Language Matters is a new column from BBC Capital exploring how evolving language will influence the way we work and live.
Mandarin Chinese is one of the most complex languages in the world. Opening a Chinese dictionary, you find around 370,000 words. That's more than double the number of words in the Oxford English dictionary, and almost three times those in French and Russian dictionaries.
But these many words have been joined in recent years by a bunch of upstarts. Reci – literally translated as ‘hot words’: are slang terms that young Chinese are creating and using online to communicate how they really feel about current affairs and trends.
There are more than 750 million Chinese internet users - over half the vast country’s 1.4bn population and some are creating new characters. The word ‘duang’, for instance: a mashup of the characters that make up Jackie Chan's name. Those who fashion the new slang get a rewarding pat on the back from other social media users and media as a ‘niubi’ (牛逼): an online mark of cool. And this ‘niubility’ has become a path to popularity for young Chinese.
BBC Capital asked Robert, who did not want to give his last name, why he thinks young Chinese are evolving this new way of communicating; “it’s in response to the social reality,” he says. “Self-deprecation and/or helplessness are why we combine words.” He mentions the reci words ‘antizen’ (蚁民) , a play on the words ant and citizen to describe the general public’s helplessness, and ‘innernet’ (中国互联网), in reference to China’s inward looking approach to internet controls.
This ‘niubility’ has become a path to popularity for young Chinese
Flora Shen, who works for a multinational corporation in Shanghai, says the abundance of reci reflect people's annoyance with the Communist Party's tight control of mainstream media. "Newspapers and TV news are full of party rhetoric with no dissent. That's why it's so important for the ordinary people to resort to social media to create a sort of parallel rhetoric, without going too far to be spotted by the censors," she says.
Chinese millennials are enjoying the impact of rapid economic growth and are more affluent than their predecessors with the means to travel abroad (Credit: Getty Images)
While Philip, who also did not want to give his last name, describes the phenomenon as “skirting around the borders” he says “there are always people that want to bring up events again [after they’ve been censored], but they can't, so they say it indirectly.”
Although increased internet access means more Chinese are able to communicate with people in other parts of the country, their access to news from independent or foreign sources remains limited. Reporters Without Borders ranks China 176th out of 180 countries and regions for media freedom in its 2018 Press Freedom Index.
The Chinese cyber police manually trawl through comments on popular social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, deleting politically sensitive or subversive comments.
Posts that contain sensitive keywords or phrases are deleted automatically, for instance. Online police administrators on platforms like Sina Weibo maintain a list of words and terms that it deems sensitive, that are automatically filtered from social media platforms before others can see them.
Some content is banned outright during sensitive events. Every year on the 4 June, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the words ‘46’ [4 June] and ‘64’ [June 4], "8964" [1989, June 4] and similar variables are banned, as Weibo users strive to post about the event without having their messages censored.
There was even sensitivity over Taylor Swift's "1989" album being used as a metaphor for Tiananmen - because of the album's name, and because Swift's initials could have been used to refer to Tiananmen Square.
Ahead of her China tour Taylor Swift caused controversy by selling merchandise showing 'TS' and the date '1989' -- shared by the Tiananmen Square massacre (Credit: Getty Images)
A plague of toads
In response, young Chinese are coming up with ever more creative ways to bypass their censors. Words that are already in common use can be employed to prevent the censors from blanket-banning terms. In the last couple of years, censors have struggled to remove comments mentioning ‘toads’, for instance, which refer cryptically to the bespectacled former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.
The censors have also struggled to deal with monitoring the use of the common surname ‘Zhao’ - which has multiple meanings and nuances, but is largely used to post critical comments about those in authority.
"Bit-by-bit, young Chinese people - at least those in big cities - are trying to push the boundaries and create some sort of bottom-up social discussions. We want to participate in a way like never before," said Ma Xin, an undergraduate university student in a southern Chinese city. Texting euphemistically on the heavily censored messaging app WeChat, she writes: "And of course that requires creativity for inventing new phrases and new words that are not yet on you-know-who’s lists."
There is an even richer playing field for China's growing community of English speakers as censors sometimes cannot spot provocative language (Credit: Getty Images)
The subversive nature of these discussions doesn’t reach everyone though. The wordplay is often limited to those who are ‘in the know’ leaving much of the internet-using population unaware of the many coded messages. "Usually when I encounter weird messages talking about social issues, I feel bored and don't feel the need to share them," says Zhao Bin, a deliveryman in the coastal province of Fujian.
For China's growing community of English-speaking users though, there is an even richer playing field, as the country's censors sometimes do not have the language ability to spot and filter provocative terms.
It is still possible to find posts online that talk about China's 'freedamn’ (中国特色自由), which mock the idea of increasing freedom, albeit with Chinese characteristics.
Some also question ‘harmany’ (中国特色和谐) in Chinese society, and dispute the multitude of social policies imposed on them, which they view to be harmful.
Bit-by-bit, young Chinese people - at least those in big cities - are trying to push the boundaries and create some sort of bottom-up social discussions
Others say they feel the strains of the growing and overbearing hand of the "departyment" (政府部门), as the government spends more time and resources at local level to maintain its hold over an increasingly streetwise younger generation.
There have been many seismic changes in Chinese society over the last decade - rapid economic growth has been billed as a major triumph, especially under President Xi Jinping. Since he came to power in 2012, President Xi has offered the next generation a vision of a better life and greater prosperity, as well as the prospect of them living to see China rise to become a leading global power.
And Chinese millennials are enjoying the spoils of this boom, being notably more affluent than their predecessors. They are more readily able to put the English they learn in school to use on their foreign travels for example.
But the growth of ‘Chinsumers’ (在外疯狂购物的中国人): this new generation of young Chinese with spending power and a thirst for luxury goods also pose a big challenge for the Communist Party's tightly controlled regime.
Despite the prosperity and new found freedoms to travel, accounts of people who work hard at the expense of having any work-life-balance at all are commonplace in the online discussions. Young Chinese complain that their time is increasingly being taken up with technology and thoughts of escaping the rat race and starting over are a recurring theme.
Many are left just trying to keep their heads above water financially and are left suffering in ‘smilence’ (笑而不语) - putting on a brave face and hiding their frustrations.
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