Monthly Archives: January 2013

Cyber Slang vs. People’s Daily

The full text of this article is contained in Chew Man’s latest book “Revolution Is a Dinner Party — the Rise of Rogue Pluralism in China.” On sale now on Amazon.

There is one other thing about the movie Lost in Thailand that makes it stand out. Its title in Chinese, “人再囧途之泰囧”, contains an ancient Chinese character, “囧”. It is a rarely or never used character and means “brightness” originally. However, it has come to mean “cornered”, “frustrated” or “embarrassed” on the Web. The filmmakers pandered to this fad and embraced it in the film’s title.
囧(jiǒng, frustrating, embarrassing) is just one of newly-minted words of China’s rapidly growing cyber slang They are the product of clever character play and demonstrate the trivialization of conventional ideology.
Occupy a character. The first type of cyber slang words are ancient characters that went out of circulation long time ago. 囧 (jiǒng, frustrating, embarrassing) is a perfect example. As is typical of this group, its meaning is strictly “inferred” from the pictorial characteristics. In this particular case of 囧, the character is interpreted as a person held hostage in a confining space.
Smart-aleck homophones. The second type of cyber slang words are disrespectful pranks on Chinese words and phrases that bear serious meanings. A word in this group is pronounced exactly as its conventional counterpart, and is supposed to mean the same thing; however, since its characters have been replaced with homophones, they have acquired a satirical secondary meaning. For example, the Chinese word for tragedy is 悲剧(bēijù), but often when it is used on the Web, it is replaced with 杯具(bēijù) – theater props. Since corruption is rampant in China and even the elites of academia are not immune, the word for professors, 教授 (jiào shòu), has been replaced on the Web by 叫兽 (jiào shòu), or “howling beasts”.
One of top ten most used words in 2012 was the Chinese word for Alexander. It comes with four characters: 亚历山大 (yàlìshāndà). The four character combination does not provide a meaning. They are there purely for the purpose of phonetic approximation. However, if one is to substitute the first two characters 亚历 (yàlì) with 压力 (yàlì, “pressure”), the Chinese word for Alexander becomes 压力山大(same pronunciation: yàlìshāndà) and it instantly acquires an alternate meaning – pressure/distress is as heavy as a mountain. (压力: pressure or distress; 山大: as large/heavy as a mountain.)

Eureka! The third type of cyber slang words are ingenious creations that past generations of Chinese could never even dream of. Like acronyms in English, these newly conjured words have a great deal of economy. They are concise and precise. Often, they paint a vivid picture of various social malaises.
One remarkable example of this group is 躺枪 (tǎng qiāng). Literally translated into English, the word means “lying gun,” and does not make any sense. The same puzzlement is shared by Chinese who have never heard the word before. But those who have used it know that it refers to a situation bad enough to turn innocent bystanders into collateral damage. A situation so bad that you get shot even if you dive to and stay down on the ground.
Another outstanding example of this group is 屌丝 (diǎosī). 屌 (diǎo) is an vulgar word referring to penis. 丝 (sī) is the second character in the phonetically imported word “fans”. It is hard to find a precise equivalent for it in English but the rough translation would be “dick faces.” It refers to the bitterly disenfranchised young Chinese males who often describe themselves as short, ugly, poor, clumsy and unpolished. Sociology experts have equated a typical 屌丝 with Lu Xun’s Ah Q, the only difference being that a 屌丝 (diǎosī) is much more self-conscious about his social dilemmas.
The word 屌丝 (diǎosī) made history on Nov. 3, 2012 when People’s Daily used it in a special report about the ongoing Eighteenth Party Congress. The report cited 屌丝心态 (roughly, dick face/loser attitude) as one of the knee-jerk reactions to the impact of China’s market economy. Nobody really cared what the People’s Daily said about the 屌丝 culture, but its glorious debut in the Party’s mouthpiece signified the rude awakening of China’s ruling elites. After all, the cyber slang has become a formidable social phenomenon they have to deal with. And they have chosen – to their credit – to not go into denial, but to acknowledge its popularity.
The ugly Chinese. The fourth and last group of the Cyber slangs are self-effacing catchphrases. They can be an existing word or phrase that has acquired a new meaning, or a newly coined phrase that has seen overwhelming circulation. For example, the phrase 中国式 (zhōngguó shì) has a generic meaning: Chinese style; however, it is nowadays used to refer to things you see happening “only in China.” When someone talks about a Chinese-style pedestrian crossing, for example, they are reminding you that anywhere in China, pedestrians pay no attention to the traffic lights and start crossing the road when they think there are “plenty” of them.
Another good example is 我爸是李刚 (My Dad is Li Gang.)  The phrase was first uttered by an infamous drunken driver, the 22-year-old Li Qiming (李启铭). On the evening of October 16, 2010, his black Volkswagen Magotan hit two university students on the campus of Hebei University in Baoding in Hebei province. One of the victims, 20-year-old Chen Xiaofeng (陈晓凤), died later in the hospital.The other victim, Zhang Jingjing, aged 19, remained in a stable condition, albeit suffering from a fractured left leg. Li tried to escape the scene and continued driving to the female dormitory to drop off his girlfriend. When confronted by security guards, Li was eager to reveal that that his father, Li Gang (李刚), was the deputy director of the local public security bureau. Convinced his father’s position would give him immunity, he shouted out: “Go ahead, report me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!”
Overnight, after eyewitness reports and photos of the incident went viral online, the phrase caught on fire with the Chinese. Nothing could have revealed better the inflated sense of privilege of those in power in China. Nothing could have made a better mockery of laws in China that could be trampled by those in power. If you witness an outrageous injustice committed by those in power in China, say “My father is Li Gang.”

