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Which Language was Ma Ying-jeou Speaking in Hunan?

In Hunan, Ma Ying-jeou will now mostly be remembered as ‘the boy from Xiangtan.’

Jin Luo



There have been many headlines and views on former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s recent visit to mainland China. One aspect of his trip has received relatively little attention, even though it generated some buzz among Chinese netizens: Ma’s way of speaking Chinese. Jin Luo explains.

Ex Taiwan President and former Kuomintang Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (马英九) made headlines earlier this month after he ended his historic 12-day visit to mainland China.

One aspect of his trip that was discussed by netizens and reported by Chinese online media was Ma’s use of “Hunan dialect” (湖南方言). Many were amazed by how well he could speak it, how he interacted with locals in the Hunan dialect, and how he delivered his words with a genuine emotional connection while paying respect to his grandfather.

The official language used on both sides of the Taiwan Strait is Mandarin, although there are some variations in terms of accents and vocabulary. However, Ma did not speak standard Mandarin during his speech and visit to Hunan.

So what language did he use during his 10-minute speech at Hunan University and while he was paying respects at the graves of his ancestors?

Xiang: One of the Many Varieties of Chinese

The question “Do you speak Chinese?” is often understood without confusion because “Chinese” is generally interpreted as referring to Mandarin, which has the largest number of native speakers in the world at nearly 1 billion.

However, from a linguistic standpoint, “Chinese” is a collective term that encompasses hundreds of varieties, categorized into seven or ten groups, with the most well-known being Mandarin and Cantonese.

It is not always easy to determine whether the different varieties should be considered dialects or distinct languages. For instance, if you only speak Mandarin, you might not understand anything if you walk on the streets of Hong Kong, where Cantonese is spoken. Nevertheless, you would be able to read all the street signs since the written language and grammar are similar.

The degree of similarity or difference between various varieties of Chinese can vary widely. People from vast Mandarin-speaking regions can generally understand each other, while in the southern parts of China, people may face difficulties communicating with those in neighboring villages after crossing a mountain.

Map of sinitic languages. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

During his visit to Hunan, Ma Ying-jeou visited Xiangtan and spoke in the local variety called “Xiang” (湘), also known as “Hunanese” or “Changshanese,” which are sometimes used interchangeably. Hunan is located in South Central China. The main river in its east is called Xiang Jiang (湘江), and it passes through Hunan’s capital Changsha. Xiang is spoken by over 36 million people in China, with the most spoken variety being the Changsha dialect.

While Xiang may not be as well-known as other Chinese dialects outside of China, some of its speakers are very famous. Mao Zedong is perhaps China’s most well-known Xiang speaker. The popular North American-Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken, is named after Zuo Zongtang, another prominent Xiang speaker. Zhu Rongji, who served as China’s premier from 1998 to 2003, is originally from Changsha, a city in the Hunan province where Xiang is widely spoken. And Ma Ying-jeou is one of the most well-known contemporary politicians who speaks Xiang.

What is especially noteworthy about Ma speaking Xiang is the fact that he was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Taiwan, and studied in the US. His March-April 2023 China trip was his very first visit to mainland China or Hunan. How come he speaks Xiang at all?

“Outside Province People”

Ma Ying-jeou’s parents were both from Hunan and were Kuomintang members. Before Ma Ying-jeou was born, they already had three daughters who were born in different locations. Ma Ying-jeou himself was born in Hong Kong in 1950, and two years later the entire family moved to Taipei.

Individuals such as Ma, who relocated with their families to Taiwan from the mainland after 1945, are known as Waishengren (外省人, literally: people from outside the province). They came from various regions of China, primarily the southern part. They generally speak Mandarin but still use their hometown dialect within their families. (The Han Chinese people who were already in Taiwan before 1945 are referred to as Benshengren 本省人, literally: native province people.)

While the Waishengren are predominantly Han Chinese, which is the ethnic majority in both Taiwan (95-97%) and mainland China (~92%), they are actually considered a minority group in Taiwan now.

In 1990, Waishengren accounted for approximately 13% of the population, but since then, the official identification of this group has been discontinued. However, surveys on self-identity conducted in the 21st century have consistently indicated that the Waishengren make up around 10%-12% of Taiwan’s population.

