The Subversive Power of Chinese Internet Slang
Chinese internet chatrooms are awash with a hubbub of hilarious, if somewhat baffling, catchphrases. Has your forum buddy dropped a deft witticism into the conversation? Then show your appreciation by typing “666,” a frenetic play on the Chinese word liu, which means “skillful, adept, or smooth.” Are a user’s boorish comments in chatrooms rubbing you the wrong way? Then call them a “dog’s leash” — a Mandarin approximation of the English phrase “go die.”
Internet catchphrases have proliferated as China has developed socially and young people have started to follow all manner of fashions and fads. Back in 1997, only 620,000 Chinese people had access to the internet; this year, that number exceeded 750 million. As the number of Chinese internet users increases at an exponential rate, online individuals have caught up with — and in many cases surpassed — traditional state-owned media’s ability to shape how we communicate.
China’s internet users first grew used to the relative freedom of expression in online chatrooms around 2005. Compared to traditional forms of media, with their inherent limitations, the internet is freer, decentralized, and user-driven. This has profound impacts on the power dynamics between different speakers, methods of communication, and the subject matter under discussion. In contrast to the serious tone and relatively homogenous viewpoints of Chinese traditional media, the internet brims with new possibilities and divergent opinions, despite the evident control that the state wields over online expression.
Ten years ago, People.cn — the online arm of People’s Daily — began to publish its “Annual Analysis of Popular Online Sentiment in China.” The project aims to document online responses to real world events that were influential nationwide.
In the years that followed, as a succession of online trends took hold of the web, members of the popular microblogging platform Weibo began to invent and popularize a large number of slang terms. For instance, the word shanzhai, popularized in 2008, can be used to describe anything that is fake, a knock-off, or out of the mainstream, such as a “shanzhai cellphone” or “shanzhai celebrity.” Pindie, which shot to popularity in 2009 and refers to adult children who depend on their parents for financial stability or employment, hinted at young people’s fear of a lack of social mobility. Later, 2011’s meng became one of modern Chinese pop culture’s defining terms, describing a playful charm which attracts affection from others.
Chinese netizens also generate new slang on WeMedia while discussing the latest news and gossip. One typical example is that netizens have created new families of online slang terms, such as “sharp brother” (xilige) and “BMW sister” (baomajie). The former describes a once-homeless man who used to reside in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo and became an online sensation after netizens saw his ruggedly handsome features and tattered but well-coordinated outfit. The latter, meanwhile, refers to a woman named Ma Nuo who participated in the matchmaking show, “If You Are the One,” and whose materialistic views on courtship was subject to fiery online debate, not least her assertion that she would “rather be crying in a BMW than laughing on the back of a bicycle.”
Although these online sensations are only fleetingly fashionable, they are nonetheless defining figures of a particular era in China’s cyber history, in that they reflect netizens’ changing tastes as well as their desire for novelty. This contrasts starkly with the biased portrayals of public personages in traditional media, which tend to emphasize their subjects’ merits at the expense of more nuanced depictions of their flaws.
What’s more, netizens have broken linguistic conventions by creatively adapting certain vulgar or political expressions into their daily lives. For example, diaosi was a popular online slang in 2012 and 2013, and continues to be used in conversations today. While it originally referred to a man’s pubic hair, netizens turned this word into an epithet for “losers,” “down-and-outs,” or people generally seen as occupying society’s lowest rungs. People.cn once defined diaosi as a vulgar term — its first character, diao, is derived from a slang term for a penis — but in 2014, it was used on Weibo over 100 million times.
Similarly, the online catchphrase “Tuhao, let’s be friends” appropriated a historically highly politicized term for rich, power-hungry local bullies. The subsequent use of the term “tuhao gold” further diversified the definition of the word, referring to a limited-edition gold-colored iPhone 5S as a means to convey the garish, kitsch tastes embraced by many of China’s nouveau riche.
Words like pindie, diaosi, and tuhao are cynical and often self-deprecating witticisms highlighting young people’s concerns about how China’s growing wealth disparity affects their own future prospects. Adapting and using words that carry political connotations, or that state media outlets frown upon, is a canny form of linguistic subversion that seeks to wrest back an element of power from the social and political elite.
During the roughly seven-year “golden age,” from 2007 to the end of 2013, popular online expressions began to overturn state-sponsored linguistic conventions, in turn encouraging the development of civil society. Of course, this phenomenon had taken place previously — the word “comrade” (tongzhi), appropriated to refer to gay people, is perhaps the best-known example — but the vast scale and fragmented nature of these acts in the internet era are truly unprecedented.
In those years, in online forums and chatrooms, Chinese netizens deconstructed official linguistic conventions, largely losing faith in traditional media, and expressed themselves more often on WeMedia. Then, in 2013, the Chinese government closed some social media accounts of popular social commentators for the accusation of spreading fake news and harming national honor and interests.
Since then, online discourse in China has gradually distanced itself from politics in favour of more personal, commercial, and entertainment-oriented content. Advertisements for Singles’ Day, the world’s biggest online shopping holiday, are typical examples of where netizens now reimagine linguistic tropes: In an all-or-nothing bid to seize shoppers’ attention, online merchants create advertisements that push boundaries with their vulgar language and risqué innuendo. While some commercials generate controversy, they are nonetheless popular among young people and the middle class.
Since 2013, netizens have taken to expressing themselves within smaller online cliques, as online and official discourse become increasingly divergent. Online messaging app WeChat allows users to share their opinions within their own private circles, while public WeChat accounts tend to gather users with similar values and perceptions. For example, although online content creator Mimeng sometimes uses vulgar expressions to attract the attention of the 10 million people who read her social commentaries, her audience is nonetheless a relatively small group of like-minded individuals — in China, at least. Such highly targeted content would have been impossible to create back in the days before the internet.
In a departure from China’s past forms of public discourse — when state media espoused consistent views on current events — today’s Chinese turn to WeMedia to broadcast news and opinions. As a form of rhetoric, internet buzzwords help net users to better express their thoughts and feelings, and avoid the tightening restrictions on web content. Only on the internet can Chinese citizens satisfy their desires for a plurality of opinion, discussion, and invective. Whether or not you agree, this phenomenon captures the complex, fragmented realities of modern China.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Corbis/VCG)