In 2012, the Chinese word for maternal uncle, 表叔 (biǎo shū), took on a new meaning. The first character in the word, 表 (biǎo) means maternal in its original context. And the second character 叔 (shū) means uncle. However, the first character can also mean wrist watch. After a notorious scandal surrounding a Shaanxi Province bureaucrat, this word came to refer to corrupt Chinese officials who wear brand name luxury watches. With their official salaries, any one of those watches would have taken them several lifetimes’ worth of savings to purchase.
The central figure in the scandal, Mr. Yang Dacai (杨达才), chief of Shaanxi’s Safety Supervision Bureau, was caught on camera grinning at the site of a horrific traffic accident that claimed 37 lives.  That stupid grin on his fat face caused an outrage among the online community. A mass campaign to dig up dirt by bloggers and hackers ensued and uncovered numerous photos of this instant public enemy. With a little zooming, bloggers noticed that this man was quite a chameleon when it came to wrist watches: he wore different brands of expensive time pieces on public occasions. Purportedly, some of those watches cost in the neighborhood of $30,000.
In a country Transparency International (TI) considers as corrupt as Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Jamaica, Panama, and Peru, and more corrupt than Sri Lanka,  Mr. Yang is in no lack of company. Since the incident, though, Chinese officials have been camera shy when wearing wrist watches. After all, it is impossible to rehabilitate one’s reputation once labeled as a  表叔 (biǎo shū), or, a Watch Uncle.
On March 7, 2013, a photo of Mr. Yu Zhengsheng, the 4th-ranked member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee surfaced on Chinese social community site The photo was uploaded by a member under the username of “Brave Cruller” and shows Mr. Yu wearing a Patek Philippe that allegedly is worth €288K. The photo immediately became viral and earned Mr. Yu a new title: 表帝 (biǎo dì), or, the Emperor of Watch Uncles.


The Rise of Rogue Pluralism in China

The full text of this article is contained in M. Eigh’s latest book “Revolution Is a Dinner Party — the Rise of Rogue Pluralism in China.” On sale now on Amazon.

M. Eigh

Mao Zedong, founding dictator of Communist China and one of the 20th century’s most provocative philosophers, said, “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Mao’s words ring true, when considered in the context of 20th century China. Virtually no social and economic progress was ever introduced without a revolution; and no revolution was ever successful without violence. So much so that Mao concluded, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Mao’s wisdom, reflected in these uncompromising assertions, was proved true again and again in the Cold War era’s brutal politics. Marxists and Socialist practitioners who dared to deviate from Mao’s doctrine have inflicted demise on their causes and, in some cases, their own lives. Such fatalism was dramatically exemplified in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état that toppled the democratically elected, albeit communist, President Salvador Allende.
Allende believed that socialism could be achieved via parliamentary victory. When besieged by troops loyal to the CIA-backed usurper , Army Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet, he purportedly took his own life with an AK-47 after delivering a swansong speech on live radio. The rifle was a gift from Fidel Castro and bore a gold plate engraved: “To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals.”
It is only natural that generations of Chinese who grew up in Mao’s China have taken it for granted that military power equals political power, and social progress entails revolution, hence inevitably violence.

