In his award-winning series “Newcomer”, photographer Ziyi Le, born in 1993, found an expression for the current mood among many young Chinese people: Fear of the future, lack of direction, boredom. In 2020, Le moved to Hangzhou, a city of ten million people, to make a fresh start both professionally and privately.
Instead of euphoria, he soon felt “emptiness and alienation”. Le used Weibo to look for protagonists for a portrait series. The result is an intimate photo series that provides a rare glimpse into the emotional sphere of Chinese society. Our report is inspired by these photos.
Jun has just resigned from a factory job, where he worked for a few months. Now he has saved some money he is going to take a break, spending time gaming and watching social media, barely leaving the house he shares with his grandmother.
Now he is 32 and his parents want him to find a girlfriend and get married, but he has told his family that he is going to grow old by himself. He describes himself as ‘ ‘sang’’, a term describing millennials who are no longer trying to keep up with the pressures of twenty-first century Chinese life.
‘sang’ is the Roman letters version of of the character丧, that comes from ‘ju sang’ (沮丧),which means depressed. It is only the latest term to describe the phenomena of giving up among Chinese youth. Before ‘sang’, ‘tang ping’ or ‘lying flat’, trended on the internet in 2021, with photographs of people in their twenties lying on the floor and advocating doing as little as possible.
Lying flat symbolises the embrace of a simpler, more leisurely lifestyle while rejecting the traditional notions of relentless ambition and overwork. Lying flat is a way of retaining one’s dignity before family and work pressures knock one over anyway.
“Life is too hard; I don't deserve it”
One of tang ping’s effects has been to focus online discussions onto mental health in China, as its proponents withdrew from working life to take care of themselves. They took up hobbies, therapy and practices of mindfulness. Yet it is difficult to avoid the sense of despair that lies behind this search for a better life.
As the young woman, Hongbin, posted online, “At first, I thought lying flat was the position they talked about, the position of being raped. Later, I realised that lying flat is the position after being raped by them. Then, they said accepting fate is fine, but lying flat is not allowed.”
In online communities of young people, such messages are not uncommon. “I'm sorry I was born into this world,” is one much repeated motto, while another is, “Life is too hard; I don't deserve it.” Social media platforms, including WeChat, Weibo and Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), have played a crucial role in the proliferation of these ideas. Content creators share their ‘sang’ and tang ping moments, garnering large followings and creating a community among their fans.
Part of the reason for the ‘sang’ and tang ping movements lies in the decline of both the Chinese economy and the cultural and social freedoms of the 1990s and 2000s. These decades were full of opportunity, and new ideas circulating among middle class Chinese youth. The acceleration slowed down during the 2010s, however, with the mass Covid lockdowns taking place in the early 2020s driving many young people to become fatalistic about their futures.
Housing and well paid jobs have become difficult to find, while the pressures to do well on the Gaokao (高考), the university entrance exam, have never been higher. As Zhang Huaiqing posted to a WeChat group, "Thirty years of hardship, what does reform bring? The trendsetters of that time, how many remain today? Absurdity has become the norm, and no one speaks the truth. Lying flat allows wastefulness.”
Over the last decade the conservative Chinese President Xi Jinping has also increased his power, making increasingly draconian regulations on what Chinese people can say and do.
“Lying flat allows wastefulness”
References to tang ping have been censored across the Chinese internet, as a part of Xi’s promotion of ‘positive energy’ to keep the messaging about China uplifting and forward looking. While AI bots are programmed to remove any mention of ‘sang’ and tang ping, censors are very liberal in their interpreting Xi’s concept of positive energy, deleting anything that does not appear to “sing the main theme” of the Chinese government’s policies.
Another saying that reflected the mood of youth has been ‘bai lan’, or ‘let it rot’, that arose as a way of describing putting in minimal effort not only at work, but in life. The idea became popular online after a national controversy over the length of working hours in China, the 996 culture of doing 9am to 9pm for six days a week.
While the government has tried to reign in the expectation that employees will work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, the so-called “996 culture” that persists among ambitious workers who want to please their bosses.
Bai lan culture is self-depreciating, emphasising the inability of workers to keep up. Online sayings including “Others are here to shine and achieve great things, while I'm just tagging along,” and “Even if the couch potato gets a break, it's still a couch potato” are shared widely, encouraging a culture of doing as little as possible. Wan Yandong explains that this is in life as well as at work:
“I think that if things don’t turn out for the better, then it doesn’t matter. For example, we like to play games in our spare time. So if I play a game, and my teammates and I feel we are not able to win this round, we will give up and maybe pick a simpler game to play. We like to play basketball. If our team isn’t doing well, and perhaps the other team is winning by a big margin, we will just give up. We don’t even want to play defence. that’s how I feel – it doesn’t matter if we lose our win. it doesn’t matter.”
While tang pin and bai lan have been interpreted as rebellions against the pressures of Chinese society, their memes and sayings characterised as comic and ironic, those who identify as ‘sang’ say that they do not care about what other people think at all.
In online discussions they celebrate themselves as the ‘last generation’ of Chinese people, bringing an end their family lineages. This is a massive shock for their parents, who rely on their children to take care of them when they age. The pension in China is minimal, and old people rely on their families, as they have done for generations.
As modern as China appears, its population are deeply traditional in this sense, inheriting the agricultural values of the recent past. Working hard, getting married and having children is success in China, but this life no longer has its rewards for those born after 2000.
As pessimistic as it may seem, men who give up on having their own children are to some degree being realistic. Under the One Child Policy, enforced until 2015, girls were aborted and adopted out overseas, bringing 34 million more men into the country than women. This was with the hope that the boys would grow into men who would earn more for their families. The families of women also expect a dowry from prospective husbands, increasing the pressure on men seeking to marry. Girls are also under pressure to get an education, a job, marry and have children:
“In high school and university my parents used to disapprove of me dating because I needed the grades for a good future. Now that I started working they pressure me to find a partner soon. The moment I find one, they’ll tell me it’s better to have a child while I’m still young. Then I will have to look after them when they get old. When will it ever be about me?”
However much China has plunged into a high tech twenty-first century, it remains a traditional, Confucian society. Children are expected to fulfil the expectations of their parents.
“Others are here to shine and achieve great things, while I'm just tagging along”
Another reason that Jun has become ‘sang’ lies in his unhappy childhood. He was one of tens of millions of ‘Left Behind Children’ who grew up without their parents, who migrated elsewhere to work. They still live and work in Guandong, a big industrial city in the South, and a long train ride away from the village he lives in. Throughout his life, they have seen Jun only once a year during Spring Festival, when millions travel back to their home villages.
Instead, Jun was raised by his grandmother, whose lived experience was little help in equipping Jun to deal with the twenty-first century. Raised in the 1950s and 1960s, she lived through the famine that came with the Great Leap Forward, eating grass to survive, and then the Cultural Revolution that spun Chinese society around in a whirlwind of propaganda and persecution.
Although a witness to some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, Jun’s grandmother is illiterate, and unable to help Jun navigate the new ideas and technologies of contemporary China.
When asked by his family why he has rejected their values, he blames his unhappy childhood and his abandonment by his parents. It may be, however, that Jun’s adoption of ‘sang’ values is a logical choice, and one that ensures he has a quality of life his parents did not have, as they continue to work six days a week in a Guandong factory.
Without being a part of the top 1% of academic achievers in China, and without being born into a wealthy family, the chances of Jun getting a job that allows him to progress in a career are slim. He will also only ever earn enough to get by, and will never earn enough to buy an apartment. It may be that just getting by, adopting ‘sang’ values, is more satisfying for Jun than overworking in a system that may not reward him.