A year ago, the Chinese character ga cut a rather lonely figure. Unlike most other commonly used characters that paired up promiscuously with others to form words with multiple meanings, ga only had one possible partner: gan. Taken together, the words gan’ga form a term we can all relate to: “awkward.”
But thanks to the ever-changing slang used on the Chinese internet, in the past year ga has been liberated from such linguistically enforced monogamy. Indeed, it has transformed into an independent adjective in its own right, hooking up with vast numbers of Chinese verbs. Got a friend who dances awkwardly? That’s gawu. Know anyone who gets nervous at karaoke? That’s gachang, or “awkward singing.” And we’ve all been stuck in our fair share of galiao, “awkward chats.”
Ga is the latest nugget of internet slang to worm its way into the lexicons of Chinese young people, both online and offline. The term sparked the public’s renewed love affair with social awkwardness, something that has come to be known as ga wenhua: “awkward culture.” Some commentators went so far as to argue that ga is 2017’s most important example of Chinese internet slang thus far — even more important than sang, another term that has spawned a remarkably popular culture of apathy and self-loathing among young Chinese.
Readers familiar with Taiwanese culture may be wondering what all the fuss is about. In Hokkien — a dialect spoken by many native Taiwanese — the word ga has been used in conjunction with all sorts of “social” verbs for several years. In fact, ga also means “competition” or “race,” which led Taiwanese “break boys” to adopt the term gawu to refer to their street dance battles. Once ga crossed the Taiwan Straits last year, however, its meaning morphed into something more prosaic.
Last summer, a Chinese teen drama called “Magical Dance Girl Duo-Fa-La” aired online. Featuring a host of absurd characters, a contrived storyline, and cringeworthy special effects, the show rapidly amassed a slew of negative reviews from Chinese viewers.
Despite its low ratings, the show did make a positive contribution to Chinese society: It raised public awareness of ga culture. In the series, a group of teenage girls are only able to unleash their magic through the power of dance, a plot feature that leads to the main characters abruptly busting a move at random or inopportune moments. To netizens, here was evidence of gawu in its purest, most awkward form.
In mid-July, a short video went viral on the Chinese internet. In the clip, police stop a middle-aged Chinese man in Hainan, an island province in southern China, for violating traffic regulations. Incensed, the man suddenly begins thrashing his arms and legs in a preposterous dance, before going on to imitate a wild horse in the middle of the intersection.
Why has ga culture gained such popularity this year? One answer may lie in China’s growing number of poorly produced, overlong domestic TV shows, whose lengthy, meandering conversations are designed to extend the plot. Television dramas in China are normally priced based on the number of episodes in the series, a phenomenon that encourages screenwriters to deliberately slow the pace of the narrative and string out the show as long as possible in an effort to garner a better deal from investors and TV stations.
“Fighter of the Destiny” and “Princess Agents,” for example, are two of 2017’s hottest TV series. Featuring some of China’s most popular “little fresh meat” actors, both shows have aired more than 50 episodes, each 45 minutes long. The result has been line after line of meaningless dialogue between characters, accompanied by the kind of wooden acting that leaves the impression of being trapped in an awkward conversation.
Second, as Chinese millennials have embraced social networking as a key means of communication, they have discovered that issues like skyrocketing housing prices, long work hours, air pollution, and rapid urbanization affect millions of people of similar ages and backgrounds. In response, they have invented a set of coping mechanisms that self-deprecatingly satirize their predicament.
While sang culture is a way for young people to abandon ambition altogether, ga culture allows them to foresee adult life as a series of awkward scenarios that can only be met with humor.
On the tightly controlled Chinese internet, it is simply not possible to openly criticize many social issues that today’s youth face. That’s where ga culture comes in, allowing them to reframe the debate with levity and optimism. But the more sinister side to ga culture is its indirect means of speaking about real social issues, for the harsh reality is that there are simply no other ways to express them.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
This is an original article by Elephant Room and has been published with their permission. The article can be found on their website here.
(Header image: Surrounded by spectators, a man dances at a park in Zhengzhou, Henan province, March 6, 2017. IC)