Chinese Internet Slangs of 2020: A Glimpse into China’s Changing Society

6 min read.

The Chinese internet is an interesting world to navigate. It is often like a grapevine reserved for insiders who can crack secret codes that open the doors to an exclusive club. For brands and marketers, this privilege will be a boon to their online strategies to connect with a digitally savvy generation—speaking their language, empathizing with their thoughts and concerns, and understanding their psyche to show solidarity.

Internet slangs are often used to express people’s feelings in a humorous way. They first surfaced in computer games about two decades ago when players created their own lingo. The Japanese had popularized kusogē, or the act of appreciating crappy games instead of being frustrated by them. When the term was imported to Taiwan followed by Mainland China, they became satirical, often used to mock not only games but also other unsatisfactory aspects of life. The phenomenon soon became 恶搞 (ègǎo), which literally translates to malicious manipulation. E-gao parodies certain elements in life or from the media based on widely recognizable materials, such as images and videos, with creators twisting their original meanings to new interpretations that are outrageous, funny and relatable.

An 恶搞 (ègǎo) image parodying the slang 不香吗 (bù xiāng ma – doesn’t it smell good?). Used negatively, it is meant to mock someone for making the wrong choices. 
Credit: 66TTT

The freedom of the internet encourages self-expression that spawns interesting expressions. To stand out from the busy internet’s content and gain attention, users compete to create the most original expressions that would go viral. The chance came when Weibo was launched toward the end of 2009, unfolding the era of social media in China.

Like Twitter, Weibo has a word limit of 140 characters. To fit in as much as possible given the restriction, users have creatively condensed long phrases into just a few characters. For instance, 不明觉厉 (bùmíng jué lì), is abbreviated from 不明白但是觉得很厉害 (bù míngbái dànshì juédé hěn lìhài – meaning “I don’t understand but I think it is clever”). Alternatively, users would coin words to replace lengthy descriptions; such as 屌丝 (diǎosī) whose meaning approximates that of “loser”, and used to describe struggling young men with mediocre looks and no social standing. 

Many internet slangs that go viral can find their roots in pop culture since there is already a common understanding of their meanings among the general population. The ones that catch on would sometimes spawn similar slangs based on the same structure but are used to mock other situations. For instance, “很好很强大” (hěn hǎo hěn qiángdà – meaning “very good, very strong”) becomes the foundation for “很傻很天真” (hěn shǎ hěn tiānzhēn – meaning “very silly, very naive”). 

Hiding behind these creative expressions, netizens (meaning “citizens of the internet”, was itself an early internet slang that is now widely accepted to mean internet users) have managed to circumvent censorship on Weibo and other social media, protecting their freedom of expression when discussing sensitive topics online, especially those that involve Chinese politics.

Nevertheless, rather than politics, the more pressing topics on Chinese netizens’ minds often revolve around socioeconomic issues, such as the inequality arising from China’s rapid economic growth and urbanization. True to the original meaning of kusogē, instead of wallowing in despair, Chinese netizens prefer to turn to satire when expressing their thoughts, often in a self-deprecating manner, and have a good laugh with millions of others who share a similar predicament and are able to empathize.

给力 (gěilì) refers to someone who is helpful or useful.
Credit: Tencent News

10 Years in Internet Slangs, Reflection of a Changing Chinese Society

In approximately a decade since internet slangs went viral on Weibo, followed by WeChat and other social media, observers have noted how the mood in these slangs is evolving to reflect generational changes, as well as evolving social conditions and sentiments.

In their early days, internet slangs were fairly positive. In 2010, the top words included 给力 (gěilì – helpful, useful),淡定 (dàndìng – keep calm),浮云 (fúyún – passing cloud, bad things will soon pass). People would encourage each other: “你很给力!” (“nǐ hěn gěilì” – “You’re great (helpful, useful)!” When someone was feeling low, “淡定,输赢都是浮云” (“dàndìng, shūyíng dōu shì fúyún” – “Keep calm, win or lose is just a passing cloud”)

Today, as this generation faces an increasingly complex and uncertain socioeconomic future, observers have noted a restless, pretentious, and somewhat arrogant vibe in the popular slangs used on the Chinese internet today. For instance, “你品你细品” (“nǐ pǐn nǐ xì pǐn”), which means “you will agree with me if only you had the patience and taste of a normal person”. In other words, it is a soft form of coercion for the other party to concur with one’s view without further explanation.

