help literature], one day we find that those saccharine words do not work at all when it comes to real pressures in life. Life Sucks Tea, with a dose of sharp-tongued humor, is a better choice for us to vent our emotions,” states Orz Cha’s website.
Yet Orz Cha is just a drop in the ocean of the sang epidemic that is spreading among young urban Chinese.
Internet memes that represent hopelessness, depression and inaction have gone viral on social media. “Ge You slouch,” a social media sticker made of a screenshot from the 1990s sitcom “I Love My Family”, is a favorite of young netizens. The famous comedy actor Ge You plays a middle-aged scam artist. After the family on the show invites him to their house, the freeloader glues himself to a couch 24/7, except when having meals. The meme spawned a wave of humorous reinterpretations and imitations online, all describing a state of living without hope. It became one of the Top 10 Chinese memes of 2016.
Chinese sang youngsters also favor foreign negative mascots that evoke depression and idleness, including BoJack Horseman, the self-loathing talking horse in the eponymous Netflix animated comedy, Gudetama or “Lazy Egg,” a Japanese cartoon egg yolk who feels existence is almost unbearable, and the recently-deceased Pepe the Frog. Although Pepe the Frog has been added to a list of hate symbols after being appropriated by the alt-right movement in the US, Chinese users see him merely as an apolitical symbol of sadness, melancholy and fun.
A great many Japanese novels, manga, films and dramas that evoke similar emotions resonate with sang youngsters. Takumi Taniguchi, the protagonist of 2015 Japanese drama “Dating: What’s It Like to Be in Love,” is an embodiment of idle living. He is 35 years old and unemployed. He graduated from college but spends his days reading books and listening to music. He’s not interested in finding a job, dating or getting married. His life is entirely supported by his working mother, and his dream is to “be dependent on someone forever.” Such an extreme life attitude makes the character an icon of sang culture.
As soon as sang made its way into popular culture, it also became a marketing trend to opportunistically combine sang with consumer products. Orz Cha is not the first to try it. Last year, the Taiwanese milk tea brand Moonleaf created a set of drinks with humorous and existential messages on the packaging. “Good things should be shared with friends. Shit, I forgot I don’t have any friends,” and “You work so hard but no one sees it, just like us making such good black tea but you don’t have a good enough sense of taste.” are printed on teacup lids.
The country’s older generations and authorities were not prepared for the slacker movement. On August 17, the Party-run People’s Daily published a commentary that cautioned young Chinese to “stay away from the opium of demotivational culture.” It claims “ideological opium will numb young Chinese and lead them astray.”
Sang culture has evolved as a counter force to Xiaoquexing, “little but certain happiness,” a once prominent notion favored by young netizens and the media. Originally coined by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the concept encourages people to enjoy happiness from the small, wholesome things in life. For instance, “to have a cold beer after a hard workout,” “to jump into a quiet swimming pool in the early morning,” or “to enjoy the music of Brahms and gaze upon the dappled shape of leaves on a paper window, delineated by the gentle autumn sunlight” in Murakami’s words.
Now young Chinese people have employed a little wordplay and changed the term into “little but certain sang” – xiaoquesang instead of xiaoquexing. Sang youths often utter “You demand I be optimistic, but I just can’t fake a smile,” or “I know I’m wasting my life, but I just don’t want to stop.”
Psychological consultant Li Guocui launched an online discussion group called “Sang Patient Aid Group” on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese messaging app.
“They have jobs. But most don’t feel fulfilled by their work. They are always troubled by an acute sense of helplessness. They think they should do something but they just can’t bring themselves to take action. The inner conflict makes them very self-accusatory and sarcastic,” is how Li described the post-90s sang youngsters to NewsChina.
According to Li’s observations, most of the group members who identify themselves as sang youths are post-90s unmarried singles living alone in big cities far away from their hometowns. There is a new term to describe this group of people: “Empty-nest youths.”
A wide-ranging report released by the leading e-commerce platform Taobao on May 3, 2017 reveals that there are more than 50 million “empty nest youths” aged 20 to 39 in China, with most of them living alone in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
NetEase, a Chinese online portal, surveyed 5,000 young empty nesters, and after looking into the user data from its own news service and from two other social service providers – Tantan and Blued – it issued a report on China’s empty nest youths in May.
