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The Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media in 2020 (咬文嚼字)

Some of the buzzwords that were most noteworthy in Chinese media this year.

Jialing Xie

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These are some of the expressions and idioms that have been buzzing in Chinese media in 2020. What’s on Weibo’s Jialing Xie explains.

China’s online media environment is a breeding ground for new terms and niche expressions that suddenly make it to mainstream discussions.

Every year, the most popular new words and expressions are listed by the Chinese magazine 咬文嚼字 (yǎo wén jiáo zì). The magazine selects buzzwords that reflect present-day society and the changing times.

Yǎo Wén Jiáozì, which means “to pay excessive attention to wording,”* is a monthly publication featuring commentary, criticism, and essays on the Chinese language.

Founded in 1995, the magazine has gained social influence for correcting typos in the language used by media and celebrities. Some of these corrections have been impactful, such as their correction of the 2006 CCTV Chinese New Year Gala on writing ‘Shenzhou 6’ (the second human spaceflight of the Chinese space program) as “神州六号” rather than “神舟六号” (different character for ‘zhōu’). It was included in their “Ten Biggest Language Mistakes” list (十大语文差错) of that year.

On social media, Chinese online (state) media always promote the magazine’s selection of the top words and terms of the past year. The ten terms have also become a relatively big topic on Weibo over the past month, with the list of Top 10 Buzzwords in 2020 #2020年度十大流行语# already garnering 460 million views.

*yǎo wén jiáo zì, literal meaning: to talk pedantically and pay excessive attention to wording, often referring to a stickler for detail with an intent to display their fine knowledge; often used negatively or neutrally.

We’ve listed the top 10 buzzwords for you here:

 

1. 人民至上,生命至上 (Rénmín zhìshàng, shēngmìng zhìshàng): “People First”

  • Literal Meaning: “People are above everything else, life is above everything else.”
  • The context of this phrase in 2020: On May 22 of 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping took part in the deliberation of the Inner Mongolia delegation at the annual legislative session, where he stated that “our people come first, people’s lives come first, and the safety and health of our people should be secured at all costs.” “People first, life first” has since become a widely circulated slogan and guiding principle for government and society to combat Covid-19 across the country. 

 

2. 逆行者 (Nìxíng zhě): “People Going against the Tide”

  • Literal Meaning: “People who swim upstream / people who go against the current.”
  • The context of this phrase in 2020: In a broad sense, this phrase shares a similar meaning as its English counterpart, describing people who dare to differ from the mainstream and to go above and beyond their call of duty. In 2020, it has become a term often used by state media to refer to frontline workers and individuals who made a significant contribution or sacrifice during the battle against the novel coronavirus.

 

3. 飒 (): “Spirited”

  • Literal Meaning: “1) Chill and refreshing 2) Onomatopoeia: the sound of the wind 
  • The context of this word in 2020: In modern Chinese literature, this word is commonly used in the idiom “英姿飒爽” (yīng zī sà shuǎng), illustrating how a person, either a man or woman, is high of energy and full of morale and is showing an attitude of heroism and prestige. According to People’s Daily, half of the doctors and more than 90% of the nurses working in healthcare during the fight against COVID19 are female. State media started to use 飒 () as an adjective to eulogize these female medical workers. The word was later used to praise both men and women working in other industries as well. 

 

4. 后浪 (Hòu làng): “The Rear Waves”

  • Literal Meaning: “The rear waves.”
  • The context of this phrase in 2020: 后浪 hòulàng is often used within the idiom “长江后浪推前浪” (cháng jiāng hòu làng tuī qián làng) which literally means “the rear waves in the Yangtze River drive on those before,” and figuratively referring to how the new generation excels beyond the one before, or how the new is constantly replacing the old. This phrase became an internet meme regarding the young generation in China – specifically, those born in the 90s and 00s – as a result of heated online discussions about a video launched on Bilibili and other social media for Youth Day (May 4th), in which the older actor He Bing talks about the rights and opportunities enjoyed by young people in China today. On various occasions, this word is used to address the more privileged young people. Some associated stereotypes about this group include studying or living abroad, high-quality lifestyle, and luxury material possessions. Those who don’t identify with this privileged group tend to refer to themselves as “韭菜” (Jiǔcài, chives), which shares a similar sentiment as “屌丝” (Diǎosī, loser), as opposed to “the rear waves.”

