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 http://kds.pchome.net/. 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.