Young workers in China are changing their attitude toward work : Goats and Soda Younger workers are questioning the benefits of the daily grind as they face worsening prospects. The rise of "Sang culture" embodies the frustration and soul-crushing weariness.

Hard work is a point of pride in China. But a culture of slacking off is now in vogue

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We like to work hard here in the U.S. - 9 to 5, often longer. In China, They have got 996. That's 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. And it's a pretty typical routine for Chinese tech workers in cities like Shenzhen, known as China's Silicon Valley.


And that grueling work culture has contributed to a sense of exhaustion and despair. It's often expressed in online short videos and blogs. Now there's a backlash, sort of China's version of the "Great Resignation." This movement is known as Sang. And the Chinese government sees it as a social and political threat. Here's Gregory Warner, host of the NPR podcast Rough Translation, speaking with NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I was speaking to Emily about a trip she took to Shenzhen to see this exhaustion movement up close in a very unlikely place to find exhaustion - a rock show.


EMILY FENG, BYLINE: So there were probably about 200 people who showed up, which is a good crowd for a Thursday.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: And one thing that really struck me is everyone was sitting down at the beginning of the show.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: The live house had set up all these chairs lining the perimeter of the room. And people were just kind of plopped there, looking at their phones, sleeping.

WARNER: (Laughter) What?

FENG: A lot of people with their heads on other people's shoulders.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: And so I started talking to some of these people - like, why would you come all the way to a rock show, a live house, and then just take a nap? And everyone was like, well, I'm tired.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Chinese).

WARNER: Listening to Emily tell the story of this concert - it almost seemed like being exhausted in this crowd was like a membership card in a club known as Sang.

FENG: Sang is an actual Chinese character, which can be combined in various phrases. It just means depressive or tragic - in general, sad. The fact that people feel that their work is pointless. They're simply going through the motions to just get through the day every day at their jobs.


FENG: The show slowly picks up. Trip Fuel is the last act to perform. And most of their fans are between the ages of, like, 20 to 30-somethings. A lot of them are working white-collar jobs, which might be prestigious but don't often pay that much in China. And even though labor laws are starting to get a little bit more strict, it's still really common to work overtime unpaid basically every night of the week.


TRIP FUEL: (Singing) Let's go wild and watch your life wasted.

FENG: So they have no personal time of their own. They're often only children, so they've got financial burdens to make sure that they can take care of their older relatives. The band members feel this. You know, they're struggling with the same issues. But I think that's also what connects them to their fans. Their lyrics are about watching your life happen.


TRIP FUEL: (Singing) Let's go wild and watch your life wasted.

FENG: Like being a passenger in your own life and watching your dreams slowly die.


FENG: So the lead singer of the band - his name is Manager Chen.

WARNER: That's his stage name and his actual job title.

FENG: He's a manager. He manages financial products and derivatives at a provincial bank. Towards the end of their act, he pauses in between two songs, and he says, thank you all for coming to his fans, thank you to the band members, but also thank you to my bank managers for letting me be here. And everyone kind of laughs and applauds because they - like, that's part of his shtick.

WARNER: A bunch of tech workers nodding off at a math rock show may not seem like a threat to the Chinese state. But late last year, the Chinese government resolved to suppress Sang culture online. Notable anti-work influencers have since had their social media accounts shut down or their content censored. In what China calls a positive energy campaign, Sang has been accused of corroding the values of Chinese youth.

ARIS: Then you are spreading negative energy.

WARNER: Aris is a 26-year-old high school teacher in Hubei province. We're not using her full name because she didn't want to be associated with Sang culture. Aris says there's something shameful around sharing how exhausted you are.

ARIS: When you say that you are tired, it's like, oh, you might be weaker than others or you might not be suitable for the job.

WARNER: Not just the job you're hired for, but the bigger job of building China.

ARIS: Like, you could see the faster developmental China. And the propeller behind the development is each Chinese people's efforts.

WARNER: It's a principle that was ingrained in Aris since primary school. The new China needs everyone to work hard to build up the country. But though she wasn't admitting it, Aris was really exhausted. As hard-working as she was as a teacher, it wasn't the career she wanted for herself. Her parents had pressed her into getting her teaching degree.

ARIS: Traditionally, it's considered to be a great job for a girl to become a teacher. It means you have more time to take care of your children and your family. Our parents bring us up, so we should be grateful for their efforts. So what they are owed, we should also take care of them.

WARNER: Aris had other dreams for what she wanted for her career. But she felt she had a duty - to obey her parents.

ARIS: So I tried to be a good teacher. And I am aware that I have to work hard for my students and for my responsibility. And if the bad feelings come, then let it come and just don't forget to do what I need to do right now.

WARNER: But Aris couldn't help but be exposed to quitting influencers on the internet, thanks to her meme-savvy high school students. This was before China's suppression of Sang culture. And then the pandemic hit, and Aris started to rethink her own priorities. Why had she been working so hard and so unhappily?

ARIS: You will never know what might happen to you next moment. So if I die right now, I would have felt very angry because I didn't live for Aris right now.

WARNER: And so recently, Aris made a big decision.

ARIS: I decided to quit.

WARNER: To leave teaching and enroll in law school.

ARIS: I submitted my letter of quit.


WARNER: But she wasn't going to tell her parents - or not yet.

ARIS: When I am admitted, I will tell them. That's my plan.

WARNER: You'll get into law school, and that's when you'll call them up and say...

ARIS: Yeah.

WARNER: It's risky. But to her surprise, making that choice has filled her with nothing but positive energy.

PFEIFFER: You can hear more of Aris' story on the Rough Translation podcast. It includes a viral video of a thief who helped inspire her and millions of others to reexamine their notion of hard work. Rough Translation has a new season about workplace cultures around the world and what they reveal about our own work lives.


Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.