M. Eigh

Although Gorbachev-style glasnost and perestroika did not fare well in China and the 1989 Tiananmen Square mass student protest was met with a massacre – hence proving Mao’s wisdom once again – the largely bloodshed-free collapse of the Soviet Union eventually shattered that deeply imbued belief.
Today, the majority of average Chinese believe that the Chinese government has to and will redress the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. More importantly, they do not imply that such a fundamental shift in the government’s political stance can only be obtained in a violent revolution that overthrows the ruling Communist Party of China. Rather, they believe that it is just a matter of time before the Party itself will instigate the shift. There are signs that the breaking of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre taboo may have already begun. On Jan. 17, 2013, an officially approved translation of Ezra Vogel’s Lionel Gelber Prize winner, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, was released in mainland China by SDX Joint Publishing Company. Remarkably, the translation has retained roughly three quarters of the book’s original text on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident.
What is causing the average Chinese to dismiss Mao’s teachings that they used to regard as immortal truth?
The answer, the author believes, depends on the angle of analysis. But some indisputable facts have been, without a doubt, contributory. First off, two-thirds of China’s 1.34 billion people are under the age of 35,  which means two-thirds of today’s Chinese were born after Mao’s death and have been spared the brainwash that was the staple of the Mao era. Secondly, the fabric and culture of Chinese society has undergone a sea change since Mao’s passing.
This book does not aim to provide that general answer. Rather, it strives to bring your attention to the new phenomena in today’s China that make it such a dynamic, evolving nation. These phenomena are anecdotal evidence that the most crass and rudimentary forms of democracy may be penetrating the Chinese society at its grass-root level.
In other words, this book presents a China that sharply contrasts with the subsistent yet utopian China depicted by Michelangelo Antonioni in his renowned 1972 documentary Chung Kuo, China. As was demonstrated in the infantile stage of two most recent democracies, Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Republic of China (Taiwan), a burgeoning democracy first has to test its constituents’ collective willingness to tolerate pluralism. (Remember the TV clips of Parliament brawls in those countries?) Like a petri dish, a burgeoning democracy gives birth to things not only good and beautiful, but also evil and ugly.
And even what is good, evil, beautiful and ugly are up for debate in today’s China. Unanimity has died. It cannot even feign an existence in a symbolic vote in the National People’s Congress, China’s rubberstamp parliament. There are always a few enfants terribles who ruin a perfect unanimous vote by opposing or abstaining.
That is the viral power of burgeoning pluralism this book tries to depict. Since there are many ugly and ridiculous elements in the expanding universe of such pluralism, the author has decided to refer to it as rogue pluralism.
This unflattering term, coined by the author, reflects the bacterial vitality of any new trends and fads in the world’s most populous nation. Despite being the second largest economy in the world, China, burdened by the world’s largest population, ranks number 90 in per capita GDP, with a measly $5,417, as opposed to the U.S., which ranks number 14 with a per capita GDP of $48,328.  Therefore, this term also reflects the hardscrabble nature of pluralism in China.
Often unattractive notwithstanding, rogue pluralism may be the pivotal and seminal first trimester of a democratic China. Through this humble book, the author hopes that its Western readers will cherish and celebrate China’s rogue pluralism as much as the Chinese.
Pluralism begets tolerance. Tolerance begets democracy. The answer for a better China does not lie in regime change, as has happened in its history, from the numerous incarnations of feudal dynasties, to post-monarch chaos in 20th century. If the totalitarian communist government were to be overthrown and replaced with new party driven by a new utopian ideology, history would merely repeat, with millions of lives sacrificed for the sake of feel-good, yet furtive cause, as has happened so many times before.
Fortunately, rogue pluralism is on the rise in China. It has hence become less likely that a bloody revolution to overthrow the communist regime will befall the world’s most populous nation. With virtually every citizen a stakeholder in a more tolerant society, today’s majority of Chinese are more interested in establishing a fair and just process that enables them to coexist peacefully in their unprecedented march to prosperity.

M. Eigh