The cult(ure) of slothful losers

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Article by Zeng Yuli in Sixth Tone (6/27/17):

"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.'"

Before reading this article, I was only vaguely familiar with "sang" culture.  So that those who do not know Chinese pronounce the word more or less correctly instead of making it sound like the past tense of "sing", read it as "sawng" or "sahng".

The article begins:

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.

The emphasis on gudetama (which I suppose comes from gudenguden ぐでんぐでん · gudegude ぐでぐで ["dead drunk; in a drunken stupor"] + tama たま ["ball; sphere; globe; orb" > "egg"], though I'm by no means an expert on this), the mention of "sang dramas from Japan", and the overall Japanese esthetic made me suppose that, like so much other East Asian youth culture, sang probably had a Japanese origin.  So far, however, I haven't been able to discover precisely what that might be.  Rather, sang seems to be something that is developing within the Sinosphere, but under the impact of Japanese cultural trends.

Though initially I didn't know for sure what character sang transcribed, from the context I quickly deduced that it was 喪.  Native speakers are somewhat ambivalent about whether to read this in 1st tone as sāng ("mourning; mourn; funeral") or in 4th tone as sàng ("to lose something abstract but important [courage, authority, one's life, etc.'; to be bereaved of [one's spouse]; to die; disappointed; discouraged"), though in the end most opt for sàng.

It's obvious from the meanings given that sàng is primarily verbal.  One correspondent explained why she feels that sàng is the appropriate reading in this instance:

Though I'm not completely sure, if I were to read the phrase, I would choose to read it as sàng wénhuà.  For me, perhaps "lack" more accurately captures the sense of emptiness / aimlessness the popular usage of this verb now expresses. My personal understanding of this word is that it describes a status, an emotional state of lacking intention to work or study, or even to actively have fun in the extreme case. I've seen people state, "Wǒ zuìjìn hǎo sàng a 我最近好丧啊!" ("I've been feeling really dispirited lately!").  In this situation, the term seems to be more like an adjective than a verb or noun.

Another correspondent stated that a sàng 丧 person is like a zombie, a walking dead.

Whether in the first tone or in the second tone, a third correspondent pointed out, "Basically 丧 is always used in a negative way (death, loss, failure)."

Whatever its deeper origins, sàng wénhuà 喪文化 is clearly something that is developing within Chinese culture.  It's certainly prevalent in Mainland China.  Does anyone know if it's also in Taiwan?

Sàng 丧 is used to refer to lack of motivation, absence of productivity, or simply dearth of energy to engage in work or study.  Here's a link to a website where people discuss sàng wénhuà 丧文化 ("sang culture") and their own interpretations of it.

Among the Chinese terms related to sang culture in Zeng Yuli's article, "Ge You Slouch" (葛优躺 ["Ge You" is an actor's name, and here are pictures of his famous slouch on a couch]) was particularly popular last summer, and many young Chinese used it frequently on social media to express their tiredness / laziness in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

Still and all, though sāng 喪 may be authentically developing within China, it fits well with Japanese fictional figures such as Rilakkuma (Rirakkuma リラックマ ["Relax Bear"]), who has been around since 2003.  In Chinese Rilakkuma is called Sōngchí xióng 鬆弛熊 (lit., "relaxed / loose / flaccid / flabby bear").  He has a fèiqīng 廢青 ("wasted youth") kind of temperament and is often urged on by his baby bird friend to "go outside once in a while".  Rilakkuma has been in existence for a decade longer than Gudetama (2013).

For an investigation of otaku and related Japanese and Sinitic (diverse topolects) terms for introverted individuals who stay at home and are often characterized by extreme lassitude, see:

"Nerd, geek, PK: Creeping Romanization (and Englishization), part 2" (3/5/13)

[Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Jinyi Cai, Mandy Chan, Fangyi Cheng, and Tianran Hang]



19 Comments

  1. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

    From Mandy Chan:

    The HK version of "Gudetama" is "梳乎蛋" (梳乎 means "soft" in Cantonese, so Souffle is translated as "梳乎厘", retaining the sound and meaning of "soft"…), and I think the mainland Mandarin version is called "蛋黃哥*". "梳乎蛋" is sort of like 喪屍**, its "whatever"-like existence can be morphed into many forms, such as boiled egg, sunny side up, fried, etc, depending on its immediate surroundings.

