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Sleep No More: Why Tired Chinese Youth are Going Punk to Tackle Their Sleep Problems

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Stress, racing thoughts, buzzing smartphones, binge-watching…

There are countless reasons why we can’t get to sleep at night. And if you’re one of the more than 300 million people in China who struggle with sleep problems, chances are you’ll do whatever it takes to get the most out of your evenings.

A recent survey shows that in 2020, although people spent more time at home thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, it took them an extra two or three hours to fall asleep, while the number of online searches for sleep problems increased 43%. In just six years, the national average sleep time dropped by two hours, from 8.8 hours in 2013 to 6.9 in 2019. And perhaps not surprisingly, those in their twenties and thirties sleep the latest — and least — among all age groups.

sleep hours punk health

Those in their twenties and thirties sleep the latest — and least — among all age groups. (Graphics: Sabina Islas)

Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

M.J., a 25-year-old software engineer based in Shanghai, goes to bed late by choice. He only sleeps when he gets drowsy, which means he usually sleeps at 3:00 AM, but can sometimes be up until five in the morning.

Like many overworked people his age, there’s a reason for his almost-reversed sleep schedule — revenge. He says:

“In retaliation for the time I’m deprived of at work during the day, I put off my bedtime. It’s unacceptable to me to go to bed as soon as I get back home.”

M.J. uses the free time to scroll on his phone, watch movies, or play games. He says he once stayed up for days to play Cyberpunk 2077, and had to take a half day’s leave afterwards because he overslept the following morning.

This cycle of being exhausted in the day and staying up late at night is a familiar one for many people, which has made “revenge bedtime procrastination” (報復性熬夜) a buzzword in recent years. With people feeling overworked and like they have little agency over their daytimes, they feel the necessity to reclaim their “me time” at night instead.

The hashtag “Why people stay up late,” which first emerged on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo at the end of January, has reached 150 million views to date. Most comments attribute the habit to a lack of free time during the day.

“To pretend I can seize the day,” reads the most upvoted answer to the posed question in the hashtag.

Here, we asked how well young Chinese people sleep (Not very):

 

Punk Health

Young Chinese people are not ignorant to the downsides of insufficient sleep or similarly damaging health habits, however. In response, they have come up with unique ways to still have their fun while exacting their “revenge.”

This new lifestyle, dubbed “punk health,” or pengke yangsheng (朋克养生) in Mandarin, tries to offset unhealthy lifestyles with health hacks, often derived from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Having skin problems due to a lack of sleep? Try more expensive skincare products. Drinking too much alcohol or too many soft drinks? Add some goji berries to them. Other hacks include foot baths, TCM-derived diet therapies, and herbal health products.

sleep economy foot bath

Foot baths have been an important part of young people’s punk health lifestyle. (Source: 丁一晨DYC)

For 21-year-old Zoey Zhou, “punk health” has impacted her nighttime routine for roughly five years. She often has the urge to get a foot bath, work out, or even study English around midnight, and by the time she finishes, the clock often reads 2:00 AM. Sometimes, she says, she’ll take a bubble bath as late as 3:00 AM.

No matter how late Zhou sleeps however, her internal clock wakes her up at 7:00 AM on the dot. She’s taking grape seed extract to help with skin repair, yet still she can’t refuse her late-night impulse.

“By the time I finish my daily tasks, I feel free, and I want to do something meaningful for myself.”

Even TCM pharmacies have begun tapping into the need for such guilty pleasure “punk health” products. Last year, Tong Ren Tang — China’s biggest and one of its oldest TCM product manufacturers, which turns 352 years old this year — launched three types of “Punk Health Coffee” flavored with goji berries, longan and dates, and rose and hawthorn respectively.

sleep economy punk health

Tong Ren Tang’s three types of “Punk Health Coffee” that features goji berries, longan and dates, and rose and hawthorn respectively. (Source: Tong Ren Tang)

Another pharmaceutical company similarly combined Chinese medicinal “superfoods” with their new line of milk tea and pastries, such as chocolate lotus seed cakes and red bean yam cookies.​

The Sleep Economy

Grape seed extract and TCM coffee are just two examples of what sleepless young Chinese people have in their shopping carts.

Caiwei Chen, a freelance writer based in Beijing, says she prefers to write at night when it’s quiet. If she’s lucky, she falls asleep before 5:00 AM. “I often lie in bed and can’t stop my thoughts from racing, to the point that I get so anxious I can’t sleep at all,” she says.

Her sleep aids include an aromatherapy diffuser, night light, massage pillow, collection of steam eye masks, and meditation apps. Chen finds the last of these most helpful, having become a paid member for two apps called Tide and Headspace:

“When I can’t sleep at all, only guided meditation can save me.”

According to the recently released China Sleep Index Report, 62% of the people who bought sleep aid products in 2019 were born after 1990. Eye masks, earplugs, foot pads, smart watches, and healthcare products are among the most popular items with this cohort, according to figures from CBNData. As a result, the need to improve slumber has created a burgeoning “sleep economy” in China, believed to be worth 400 billion RMB (over 60 billion USD) this year.

sleep economy punk health

Eye masks, earplugs, foot pads, smart watches, and healthcare products are among the most popular items with this cohort. (Graphic: Sabina Islas)

For full-time workers, especially those employed at big tech firms, it’s even harder to control when to sleep. Despite controversy and criticism, the “996 overwork culture” — the practice of working from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, six days a week — is still widely in place in China, and hours can sometimes go beyond this grueling schedule.

sleep overwork

According to Zhaopin Ltd report on office workers in 2019, 82% of them work overtime. (Graphic: Sabina Islas)

Such overwork practices have recently been brought back into the public eye with the case last December of a 23-year-old employee at ecommerce firm Pinduoduo who collapsed on her way home from work and later died, reportedly due to exhaustion.

Related:

Death of Pinduoduo Employee Renews Outrage Around Overtime Culture

Due to this increasingly toxic culture of overwork, nearly 99% of office workers in Shanghai had abnormal physical examination results in 2018, according to a recent report on the health of Shanghai’s white-collar workers. Research has also found that long work hours correlate with reduced sleep quality and potentially other sleep problems. Thus it’s little surprise that China’s young workers are willing to pay the price for a better night’s sleep.

As working hours are steadily lengthened, and the rate of depression and stress among young people continues to climb, China’s sleep economy is unlikely to stop expanding anytime soon.

Cover image: Sabina Islas

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.