 

5. 神兽 (Shén shòu): “Divine Beasts”

  • Literal Meaning: “Divine beasts.”
  • The context of this word in 2020: Totem worshiping is deeply rooted in the religion and tradition of many ancient cultures. Divine beasts in China are in fact deities, also known as the Four Symbols (四象), as a mixed product of Chinese ancient cosmology and mythology. Since the beginning of remote learning and delay in schools reopening across the country, many parents and caregivers have posted their experience balancing work and remote learning with their children from home. In these posts, parents often call their children ‘divine beasts’ then share their children’s naughty behavior and how they struggled to deal with them. 

 

6. 直播带货 (Zhíbò dài huò): “Live commerce”

  • Literal Meaning: “Live commerce”, “Influencer marketing via live streaming.
  • The context of this phrase in 2020: China’s live-streaming economy played an important role in the country’s economic market recovery amidst COVID19. Influencer marketing via live streaming combines talk show-like entertainment and the convenience of online shopping, at times even leveraging social proof and the reputation of influencers themselves to crack astonishing sales records. Apart from internet celebrities, many business executives (i.e. Jack Ma) and even government officials (i.e. 13 local mayors in Hubei Province) also took advantage of the booming live-streaming and appeared in front of webcams to promote certain products which resulted in millions of views on TikTok. On the flip-side of the business, there have been concerns about the quality of the products as well as lawsuits against fraudulent sales practices. Popular topics on Weibo as such include #如何看待直播带货卖假货#(“What do you think of counterfeit goods in live-streaming sales”). 

 

7. 双循环 (Shuāng xún huán): “Dual Cycle”

  • Literal Meaning: “Dual cycle.”
  • The context of this word in 2020: This term comes from President Xi’s speech at the meeting of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party on May 4, 2020, during which he stated that the dual-cycle system will be the party’s strategy for China’s economic and political development for the near future following COVID19 recovery. The system focuses on recovering and growing the economy by primarily expanding domestic demand mixed with healthy participation in international trade. While it certainly was not the first time the Communist Party introduced this concept of prioritizing the domestic market, according to Xinhua News Agency, the dual-cycle system has been regarded as a suitable strategy given current restrictions facing international trade due to the pandemic and the ongoing trade tensions between China and a few western powers.

 

8. 打工人 (Dǎ gōng rén): “Working People”

  • Literal Meaning: “Working people”
  • The context of this phrase in 2020: As agriculture, foreign trade, and investment sectors developed following the economic reform in 1978, a social-economic trend emerged in the 80s during which labor forces across China’s villages and countrysides migrated to cities and worked in blue-collar jobs. These migrant workers are called 打工人 (Dǎ gōng rén) / 打工仔 (Dǎ gōng zǎi). The word later evolved and was used to address the entire working class and salaried employees. For example, the memoir written by Shujuan Liu of the former president of Microsoft China, Jun Tang, was titled “I’m the 高级打工仔 (Gāojí dǎgōng zǎi, high-class worker) at Microsoft”. The term was frequently used as an internet buzzword in 2020 after appearing in a viral video in which a man acted as a migrant worker and showed watchers warm and positive encouragement. The video ended with a “good morning” greeting and addressed watchers as 打工人.  

 

9. 内卷  (Nèi juǎn): “Involution”

  • Literal Meaning: “Involution
  • The context of this phrase in 2020: According to People’s Daily, this word is a direct translation of the concept of ‘involution’ brought up by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. This year, this word is used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hard working. In the latter half of 2020, a few pictures capturing college students’ multitasking went viral on Weibo. One of the images shows a person working on his computer while riding his bike. These people were then called “卷王” (Juǎn wáng, meaning they are the example of overworking) on social media and became the origin of this buzzword. You can find this word sometimes associated with the 996 working hour system on Weibo.

 

10. 凡尔赛文学 (Fán’ěrsài wénxué): “Versailles Literature”

  • Literal Meaning: “Versailles literature.”
  • The context of this phrase in 2020: Social media has made displaying wealth and superiority easier than ever before. Instead of showing off explicitly, some find a way to both satisfy their desire for publicity and avoid doing so ostentatiously, by flaunting wealth and material possessions in an indirect and often negative-toned message. This writing style for social media posts is then referred to as “Versailles literature.” Admittedly not all posts labeled as “Versailles literature” were written with the intent to show off, but those with clear intention are often easily spotted and circulated online and became funny memes. This then led to a wave of discussions and a contest of “Versailles literature” on social media, which became a form of entertainment itself.

