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Home  /  Inside China  /  Chinese Internet Language – The Creative Netizen Mind
Chinese Internet Language – The Creative Netizen Mind print version

Much more impressively than the abbreviations used in English (or most languages) online chats, Chinese internet language (wangluo yuyan) has generated a new form of slang. The spreading of new terms through the internet, the games conducted upon Chinese characters and their phonetics, and the motivation to avoid censorship, have all created a new dimension of language and a unique phenomenon.

In English, online shortcuts like 'B4', 'BTW', '2nite' are abundant. 'LOL' and 'ROFL' (as well as the many emotion icons) add a sense of expressiveness that otherwise cannot penetrate through the keyboard, yet in Chinese internet slang, the variation in creativity and purpose is much more diverse, and this has made 'internet language' wangluo yuyan (网络语言) an important term in the media and public sphere in China.

Wangluo yuyan is evident in online chats, blogs, microblogs and more. One of the characteristics of such internet terms is that they could spread easily between Chinese living in different cities and continents, while other forms of media (TV, newspapers) preserve a much more formal language. Slang words like 牛 niu meaning 'fierce', 'strong' (originally meaning 'ox' or 'cow'), 酱 jiang meaning 'so' (这么) (originally meaning 'sauce'), are examples of expressions that were initiated on the internet and since then have become components of everyday (young) spoken Chinese. Many modern expressions that portray the unique social landscape of modern China have also been spread on the internet, for example 蚁族们 yizumen ('ants', hard-working urban residents) and 裸婚 luohun ('naked marriage', couples who get married without owning any property or assets).

Like their English comparables, Chinese internet slang can also be used to express abbreviation or emotion. '88' (baba) is short for 'bye bye', and 'TMD' is short for '他妈的' ta ma de - 'Damn it'. When wanting to express emotion, 泪 lei ('tears') expresses sadness and tears, the character 囧 (jiong) expresses astonishment as it looks like a surprised face, for instance.

Even more interesting are the games played with Chinese characters, producing new amusing character combinations. The term 剩女 sheng nv refers to women who remain single in a relatively old age, as 剩 means 'leftover', 'remain' (女 is 'woman'), but also sounds exactly like 圣  - 'Holy', giving the term a double-ironic meaning.

Playing with characters which are identical phonetically can be performed in order to amuse, but also to avoid internet censorship. The scale of such phenomenon is debatable (as well as the level of government supervision), but the slang associated with it is indeed rich. The term '戴表' daibiao ('wears a watch') is used, for example, in reference to the '3 representatives' defined by former Communist Party chairman Jiang Zemin, as 戴表 is a homophone of '代表', 'representative'. '河蟹' hexie ('river crab') indicates '和谐', harmony. Since the concept of 'harmony' is associated and promoted by the government, it became a symbol of censorship according to some netizens, and therefore the 'river crab' ('河蟹') stands for such government supervision (More on this kind of political-oriented slang can be read in the following lexicon initiated by China Digital Times).

With its evident impact and continuing strong interaction with spoken modern Chinese, the internet slang in China is a realm that cannot be detached from conventional language developments, while it supplies additional layers to such course, which cannot be found in other languages. Ironically, the underground origin of the wangluo yuyan has made it expand and acknowledged nowadays, even by most serious public figures.

Further vocabulary: Thinking Chinese Internet Slang, Modern China Life Slang.

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