According to the survey, 68 percent of young empty-nesters say they have felt lonely in the past week, and only 14 percent say they never feel empty. Eighty-two percent of surveyed youths feel anxious about their future, and more than 30 percent of them earn a monthly salary under 5,000 yuan (US$758).
From Li Guocui’s perspective, these lonely, indoorsy, anxious young people are the main upholders of sang culture. “People who have companions to give them emotional solace are comparatively less likely to be sang. Young empty nesters, however, lack companionship in life, so they don’t have an outlet to vent their emotions,” Li said.
Sang culture does not only exclusively exist in China. Many critics have pointed out contemporary sang culture in China has similarities with the hipsters in the Western world and the Otaku culture in Japan, in which people are obsessed with certain interests and tend to stay at home.
Zeng Yuli, an expert on youth culture, elaborates on the similarity between China’s contemporary sang culture and Japanese youth culture since the 1990s. In his article “Sang Culture, Youth’s Mild Rebellion Against the World,” which was published on Shanghai-based news site The Paper on April 1, 2017, Zeng pointed out that young people do not choose to be sang, but have no alternatives.
Zeng adopts the notion “karyū shakai” (low-stream society), which was put forward by the Japanese sociologist Atsushi Miura in his book Karyū Shakai. The word “karyū” refers to individuals whose communication skills, life skills, passion for work, motivation to learn and consumer desires are lower than those of others. As Miura states, people are deprived of motivation for life, not because they are not interested in success, but there is no way for them to climb the social ladder in a rigid society that lacks social mobility. The disillusionment, as Miura indicates, is a product of Japan’s sluggish economy since the financial crisis of the early 1990s.
As China’s economic growth slowed from double-digit increases to 6.7 percent growth in 2016, issues around social mobility have become increasingly severe. More and more young Chinese people realize that they are not simply falling behind, but are in danger of dropping out of the race.
“Behind sang is the youth community’s spiritual outcry during the transitional period of Chinese society,” Du Junfei, professor at the School of Journalism & Communication at Nanjing University, points out in the article “Sang Culture: From Learnt Helplessness to Self-Irony.”
“Apparently, the standard of living of the contemporary young generation in China far exceeds that of older generations. Nevertheless, since they have grown up during a transitional period in society, the unprecedented cruelty of social competition they are facing is beyond the experience of previous generations. Their anxiety is incomparable. When they are knocked by the truth of reality after graduation, they find there’s no chance for them to wrestle with life,” Du wrote.
To analyze the sang mentality of youths, Du put forward a psychological notion “learned helplessness,” proposed by the American psychologist Martin Seligman in 1967. According to the theory, if an individual is repeatedly subjected to an inescapable aversive stimulus, when the individual encounters the stimulus again he or she will stop trying to avoid it and behave as if he or she is utterly helpless to change or escape from the situation. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.
Surging housing prices, suffocating jobs, the deteriorating environment, a materialistic marriage market, unaffordable childrearing and the burden of being an only child taking care of two parents: such daunting pressures have struck a great number of young Chinese. They have come to realize that the traditional notion of success – earning big bucks, owning a house, a car, having a hukou (residence permit) of a big city, marrying quickly and having a kid, seems increasingly unattainable.
Du sees sang culture as a “mild protest” of China’s young people against an increasingly stratified society, and a coping mechanism they use to alleviate stress. To avoid being judged by others, they choose to stunt themselves first: “I already admit I am a loser. So what else you want me to do?”
“Sang youths do not really identify themselves with hopeless screw-ups. They exaggerate the sense of loss and depression so as to decrease the impact they feel about the gap between idealism and life,” Du says.
“We are mocking our own weaknesses, using a self-deprecating means to vent our emotions,” self-proclaimed sang youngster Tian Kele, 20, told our reporter. “And in this way can we reconcile ourselves with our failure and inabilities. As the negative energy is let off, we may find life still goes on. After all, the sun will set today and rise again tomorrow.
“Nobody can drink sang tea their entire life. It’s a mockery. We are really quite sensible,” Tian added.