 

By Jialing Xie

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Jialing is a Baruch College Business School graduate and a former student at the Beijing University of Technology. She currently works in the US-China business development industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a passion for literature and humanity studies, Jialing aims to deepen the general understanding of developments in contemporary China.

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China Insight

Hot Air: Chinese Social Media Reactions to the Chinese Balloon Incident

The Chinese balloon incident is also referred to as the “Wandering Balloon” on social media at a time when ‘Wandering Earth II’ is trending.

Manya Koetse

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The 2023 “China balloon incident” has gotten so big over the past few days that it already has its very own Wikipedia page now.

On Feb. 2, 2023, it was announced that a Chinese “surveillance balloon” was traveling over the northern United States. Later, it was reported that a second Chinese balloon floated over Latin America.

As a consequence, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off a scheduled visit to Beijing, calling the presence of the Chinese balloon “an irresponsible act.” The balloon has also been dubbed the “Chinese spy balloon.”

On Sunday morning after 4 AM China local time, news came out that the U.S. military had shot down the Chinese balloon off the Carolina coast after the coastal area of North and South Carolina had been closed for the national security operation.

In an earlier statement on Friday, Chinese officials referred to the balloon as a civilian “airship” (“飞艇”) used for weather monitoring and meteorological research that deviated from its original route due to the wind. The incident, therefore, is also described as the “Chinese Airship Incident” (“中国飞艇事件”) by Chinese media outlets.

On Chinese social media, the issue is referred to as “the balloon incident” (“气球事件”) or the “balloon problem” (“气球问题”), and many netizens think it is all about “making a big issue over nothing” (“小题大做”).

The balloon is also nicknamed “the wandering balloon” (流浪气球) in light of the current Chinese box office hit The Wandering Earth II. One of the hashtags used to discuss the events was “The Wandering Balloon II” (#流浪气球2#).

Chinese political commentator Hu Xijin, who frequently posts on social media, suggested earlier that the U.S. side allegedly is very well aware that the Chinese balloon – which accidentally went “wandering” – actually “poses no threat” and that ongoing reports about the balloon were purposely being used to create an anti-Chinese narrative.

Hu’s reasoning is similar to that of Chinese International Relations Professor Li Haidong (李海东), who claims that the balloon story is framed as a threat in order for the U.S. to gain an advantage in bilateral negotiations (#专家称美炒作气球事件对华施压#).

Following news reports about the Chinese balloon getting shot down, some Weibo commenters jokingly lamented that the “poor baby balloon” had been ruthlessly shot down without even getting the time to float around.

“Such a pity,” some wrote, with others suggesting it’s “just a stray balloon.”

One of the hastags used for online discussions of the balloon getting shot down was “The Wandering Balloon Is Shot Down” (#流浪气球被击落#) and “The ‘Wandering Balloon’ Gets Shot Down by American Military” (#流浪气球被击落#).

There are many online jokes about the incident, such as those saying that the Chinese people thought the sci-fi blockbuster Wandering Earth II was the current film hit and that they had not expected the ‘Wandering Balloon’ to be the actual hit of the moment.

The fact that the current Chinese balloon developments trigger so many online comparisons and memes related to the sci-fi film Wandering Earth II perhaps doesn’t come as a surprise, since the movie has been among the hottest trending topics of the past week, and considering its narrative is all about catastrophic events and the future of international society.

Others comment that since this is the time of the Chinese Lantern Festival (元宵节), celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese New Year, the incident is just another way of wishing everyone a happy new year.

All jokes aside, there are also bloggers who see the incident as a more serious occurrence at a time of worsening Sino-American relations, suggesting the significance of this matter “can’t be underestimated.”

For more updates on this story, see this article.

By Manya Koetse 

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Wandering Earth 2 Production Costs: Why Director Frant Gwo is Nicknamed ‘Master in Begging for Alms’

Contributing to the Wandering Earth 2 production without getting paid? It’s “powering up Chinese sci-fi with love.”

