The Many Permutations of Chinese Netspeak
Project Pengyou intern Michelle introduces you to the various forms of informal language found on the Chinese internet.
If you’ve ever browsed through any Chinese language social media site, whether it be Weibo or Wechat, you may have encountered some strange looking words or phrases inserted into regular sentences. If so, then you have been exposed to China’s 网语 (wangyu), or netspeak. Chinese netspeak has many characteristics distinct from its English counterpart. Welcome to the world of text (and sometimes symbol) stand-ins, creative entendres, and seemingly obscure sounding references. Although the language of China’s internet may appear too obfuscating for an outsider to navigate, there are a few general patterns that you can recognize, even if you can’t tell the difference between 是 (shì: yes, to be) and 试 (also pronounced as shì: to try). Here are the three main categories of wangyu, and the origins and meanings behind several terms you should be aware of.
The internet is full of words reduced to short clusters of letters and numbers, and Chinese netspeak is no exception. However, a more unique feature of Chinese is the usage of 成语 (chengyu). Imagine watching wheel of fortune and trying to guess the phrase on the board with only a few letters missing – Chengyu are essentially the Chinese equivalent and can sometimes be difficult to infer without context. Here are a few examples:
然并卵 (rán bìng luǎn)
An abbreviation for 然而并没有什么卵用 (rán ér bìng méi yŏu shén me luǎn yòng), meaning “however, it doesn’t make any difference”. The original phrase comes from colloquial language, but netizens have since adapted it to be used to express the futility of doing something. Maybe it’s the night before an important test and you realize you’re utterly unprepared. Although you might try to do some last minute studying, you might argue that “ran bing luan”, you’d rather get some sleep instead.
不明觉厉 (bù míng jué lì)
Short for the phrase 虽不明，但觉厉, or “I don’t understand, but I think you are awesome”, variants of which have been heard in movies as early as the 1996 Hong Kong film “God of Cookery”, in which a character utters the expression after listening to an explanation on the origin of a culinary delicacy. After listening to your friend ramble on about a topic you’re unfamiliar with, you would say “bu ming jue li” to indicate respect for their authority on the subject.
As a tonal language, Chinese includes many words that sound the same, or only differentiated by inflection, making it possible to construct tongue twisters like this poem comprised of a single sound. Although there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings to arise, the tones lend flexibility to wordplay. In particular, Chinese netspeak is known for its use of puns and creative transliterations.
米兔 (mĭ tù)
The term is the Chinese transliteration of “me too”, and represented the arrival of the #MeToo movement in China, in which women spoke out about their experiences dealing with sexual harassment. Universities became a focal point for the movement, as many students have come forward about being harassed by professors or other mentors. Although there is plenty of progress to be made, the movement has resulted in the expulsion of prominent faculty mentors from Beihang and Nanjing University, and increased awareness of the issue in mainstream Chinese society.
蓝瘦香菇 (lán shòu xiāng gū)
“Blue skinny fragrant mushroom” was uttered by a Chinese netizen on camera in 2016, but he’s referring not to any exotic dish. He actually meant to say “I feel awful, I want to cry” because of recent breakup. Due to his accent, 难受，想哭 (lan shou, xiang ku) ended up sounding more like him talking about a strange type of mushroom instead. The term became a way for people to express their negative feelings in a somewhat lighthearted way.
If you encounter some unusual sounding phrases in sentences, it is likely they are memes that have manifested in everyday conversation. Chinese memes are pithy reactions to events that also express common sentiments toward contemporary issues in society.
我爸是李刚 (wŏ bà shì Lǐ Gāng)
“My dad is Li Gang” was shouted by Li Qiming to several security guards who confronted him after he struck two university students in a hit and run. Qiming attempted to use his father’s position as deputy director of the city’s public security bureau in an ultimately ineffective attempt to avoid persecution, but not before the phrase went viral on the Chinese internet. There was even an online competition to have the phrase inserted into classical Chinese poetry, such as the famous poem “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai:
“The luminous moonshine before my bed,
Is thought to be the frost fallen on the ground.
I lift my head to yell at the security guard,
My father is Li Gang.”
Nowadays, “My dad is Li Gang” is the go to phrase when you want to avoid assuming responsibility for a deed. The next time someone blames you for drinking all the milk in the fridge, try responding with “My dad is Li Gang”.
“Poverty has limited my imagination” (pínqióng xiànzhì le wŏ de xiăngxiàng lì)
When actress Fan Bingbing posted a photo of her wearing an engagement ring with a massive diamond, some netizens wondered the practicality of doing housework with it on. Mocked for their naïveté, they countered with, “poverty has limited my imagination”. The phrase is most often used facetiously by the middle class whenever they see displays of conspicuous consumption by China’s nouveau riche. When you see an expensive but seemingly frivolous item like this $185 paper clip, instead of questioning its practicality you could say that “poverty has limited my imagination”.
打／买酱油 (dă/ măi jiàng yóu)
Picking a random person on the street to interview might not always get you the answer you want. When asked about his opinion on the Edison Chen photo scandal, the man responded, “How does that have anything to do with me? I’m just out to get soy sauce”. His answer struck a chord with netizens, many of whom are regular citizens too preoccupied with their daily lives to be concerned about the affairs of celebrities. Even if you’re an avid follower of entertainment news, you can use the phrase to express your indifference towards an issue, and avoid alienating any side while engaged in heated debate.
What are some of your favorite words or expressions from Chinese wangyu? Have you managed to incorporate any phrases into your daily life?
For a few more trendy memes, check out Project Pengyou Intern Jia Wei’s blog post.