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Chinese millennial | © Michael Coghlan / Flickr
Chinese millennial | © Michael Coghlan / Flickr

Why Are China's Millennials Hooked on 'Mental Opium'?

Picture of Matthew Keegan
Updated: 13 September 2017

A new range of teas that poke fun at the growing level of pessimism among young Chinese has been branded “mental opium” by China’s ruling Communist Party. Yet, millennials in China can’t seem to drink enough of these special teas as being dispirited has become their new brew of choice.

A rising wave of pessimism among Chinese millennials has triggered the creation of a range of teas such as “achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea”, and “my-ex‘s-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea”.

Drowning sorrows over a cup of suitably named tea is becoming more popular at the Sung chain of tea stalls across China. Although designed to be tongue-in-cheek, the teas reflect a sentiment that is of growing concern for China’s ruling Communist Party who prioritise stability and the value of striving for continued success.

Therefore, it doesn’t bode well that a significant number of young Chinese have become discouraged and embrace an attitude known on social media as “sang”, named after a Chinese character associated with the word “funeral” that describes being dispirited.

Sang culture is said to be a reaction to the increasing levels of pressure placed on China’s young to be consistently high achievers. This begins with the pressure to succeed academically and leads to cutthroat competition for good jobs, pressures to own a home (which is viewed as a requirement for marriage in China) and so the list goes on.

Characterised by ironic defeatism, sang culture has been pedalled by a growing number of celebrities, through music and the popularity of certain mobile games and TV shows, as well as sad faced emojis and pessimistic slogans.

A “sang” internet personality wrote in one post. “It would be great if I could just wake up to retirement tomorrow,” reports Reuters.

However, this type of ironic humour is lost on China’s ruling Communist Party.

The Sung chain of teas was called out in August for peddling “mental opium” by a state owned newspaper in China which described sang culture in an editorial as “an extreme, pessimistic and hopeless attitude that’s worth our concern and discussion”.

“Stand up, and be brave. Refuse to drink ‘sung tea’, choose to walk the right path and live the fighting spirit of our era,” it said.

Looking at the bigger picture, it appears sang culture has become something of a rebellion against the intense social and family pressure to succeed in modern China at whatever cost. This typically comes with the added expectation that as members of the one-child generation, the young will support ageing parents and grandparents.

It sounds like a lot of pressure on these young people’s shoulders and so an occasional cup of “achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea”, seems like a novel way to poke a bit of fun at it.

However, the Chinese Communist Party seems ever more determined to clamp down on what they view as “a growing concern”.

Recently, some young netizens were frustrated when Bojack Horseman, an animated American TV series about a half-man/half-horse former sitcom star, and popular among the sang generation for his self-loathing and cynicism, was pulled from Chinese streaming site iQiyi.

“Screw positive energy,” Vincent, a 27-year old social media user, commented under a post announcing the news.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing that a good cup of tea can’t fix and for that China’s young have the Sung tea chain. Sung tea is currently located in 12 cities after opening its first permanent tea stall in July in Beijing, where a best-selling “sitting-around-and-waiting-to-die” matcha milk tea costs 18 yuan.

Founder of Sung Tea, Mr. Xiang Huanzhong, told Reuters that “he expects pressure on young Chinese adults only to grow, citing the expectation on young people to provide financially for their older relatives.”

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.

As China’s economy is no longer as robust as it was in previous years, the average starting salary for college graduates has dropped by 16 percent. In addition, competition for jobs has increased tenfold as millions more are graduating from universities. To top if off, property prices are surging in China, making it very difficult to get on the property ladder in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

“Sang culture is a quiet protest against society’s relentless push for achieving the traditional notion of success. It is about admitting that you just can’t make it,” one young Chinese told Reuters.