Most Han Chinese in Taiwan can trace their ancestry back to mainland China, whether their ancestors arrived 60 or 600 years ago. Many Han Chinese in Taiwan have genealogy records that detail the towns their ancestors came from and moved to. Ma Ying-jeou is one such person, and one of the main purposes of his visit to mainland China was to pay respect to his ancestors in Hunan.

Fallen Leaves Return to Their Roots

In the Chinese context, one’s jiguan (can roughly be translated as ‘ancestral home’) refers to the birthplace of one’s father. This was once a compulsory item to fill in official documents in most of the Greater China area. For example, former NBA star Yao Ming was born in Shanghai, but his jiguan is the nearby city of Suzhou because that is where his father was born.

Similarly, Ma Ying-jeou’s jiguan is Xiangtan County in Hunan, even though he had never been there until recently. This is because his grandfather was also born in Xiangtan County, and died there when Ma Ying-jeou’s father was 7 years old. His grandfather was buried there, and as such, Xiangtan County is considered to be Ma Ying-jeou’s ancestral home.

Lineage holds great cultural significance in southern China and among overseas Chinese, many of whom originated from southern China. Lineage is often traced through ancestral villages, genealogy books, lineage associations, and sometimes even a unique dialect. Ancestors are revered as deities or, in non-religious settings, a spiritual connection to the supreme power of heaven. In Confucianism, paying respect to one’s ancestors is a demonstration of filial piety, one of the most important virtues.

The Qingming Festival, held every year around April 4-6, is dedicated to visiting ancestors’ tombs. For those who have moved away from their ancestral hometown, it is important to visit when they get older or be buried in the same place as their ancestors. This is expressed in Chinese as luoyeguigen (落叶归根), which means “fallen leaves return to their roots.”

Visiting one’s ancestral hometown for the first time is often a deeply emotional experience, and this was certainly the case for Ma Ying-jeou and his four sisters when they visited Xiangtan four days before the Qingming Festival.

Ma was filmed while giving a speech in front of his grandfather’s tomb, speaking in Xiang. He spoke in detail about the family’s journey since 1927 and talked about how the family has been prospering, with 38 people in his generation. He also discussed his achievements as a politician and how he contributed to the peace of the mainland-Taiwan relationship.

Ma Ying-jeou reading out his speech for his ancestors, screenshot, video via Weibo.

In the end, Ma expressed how emotional he felt being able to visit his grandfather’s tomb for the first time and how grateful he is that the family’s virtues have been passed down through the generations. He wished that his grandfather’s soul would forever bless the Ma family to continue contributing to humanity. As he finished his speech, it was clear that he was in tears.

“Boy from Xiangtan”

Visiting the mainland at this particular time certainly carries political implications, particularly given that current Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen was visiting the US at the same time. The visits by the Taiwanese politicians to China and the US have generated a range of reactions from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, with some expressing praise and others voicing criticism.

While Ma’s visit to mainland China was significant, it is notable that the focus of his trip was not on politics, but on emphasizing cultural identity – language being an important part of it. Ma’s apparent deep emotional connection to his ancestral roots in China is a highly valued cultural trait that resonates with many Chinese people.

During his Xiangtan visit, local residents warmly welcomed him with the phrase “Welcome home.” In response, Ma spoke in the Xiang dialect and said that “the boy from Xiangtan has returned” (“湘潭伢子回来了”). This simple yet powerful message reiterated Ma’s sense of belonging, and its impact was felt not only in what he said but also how he said it.

Ma’s ability to speak the language of his ancestral hometown immediately connected him with the local Hunan people. He engaged in lengthy discussions in Xiang with students at Hunan University, caused traffic jams by strolling through a night market in Changsha, and even sang a song on a Hunan TV program. As a result of his visit to Hunan, Ma became somehwat of a wanghong, an online hit.

Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of Global Times, also posted about it on Weibo and expressed surprised at how well Ma speaks the Hunan dialect. The Hunan provincial party secretary, who is not a native speaker of Xiang, also expressed his admiration for Ma’s proficiency and said he felt pressured and inspired to learn from him.

Despite its political timing, Ma’s visit has been reported as a “private visit,” and the former President also did not have any official meetings in Beijing. Rather than engaging in political rhetoric, Ma seemingly sought to connect with the Chinese people on a personal and cultural level.

In addition to paying respects to his ancestors, he also visited museums, met with locals, and did some sightseeing. At times, he appeared as an ambassador and peace negotiator, while at others, he resembled an excited tourist exploring new sights for the first time.

