Nega-tea-vity brewing among China's millennials

Customers with cups of tea named in the fashion of the "sang" subculture at the Sung Tea shop in Beijing last month. While the drink names are tongue-in-cheek - such as "achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea" and "my-ex's-life-is-better-than-mine fru
Customers with cups of tea named in the fashion of the "sang" subculture at the Sung Tea shop in Beijing last month. While the drink names are tongue-in-cheek - such as "achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea" and "my-ex's-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea" - the sentiment they reflect is serious. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Chinese millennials with a dim view of their career and marriage prospects can wallow in despair with a range of drinks such as "achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea" and "my-ex's-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea".

While the drink names at the Sung chain of tea stalls are tongue-in-cheek, the sentiment they reflect is serious: A significant number of young Chinese with high expectations have become discouraged and embrace an attitude known on social media as "sang", termed after a Chinese character associated with the word "funeral" that describes being dispirited.

"Sang" culture, which revels in often ironic defeatism, is being fuelled by Internet celebrities, through music and the popularity of certain mobile games and TV shows, and sad-faced emojis and pessimistic slogans.

It is a reaction to cut-throat competition for good jobs in an economy that is not as robust as it was a few years ago and when home ownership - long seen as a near-requirement for marriage in China - is increasingly unattainable in major cities as home prices have soared.

"It would be great if I could just wake up to retirement tomorrow," Ms Zhao Zengliang, 27, a "sang" Internet personality, wrote in a post. Her online posts, often tinged with dark humour, have attracted almost 50,000 fans on microblogging site Weibo.

Such ironic humour is lost on China's ruling Communist Party.

Last month, Sung Tea was called out for peddling "mental opium" by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, which described "sang" culture in an editorial as "an extreme, pessimistic and hopeless attitude that's worth our concern and discussion".

It said: "Stand up, and be brave. Refuse to drink 'sang tea', choose to walk the right path, and live the fighting spirit of our era."

While "sang" can be a pose or affectation, despondency among a segment of educated young people is a genuine concern for President Xi Jinping and his government, which prizes stability.

The intensifying censorship clampdown on media and cyberspace in the run-up to next month's Communist Party congress, held every five years, extends even to negativity, with regulations issued in early June calling for "positive energy" in online audiovisual content.

Social media and online gaming giant Tencent Holdings has even gone on the counter-attack against "sang" culture. It has launched an advertising campaign around the Chinese word "ran" - which literally means burning and conveys a sense of optimism - with slogans such as "every adventure is a chance to be reborn".

While China's roughly 380 million millennials - or those aged about 18 to 35 - have opportunities that earlier generations would have found unimaginable, they also have expectations that are becoming harder to meet.

The average starting pay for college graduates fell by 16 per cent this year to 4,014 yuan (S$830) a month amid intensifying competition for jobs as a record eight million graduate from Chinese universities - nearly 10 times the number in 1997.

"Sang" is also a symptom of the lack of channels for frustrated young adults to vent frustration, a survey of 200 Chinese university students by researchers at state think-tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found in June.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2017, with the headline Nega-tea-vity brewing among China's millennials. Subscribe