In America, he became a symbol of hate. In China, he spoke for millions of disillusioned young people left behind in the country’s rapid economic rise.
Like most internet memes, Pepe the Frog, an anthropomorphic frog with sad eyes and a dopey smile, crossed international borders and came to mean different things for different people.
In America, the cartoon character was used by alt-right groups during the 2016 presidential election to aid the cause of white nationalists. In China, he came to represent the frustrations of people living in a hyper-competitive and rapidly modernizing society. His name in Chinese is 伤心青蛙, the sad frog.
For a long time, American cartoon characters have been used by Chinese millennials as avatars to express their pessimistic outlook on life.
BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s esoteric dark comedy, and King of the Hill, a ’90s family sitcom, are not aired in China, but netizens have managed to find the shows through online forums and used the characters to represent their angst and hopelessness, slapping depressing captions on sad cartoons.
Known as sang (丧) or funeral culture, the internet phenomenon encourages a sentiment of defeatism, despondency, burnout, and even a sense of aloof detachment, often presented with dark humor.
The self-mocking ironic memes—often using characters with sad or despondent expressions—reflect the status of many Chinese youngsters who hold a dim view of their future prospects, often surrounding concerns over career or marriage. Just give up, the memes essentially say.
Sang culture started to catch on in 2016, when the meme "Ge You slouch" (葛优躺) went viral on Chinese social media. The meme was extracted from a scene in a Chinese sitcom where Ge You, a famous Chinese actor, played a pathetic do-nothing who’d always lie on a couch.
Eventually, Pepe, Bobby Hill, and BoJack Horseman joined the list.
Sang culture might seem pessimistic, but what Chinese millennials are really fancying is the dark humor that offers them a vent for their dismay.
“We face strong pressure in everyday life,” says Zheng, a restaurant worker in Shanghai. “At work, we’re often pushed by our bosses to meet certain benchmarks.”
“The sang memes actually express positiveness even though they might give you this dispiriting feeling,” says Lin Xiao, an elementary school teacher. “You actually feel like acting the opposite.”
Tea of woes
As more young people are identifying with sang culture, business opportunities also follow.
Evan Chou, the owner of Sung Tea (丧茶), opened a shop in Shanghai selling tea with names that would resonate with its younger clientele.
“Sang culture is actually a kind of self-protection,” Chou says. “Young people face a lot pressure these days. Many of them, for example, are frustrated with skyrocketing housing prices and can’t afford to buy a house.”
“Sang culture is actually a kind of self-protection.”
One of the best-sellers is the “no-hope-for-promotion-at-work Oreo black tea,” Chou says. “Many young white-collar workers would buy the tea and share it on WeChat or Weibo.”
The Chinese government, on the other hand, is fully aware of this internet phenomenon and has tried to put an end to it.
In August 2017, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily called Sung Tea a “mental opium” in an editorial and said young people were being led astray from the demands of work and life.
In January 2018, China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League, argued that while sang culture might be able to bring comfort to some young people, it would ultimately stop them from moving forward.
But this hasn’t stopped Sung Tea from expanding its business. It now has about 100 shops across China and four in Sydney, Australia.
“Sang culture is actually universal,” Chou says. “Everyone has his or her own negative side, and we hope to take a self-mocking approach to help customers digest it.”