    *[VHM: "yolk brother"]

    **[VHM: "zombie"]

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 9:04 pm

    The egg is often shown covered with a slab of bacon.

  3. Nathan Hopson said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

    If I understand this correctly, 丧 (喪 in Japanese) is about either (a) mourning or (b) the loss itself, either of a loved one, etc., or of something abstract.

    There's no equivalent term for "sang culture" in Japanese. But the Japanese are famous for aesthetics (wabi-sabi, mujō, etc.) that emphasize melancholy, loneliness, etc., but I don't think that's the implication of sang. The examples given by the author suggest that what's being addressed is a kind of high-capitalist ennui rather than a high-culture melancholy. That culturally proximal and economically both more developed and more depressed Japan is the source of some of the cultural/artistic expression of this shouldn't be surprising.

  4. db said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 2:31 am

    I thought it sounded like a less socially withdrawn form of the Hikikomori.

    Though, it is closer to the NEET segment. Also relevant: Freeter.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NEET
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeter

  5. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    From a Chinese graduate student who is probably a little too old (around 30), too experienced (served in the PLA), and too successful (a published historian) to participate in sang culture:

    =====

    I don't really know the sang culture mentioned in the article, and the only other term which I know is "xiaoquexing 小确幸." And I also don't actually know its meaning.

    =====

    VHM: xiǎoquèxìng 小确幸 is often translated as "a little happiness". It is definitely a borrowing from Japanese, Haruki Murakami to be exact. It is well covered in this Chinese Stack Exchange discussion:

    https://chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/14327/meaning-and-origin-of-%E5%B0%8F%E7%A2%BA%E5%B9%B8

  6. Molly Des Jardin said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 7:16 am

    Although I forget the term for these women, there was a trend of TV dramas about a kind of failed woman who dresses up for work and is successful there, but at home changes into what's called room wear (basically sweatpants or even PJ-like clothing), drinks beer out of the can, and ties her hair up in a topknot. In other words, she's a slob unmotivated to look her best in private. One well-known drama (and manga series) I can think of is Hotaru no Hikari, where the main character is discovered to be one of these women by her boss. Anyway, this isn't really the same thing that you're describing as sang culture but it came to mind. Perhaps Nathan could remind me of the correct term for women portrayed as doing this in the media.

  7. Joseph F Foster said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 7:23 am

    So that those who do not know Chinese pronounce the word more or less correctly instead of making it sound like the past tense of "sing", read it as "sawng" or "sahng".

    Then it would be better not to spell it sang in English but rather as song or sawng.

  8. Johan P said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 9:05 am

    It does seem related to the Korean phenomenon of the Sampo generation (삼포세대) and the Japanese Satori generation (さとり世代) as well as japanese concepts like Hikikomori (ひきこもり, loners), Parasite singles (パラサイトシングル) and Freeters (フリーター).

  9. David L said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 9:43 am

    Perhaps related to Slack, as espoused by J.R. "Bob" Dobbs.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 9:55 am

    @Joseph F Foster

    The spelling "sang" is fixed by the official Hanyu Pinyin romanization.

  11. Kassia said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 10:40 am

    How is sang different from diaosi?

  12. Ellen K. said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 11:05 am

    Is it really pronounced sometimes like "sawng" rather than "sahng", or is that only for those English speakers with the cot/caught for whom those are the same? I would definitely NOT expect something with A as the written vowel to have the rounded vowel that the "sawng" spelling would indicate.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

    From a Taiwanese teacher:

    I don't think this term is popular in Taiwan yet as I was just there.

