Colorful Carp and Cheesy Pickup Lines: China’s Top Slang of 2018
“Official announcement: I can tell from your eyes that you’re a Buddha-like koi, skr skr.”
A few years ago, the Mandarin version of this sentence would have been little more than a hodgepodge of nonsensical lexemes to the average Chinese person. Fast-forward to today, however, and you’ll find that these words and phrases are among the most popular memes of 2018, according to a list published Wednesday by a language research center affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education.
The interconnectedness of Chinese characters means people are constantly creating new words by piecing together two or more characters whose meanings can be compounded. Dialects, news events, songs, and online subcultures are all prime sources of new linguistic creations, which take shape and evolve as they’re disseminated over WeChat, Weibo, and other popular social platforms.
Last year, the annual list from China’s National Language Monitoring and Research Center featured neologems like “awkward small talk,” “greasy,” and even a spirited cheer for a cartoon mantis shrimp. Here is Sixth Tone’s take on this year’s top-trending terms.
What are koi? Auspicious, colorful carp that also resemble a useless breed of splash-prone Pokémon? Or something else entirely?
In recent years, Chinese netizens have increasingly applied the term to anyone or anything believed to bring good fortune. Ascending to “koi status” means having your likeness widely shared on social media by netizens who hope to boost their luck in love, or as a talisman before their exams or job interviews.
Two of the year’s most prominent koi idols are Ma Huixian and Yang Chaoyue. In October, Ma — a 25-year-old computer engineer — was the lucky winner of “Alipay Chinese Koi,” a highly publicized sweepstakes. And Yang, a sweet-looking but marginally talented contestant on the TV song and dance competition “Produce 101” also rose to koidom after she emerged as the program’s unlikely winner.
2. Troll queen
This new Chinese term — comprised of characters used in the words “bicker” and “mischievous spirit” — refers to people who revel in confrontation and will argue just for the sake of arguing. If you had a quarrelsome colleague, for example, you might complain of them being “a total troll queen.”
In August and September, two separate videos of a man and women who sat in train seats that did not match their tickets and then stubbornly refused to budge went viral. The two were crowned “troll queens” by netizens, who paired them together as soulmates in a series of memes.
Last year’s first season of the music show “The Rap of China” not only brought rap to the country’s mainstream audience, but also gave birth to one of 2017’s most celebrated memes — “Do you freestyle?” — courtesy of Kris Wu, a former member of boy band EXO and a judge on the show.
Despite controversies surrounding the show’s first winner and concerns about representations of hip-hop culture being banned from TV earlier this year, the rap competition returned for a second season in the summer, with Wu seeming determined to coin another viral meme.
At a press conference in July, Wu repeatedly praised the contestants’ strong performances with the onomatopoeic utterance “skr,” without actually explaining what it meant. Despite some initial confusion, netizens had soon embraced the word and were peppering it willy-nilly into their own chats, confusing their friends with exclamations like “You skr idiot” or “That’s so frea-skr-king annoying.”
From sang culture to “spiritually Finnish” to “fat otaku happiness,” China’s ambition-eschewing millennials have given themselves several creative labels in the past few years. Most recently, a Chinese term meaning “Buddha-like” has emerged as a means of describing young people who have no intention of stressing themselves out by running a lifelong rat race; instead, they prefer a calmer, more simplistic existence.
Even some commercial products are being described as Buddha-like. Take the mobile game “Traveling Frog,” for example, in which “players” spend much of their time looking at an empty home, waiting for their prodigal amphibian to return from galivanting through Japan.
While online media outlets like to poke fun at the carefree, 25-going-on-65 younger generation, critics argue that the attitudes embodied by these Buddha-like youth are a natural reaction to the enormous amount of pressure they face, including sky-high housing prices, poor employment prospects, and little time to placate nagging parents by finding the perfect spouse.
5. “From what I see in your eyes”
确认过眼神 (quèrèn guò yǎnshén)
This year, a lone line from a cheesy, decade-old pop ballad became a social media buzzphrase. During the chorus of his 2008 love ballad, Singaporean pop idol JJ Lin offers an emotional appeal to his would-be partner: “From what I see in your eyes, you’re the right one for me.”
Credited for the phrase’s prominence and the song’s return to social radars is a meme that was widely shared during the Chinese New Year holiday. On the eve before the country welcomed the Year of the Dog, an image of a red envelope with Mao Zedong’s green eyes — found on the 1-yuan note, valued at around 15 cents — peeking through a slit was widely shared on microblogging platform Weibo. Under the image, a snarky caption reads, “From what I can see in your eyes, you’re from Guangdong” — a jab at the perceived stinginess of people in the southern province.