Wendy Huang

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Wandering Earth director Frant Gwo (Guo Fan) is also nicknamed the ‘Master in Begging for Alms’ (化缘大师) on social media. His efforts to convince actors and companies to contribute to the movie has kept production costs relatively low.

With the sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth II, directed by Guo Fan (郭帆 aka Frant Gwo) taking center stage during this Spring Festival movie season, there have been many social media discussions about the film and how it has been reviewed (read here), as well as about the production of the film, or more particularly, about the total production costs for this film.

Based on a story written by Liu Cixin, author of the award-winning sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, The Wandering Earth II is the prequel to the 2019 blockbuster hit The Wandering Earth, China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi film and the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

It is reported that the production investment costs for The Wandering Earth II reached approximately 600 million yuan ($88.5 million). Compared to the production budget of American sci-fi hit films such as Interstellar ($165 million) or Inception ($160 million), Chinese audiences had expected The Wandering Earth II to have much higher production costs than the reported budget, especially considering the spectacular scenes featured in the film.

The relatively lower production costs sparked discussions on Chinese social media, where the hashtag “Guo Fan – the Master in Begging for Alms” (#郭帆 化缘大师#) went trending, gaining in popularity as multiple insiders shared more stories about the production of the movie.

The hashtag, which suggests that Director Guo is a ‘Fundraising Master’ for keeping production costs low, has received over 70 million views at the time of writing. The Chinese 化缘 huàyuán means to raise funds for something or to ‘beg alms’ (like Buddhist monks or Taoist priests do).

Guo’s strict budget control already became a hot topic after the 2019 release of The Wandering Earth. One of the most famous stories is that of the movie’s main star Wu Jing (吴京), as he allegedly began as a guest celebrity and ended up as the leading actor without getting paid, while investing approximately 60 million yuan ($8.85 million) in the film’s production.

A female presenter recently also shared her story on Weibo about her free participation in the production of The Wandering Earth in 2019, which apparently showed the film’s tight production budget. In her post, she wrote: “They didn’t fool me, instead, they just told me directly that I wouldn’t get paid.” Considering the rare opportunity to act in a Chinese sci-fi production, she went to the set at her own expense and filmed scenes, including outdoor scenes in the snow and freezing cold, only to end up being featured less than a second in the finished film. Nonetheless, she said she was still proud to be a part of the landmark Chinese sci-fi film.

Perhaps the idea of taking part in a groundbreaking Chinese science fiction film has made many individuals, companies, and organizations willing to work with Guo’s team, even if no additional compensation or payment was provided.

XCMG Machinery (Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group Co, Ltd), China’s premier company in industrial design, is also one of these companies. The company set up a team of a total of 319 XCMG staff members to support the project and provided a wide range of operational and transformable machinery equipment for the UEG (United Earth Government) in the film. They called this “powering up Chinese Sci-fi with love.”

Chinese netizens already nicknamed Wandering Earth (流浪地球) “Little Broken Ball” (小破球) back in 2019. The “Ball” refers to the Earth – the second character (球) of Earth in Chinese (地球) literally means ball. It was the director himself who initially referred to his film this way, and this nickname was then popularized among netizens to describe how the Earth is in crisis in the film, but it also refers to how difficult it was for Guo to produce the film.

The fact that Guo managed to produce Wandering Earth II with a relatively limited budget compared to other big international sci-fi movies has instilled some pride among netizens. One popular blogger (@秦祎墨) suggested the actual production value of the movie went far beyond the quoted $88.5 million thanks to the collective spirit of Chinese companies who did all they could to turn this film into a mega hit.

Others praised Guo for being able to get so many people and companies involved, claiming that if it wasn’t for him, the movie would have ended up costing at least twice as much.

Some are already looking forward to a potential Wandering Earth III, saying that the ‘Little Broken Ball’ series has already managed to gather such a strong team of companies, technical support, post-production innovation and experts, that the ‘Wandering Earth universe’ should not stop after two films.

Reflecting on being nicknamed the ‘Master of Begging for Alms,’ director Guo himself reportedly expressed his gratitude toward everyone who worked on the film who was “tricked” by him, saying it is their generosity that eventually made the production of The Wandering Earth II possible.

By Wendy Huang, with contributions by Manya Koetse

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