  14. leoboiko said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    I feel like, in these times of consumerism and overexploitation of natural resources leading to multiple impending ecological catastrophes, people should all go back and re-read Russel's In Praise of Idleness and other critiques of the work ethic.

  15. julie lee said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

    Victor Mair in his post says:

    "like so much other East Asian youth culture, sang probably had a Japanese origin. So far, however, I haven't been able to discover precisely what that might be."

    I'd have thought sang came from the old Chinese everyday phrases "sang qi 喪氣" (lose spirit, dispirited, demoralized) and "tui sang
    頹喪" (dejected, depressed, low in spirit)。

    "Sang 喪" and "sang culture" sounds to me like "beat" and "beat culture", where "beat' means "tired, exhausted", 'beaten down", and "beat culture" means being non-materialist, lackng in conventional ambition, and so on. Just as there was a certain glamor in being beat, so there seems to be a certain glamor in being sang.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 11:54 pm

    From Fangdn Li:

    I've never heard of sang culture before until I read the article. After I did a little bit searching on Baidu, I found out that it's Chinese name is 丧文化, and it's meaning is exactly what the article talked about. The "丧" in this case probably means "sb lost sth". The link below is a Chinese webpage introducing the sang culture.

    http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E4%B8%A7%E6%96%87%E5%8C%96

    As for it's relationship with Japanese youth culture, I'm not sure if it originally comes from Japan, but it's true that many examples raised in the article come from Japan。

    For example,

    Gudetama is a anime character in a short Japanese anime, in which the character is always sleepy and lack of energy. The Japanese meaning of Gudetama could mean that "An egg that gone bad". The Chinese translation for Gudetama is 懒蛋蛋, which literally means An lazy egg.

    The link below is a Chinese webpage introducing Gudetama,
    http://baike.baidu.com/item/%E6%87%92%E8%9B%8B%E8%9B%8B

    and the link below is a Youtube video of Gudetama with English subtitles,
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evSBBeb2T0k

    Setoutsumi is Japanese movie (セトウツミ in Japanese, 濑户内海 in Chinese) released in 2016. Like what's written in the article, the movie talks about two high school boys, Setou and Utsumi, chatting next to the river after school. The name of the movie is merely a combination of the two boys' last name.

    The link below below is a trailer of the movie with English subtitles,
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpaUlBl-eb8

    Tamako in Moratorium (もらとりあむタマ子 in Japanese, 不求上进的玉子 in Chinese) is Japanese movie released in 2013. It talks about the life of the main character Tamako, who is unemployed and spending her time sleeping, eating, reading comics, playing video games, etc. in an one year period.

    Xiaoquexing (小确幸 in Chinese, 小確幸 in Japanese) first appeared in Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)'s book " Afternoon in the Islets of Langerhans (ランゲルハンス島の午後)" in 1986 and later translated into Chinese by Murakami's former Chinese translator 林少华. It means little but certain happiness.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    June 30, 2017 @ 6:27 am

    From a teacher of Taiwanese who is also a speaker of Mandarin:

    Both Tone 2 and tone 4 are okay:

    https://tw.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20060927000011KK05926

    However, when I check the Mainland TV, it is pronounced tone 4:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=share&v=alyQXQ-ADzM

  18. Molly Des Jardin said,

    July 4, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

    I found the word I was looking for: himono-onna 干物女. It's a woman who avoids love. So it's not the same as what you're describing as sang culture but I feel like it's not unrelated. Hotaru from the series I mentioned is in the Wikipedia page for the word.

  19. Eidolon said,

    July 5, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

    Urban ennui is a world-wide phenomenon, particularly in advanced economies and especially in East Asia. I'd consider it a shared experience, rather than an invention of youth culture. The root causes have to do with the deadening effects of materialism, consumption, social alienation, urban rootlessness, and the perception of powerlessness in the system. In China, the one child generation is well-known for this type of listlessness. Perhaps the Chinese term isn't yet that popular. But it's a social condition with a thousand faces.

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