In the months that followed, netizens incorporated the phrase “From what I see in your eyes” into a raft of other humorous contexts. One blog post gives a number of examples: “From what I see in your eyes, you’re the one the police are looking for”; “From what I see in your eyes, you’re someone I should ignore”; “From what I see in your eyes, it’s obvious we’re both gangsters.”
6. Official Announcement
Celebrities enjoy fanatical fan followings in China — so much so that when they’ve got a big “official announcement” to share, it can break the internet.
In October 2017, when “little fresh meat” pop idol Lu Han announced his new relationship on Weibo, the ensuing flood of traffic to the site caused its servers to suffer a rare crash. A year later, actors Zhao Liying and Feng Shaofeng posted a photo of themselves together at a marriage office, holding their newly minted marriage certificates: “Official announcement,” read the post, which included a heart emoji. The surprise news became one of the most popular Weibo posts of all time, reaching 5 million likes in just four hours.
Before long, media were asking netizens which celebrity they wanted to “officially announce” their marriage to. The Weibo account of the British Tourism Authority even posted a photo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman — the mystery-solving duo in the hit BBC series “Sherlock” — along with the words “official announcement” and a heart. The post was a source of infinite delight to Chinese netizens, who have long joked that the two should officially be an item.
7. Center stage
C位 (C wèi)
This year, a term long used in the world of online gaming finally shared the spotlight. The term for “center stage” is made up of the letter C — for “core” or “center” — plus the Chinese word wei, meaning “place” or “position.”
The term originates in online battle arena games like “Dota 2,” “League of Legends,” and “Honour of Kings,” where it referred to the “carrier” or main damage-dealer in a team’s war party. Over time, the term found its way into the entertainment industry, referring to the “central” position a singer or dancer might occupy onstage, or to where a lead actor might be featured in a movie poster.
This summer, “center stage” saw a jump in usage after three singers left the girl group Rocket Girls, which had formed following the finale of TV singing competition “Produce 101.” While some netizens were outraged that the group had died before it had truly lived, others joked that the abrupt departures gave the show’s second runner-up, Yang Chaoyue, an opportunity to take center stage in the band.
In response to Yang’s stroke of luck, business magnate, esports backer, and online prankster Wang Sicong shared an image of the singer with her eyes closed and her hands clasped as if in prayer, along with the message: “Tencent [the company that created ‘Produce 101’] really has worked hard to help Yang Chaoyue take center stage.”
8. Cheesy pickup lines
土味情话 (tǔwèi qínghuà)
The phrase “cheesy pickup lines” combines tuwei (“countryside style” or “old-fashioned”) and qinghua (“words of love”). While the term existed before 2018, it entered the popular consciousness in April thanks to the televised male pop idol competition “Idol Intern King.”
“If I pushed you into a garden, I wouldn’t be able to find you — because you’re as beautiful as a flower,” said purple-haired contestant Mu Ziyang during one episode, addressing the camera. Soon the other heavily made-up men on the show were competing to see who could deliver the most cringeworthy one-liner.
The cheesy lines gained fame as they spread to other variety shows. A quick search of the popular new term on Weibo or Baidu produces a trove of the sickly-sweet odes. A few of our favorites, in the most generous sense of the word: “Can you smell that burning? That’s my heart on fire” and “I wrote your name on a cigarette and smoked it — so you’d be in my lungs, close to my heart.”
9. Being cheeky
皮一下 (pí yīxià)
Pi is originally a dialectical term from the wider region around the northwestern province of Shaanxi: It’s a truncated variation of tiaopi, meaning “cheeky.”
Originally used by livestreaming gamers to refer to impudent in-game behaviour — vigorously moving one’s avatar back and forth over the pixelated corpse of a slain rival, for example — it was more widely popularized through memes such as “You’ve just been cheeky; are you happy now?” Another popular meme featuring Peppa Pig’s porcine papa reads, “I’m so happy to be a bit cheeky.”
10. Burn my calories
燃烧我的卡路里 (ránshāo wǒde kǎlùlǐ)
Another song lyric-based meme, this phrase comes from Rocket Girls’ debut single “Calorie,” an auto-tuned track about dieting and weight loss that became the anthem of gymgoers and elderly square-dancers across the country. Soon after the song’s release, the phrase “burn my calories” — belted out by none other than Yang Chaoyue — went viral on Chinese social media.
The partial lyric gave birth to a number of new memes, including a joke about period drama “The Return of the Pearl Princess.” In one episode, a female character whispers into the ear of a horse that’s reluctant to keep walking. The horse appears to listen and then picks up its pace. Viewers had long wondered what she could possibly have said to motivate the animal, and the meme artist proposed an answer: “burn those calories.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Kris Wu’s boy band affiliation. He is a former member of EXO, not TFBoys.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: VCG)