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    Turn Off, Drop Out: Why Young Chinese Are Abandoning Ambition

    As the economy slows and social expectations rise, youngsters are rejecting traditional notions of success and embracing a culture known as ‘sang.’

    In recent years, an increasing number of urban, middle-class Chinese young people have begun to identify with sang culture. Simply put, sang refers to a reduced work ethic, a lack of self-motivation, and an apathetic demeanor. “I’m just a waste of space,” “I don’t care all that much for life,” and “I’m listless to the point of despair” are typical phrases uttered by sang youths.

    Meanwhile, memes such as the “Ge You Slouch,” the recently deceased Pepe the Frog, and “Gudetama” or “lazy egg” have become the beloved mascots of sang youngsters. American series such as “Bojack Horseman” and sang dramas from Japan reflect the same mentality.

    There is a huge genre of Japanese young adult novels and films that evokes the downtrodden attitude of many modern young people. These works, in turn, have inspired China’s wenyi qingnian — young, artsy hipster types — scoring highly on review sites such as the IMDb-like Douban.

    One of these works is the film “Setoutsumi,” which was introduced to Chinese audiences at last year’s Shanghai International Film Festival. The film centers on the humorous riverside rants of two Japanese high schoolers who meet after class each day. In particular, a line from high schooler Setou’s internal monologue seized the hearts of many moviegoers: “Why do we have to spend our youth running around, working up a sweat? Why can’t we just idly spend it by the side of the river?” This notion of idleness is central to the sang mindset.

    Another Japanese cult film in the sang genre, “Tamako in Moratorium,” is an even more vivid expression of idle living. After graduating from university, the female protagonist, Tamako, returns to her hometown in rural Japan. Far from concerned about the traditional post-graduation pressures of finding a job and starting a family, she holes herself up at home and spends her days napping and snacking. As the seasons come and go, Tamako continues her seemingly monotonous existence within the confines of her apartment. A recluse with few friends, all attempts at changing her fate seem futile, and any thoughts of success seem like extravagant pipe dreams.

    However, we don’t necessarily have to view sang culture as an extreme, negative, or desperate state of mind. In their critiques of sang culture, cultural commentators tend to treat the phenomenon as though it arose from nowhere, failing to recognize sang’s unique context.

    Sang culture is actually an evolved form of the once-prominent notion of xiaoquexing — fleeting moments of joy found in everyday life. For instance, buying a loaf of fresh bread — still hot from the baker’s oven — taking it home, and gnawing on the heel as you cut the rest into slices. Slipping through the undisturbed surface of a deserted swimming pool in the early hours of the morning, and pushing off from the wall with your foot. Listening to the chamber music of Brahms as you contemplate the silhouettes of leaves on a paper window, created by the gentle sunlight of an autumn afternoon.

    If xiaoquexing is an appreciation of the little triumphs to be found amid life’s monotony, then sang culture is a similar emphasis, even an exaggeration, of a pervasive feeling of loss.

    Fleeting joy forms the underlying context of sang culture. To be sang is not to be in a state of complete despair; instead, the term evokes the sense of disenfranchisement that certain young people feel as a result of being excluded from some of life’s supposedly greater pursuits, such as home ownership, the accumulation of personal wealth, and the attainment of social mobility. Sang culture is a first-world problem: Its adherents wallow in grievances that contrast starkly with the much more pressing problems faced in most other developing nations.

    Sang culture resonates with young people not because they aren’t interested in success. On the contrary, an increasing number of young people describe themselves as sang because they feel that it is futile to pursue traditional notions of success. In this respect, Japanese society has provided an important point of reference.

    The Japanese sociologist Atsushi Miura analyzed his country’s collective disillusionment in his book “Karyū Shakai,” first published in 2005. He takes the word karyū — which here literally means a “low-class” or “lower-stream” society — to refer to countrymen whose communication skills, life skills, passion for work, motivation to learn, and consumer desires are lower than those of other people. The downwardly mobile society evoked in Miura’s work is the product of Japan’s sluggish economy, which has failed to revive itself since the financial crisis of the early 1990s. The resulting lack of social mobility has turned many Japanese young people into defeatists.

    Of course, China has its own social mobility issues. Household registration policies, high real estate costs, and unequal wealth distribution are the main obstacles to personal growth in today’s China. Many young people are unable to attain success in the form of owning a house, a car, and a permanent urban residence permit. In addition, China’s slowing economic growth has led to a wave of layoffs. Meanwhile, young people also complain that work is excessively stressful and the dating pool has been contaminated by materialism and opportunism.

    In this sense, the sang mentality is a means of self-preservation. By deliberately stunting themselves, China’s young people reduce their expectations and alleviate stress. In making their plans as unambitious as possible, they never have to endure the feeling of failure.

    Sang culture is merely a reflection of social problems. Despite the petulance of refusing to engage with society, China’s sang youngsters are staging a timid, disorganized rebellion against society. Instead of demonizing them for it, we should strive to resolve the problems that this culture reflects. In my opinion, we must proceed with caution and attempt to understand and empathize with sang people.

    Young people don’t choose to be sang — they simply have no alternative. In fact, sang is a coping mechanism similar to stoicism: It demands that we conform our desires to reality, not the other way around. As a result, when confronted by the irrationality and meaninglessness of the real world, we may be seduced by the cool indifference of sang culture, but we must also bear in mind that it is a form of self-sabotage. By giving ourselves up to being sang, we ultimately stop envisaging a better life for ourselves. 

    It is true that real estate prices are high, work is exhausting, and wages are low; this generation of young people really don’t have it easy. That said, we can’t solve all our social problems at the flick of a switch. Instead of opting for dejection, we can choose to tackle the problem head-on. People can become an important force in promoting social reform and progress, or they can choose the way of political indifference, complacency, and listlessness, viewing society’s problems as inevitable and ineradicable, and seeking refuge in small comforts and ephemeral pleasures. Ultimately, the key to improving one’s lot in life lies in this choice.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: Popular cartoon character Gudetama, or ‘lazy egg,’makes its debut in Shanghai, June 19, 2017. Wang Gang/VCG)