Chinese internet slangs will continue to provide the channel for people to vent their emotions, or drive points  in the most direct manner. For observers and businesses, they offer “social listening” opportunities to gain valuable insight into the daily realities of Chinese consumers.

Here are 86insider’s top 5 picks in Chinese internet slangs of 2020.

早安打工人 (zǎo ān, dǎgōng rén!) means Good Morning, Working Class and refers to employees without privileged backgrounds who are also ‘losers’ for working for others.
Credit: 唯美图片频道 

1)打工人 (dǎgōng rén – Working Class)

At face value, it simply means employees who go to work everyday to earn their keep. The deeper sentiments represented by these three characters paint a picture of the struggles faced by today’s youth who have conceded that they are just working for others, rather than building a career or realizing any dreams for themselves. In the face of intense competition and without a privileged background or the right connections, there is nothing more they can do but to embrace their work life with enthusiasm. “早安,打工人!” (“zǎo ān, dǎgōng rén!” – “Good morning, Working Class!” ) has become a popular greeting on social media. This slang bears a similar vibe as 屌丝 (diǎosī – loser).

2)  后浪 (hòulàng – Next Wave)

On Chinese Youth Day (May 4), Bilibili released a video to deliver a message from the older generation to the new generation (the Next Wave). The video listed the infinite possibilities that the Next Wave will be enjoying compared to their parents. While the video was widely shared on social media by older consumers, it drew backlash from its intended audience—the youth who saw the message as piling on expectations on their already stressful lives: “There is no need for the middle-aged generation to pretend they are willing to learn from us, or teach us how to live or lives. Let’s just do our best in our own ways to make the world a better place.”  

Others lament the social inequality caused by China’s economic progress that leaves behind a part of its society. The “Next Wave” in the video, they say, are children from the privileged class who have the freedom of choice to achieve ambitious goals while other “left-behind” youths are scrambling to make ends meet, a far cry from making dreams come true.

3)不香吗 (bù xiāng ma – Doesn’t it smell good?): 

Voted the “most dreaded” slang of 2020, 不香吗 (bù xiāng ma) is often used to challenge the value that is placed on particular things or actions. The expression originates from gamers who complain about the value of in-game lucky draw prizes, which they need to pay to participate: “With this kind of prizes, I might as well use the money to buy pork ribs. Doesn’t it smell good?” Used negatively, it is a convenient way for someone to mock another person’s choices by degrading the value of the latter’s decisions.

4)网抑云 (wǎng yì yún – Internet depression cloud)

The pronunciation of this expression is similar to online music streaming provider 网易云 (wǎng yì yún – Netease Cloud Music). This year, users have left an excessive amount of depressive comments related to the content of the songs or their personal stories and mood when listening to the music, to the point that netizens have expressed concerns over the impact of these comments on people with depression. What should have been a positive “Netease Cloud Music Time” has been twisted to mean the hour of loneliness, which is accompanied only by music, late at night. In fact, this reflects the current sentiments of young people who are away from their families seeking a living in the cities.  

As netizens have been referring to the Netease service as “Internet depression cloud”, Netease is forced to step forward to remedy the situation. The company has promised to recruit more than 10,000 volunteer counsellors to reach out to users who have left depressing comments, on top of engaging experts and volunteers to provide round-the-clock online services for users who need psychological comfort. As social media platforms have played a part in creating awareness for psychological problems, Internet companies are expected to shoulder the responsibility of combating them too.

5) 凡尔赛文学 (fán’ěrsài wénxué – Versailles literature)

This expression refers to an implicit way of flaunting one’s exquisite lifestyle on social media. So far, consumers have delighted themselves with ostentatious displays of their exciting lives, tending towards certain luxuries that they think would trigger a response from their circle of friends — think the travel photos, exclusive invites to private events, or the sumptuous food spread. The trend this year has taken on a subtle but more pretentious tone. Rather than blatantly showing off an expensive gift, for example, one would post: “Oh, my boyfriend shouldn’t have bought it since it’s so expensive, and yet, he bought so many!” This online vanity extends beyond material goods: “Why do people keep speaking English to me? Could it be that years of studying abroad have given me a stylish look?” 

The slang “Versailles literature” is a reflection of people’s anxiety regarding their social statuses;to get ahead in today’s rat race, with the convenience of the internet to influence opinions, people are more than eager to create a rich persona that appears superior to the rest of the population. But as some have (bitterly) noted, this is simply a cover-up for an empty emotional or spiritual life, which is substituted with material abundance that can be flaunted to others.