Meanwhile, he also appeared simply as a 73-year-old retiree, finding comfort in speaking his hometown dialect that few people in Taiwan can speak with him. In Hunan, he will now mostly be remembered as ‘the boy from Xiangtan.’

Read more Chinese language-related articles here.

By Jin Luo 


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Jin Luo is a language & culture educator based in Berlin. Teaching three languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, English) and learning two (Russian, German) while having lived in 10 cities across 7 countries, her mission is to boost intercultural understanding and communication through education.

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China Memes & Viral

China’s Trending Terminology: Top 25 Buzzwords and Catchphrases of 2023

Which words and phrases made it to Weibo’s top trending lists in 2023? We’ve compiled a top 25 of the most popular and noteworthy buzzwords.

Manya Koetse




Here are 25 Chinese buzzwords and catchphrases, listed by What’s on Weibo, that reflect social trends and changing times in China in 2023.

At the end of every year, Chinese media outlets usually compile a list of the most noteworthy buzzwords or the words that made the most impact during the year.

The most popular new words and expressions are generally listed by the Chinese linguistics magazine Yǎowén Jiáozì (咬文嚼字), which selects ten noteworthy buzzwords (十大流行语). On social media, Chinese online (state) media always promote the magazine’s selection of the top words and terms of the past year, but there are also other outlets selecting their top words of 2023, which have become a relatively big topic on Weibo over the past month.

In previous years, we’ve also published several articles in which we have listed the most important buzzwords.

◼︎ In 2018: China’s Top Ten Buzz Words & Phrases of 2018
◼︎ In 2019: Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media 2019
◼︎ And in 2020: The Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media in 2020 (咬文嚼字)
◼︎ And for 2020-2023, we also compiled this big Covid-19 vocabulary list.

If you want to know more about the buzzwords that made it to Chinese (official) media’s lists this year, check out this post by Andrew Methven at Slow Chinese which is a top ten compilation of Chinese buzzwords of 2023 based on these lists.


Top 10 Buzzwords by Yǎowén Jiáozì


The top 10 by Yǎowén Jiáozì consists of the following words:

1. 新质生产力 (Xīn zhì shēngchǎnlì)

This refers to “new quality productivity,” a term introduced by Xi Jinping this year focusing on a form of production driven by technological innovation as a new engine for China’s economic developmentin the new era. It covers technological innovation, new forms of energy, emerging industries and their interaction and integration, especially progress in digitalization, intelligence and green development.

2. 双向奔赴 (Shuāngxiàng bēnfù)

This means “running towards each other” or “devote efforts from both directions.” The phrase has become frequently used by Chinese netizens in the context of romantic love, meaning both sides are equally involved and putting in all effort to keep the love alive (双向奔赴的爱情).

3. 人工智能大模型 (Réngōng zhìnéng dàmóxíng)

“Large Scale Artificial Intelligence Models,” refering to the series of AI applications that we saw rising this year, including ChatGPT and Ernie Bot.

4. 村超 (Cūn chāo)

This term means “Village Super League,” a soccer event in Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, organized by local villagers. It gained significant attention this year, drawing passionate new fans and showcasing China’s vibrant rural sports scene.

5. 特种兵式旅游 (Tèzhǒng bīngshì lǚyóu)

It means “special forces-style tourism”: special forces travelers have been flooding popular tourist spots across China. Their mission is clear: covering as many places as possible at the lowest cost and within a limited time. While the travel trend has become a social media hype, there are also those criticizing the trend for being superficial and troublesome (read here).

6. 显眼包 (Xiǎnyǎn bāo)

A goof, the life of the party, the class clown; the term “显眼包” in Chinese refers to someone or something that stands out from the crowd or grabs attention. While it previously had a negative meaning, standing out from the group is now also seen as having a goofy, bubbly and enjoyable personality that brings happiness.

7. 搭子 (Dāzǐ)

Dāzǐ translates to “companion,” “buddy,” “mate,” or “partner,” typically referring to someone you hang out with for particular activities who is not your significant other. You can have a “coffee buddy” (咖啡搭子), drinking buddy (酒搭子), or a “travel buddy” (旅游搭子). Chinese media have described the word as reflecting a new social trend among young people who might be single but still find various ways to have a satisfying social life that suits their needs.

8. 多巴胺×× (Duōbā’àn ××)

Dopamine is associated with happy hormones – pleasure and reward in the brain, and “××” indicates it’s being used in various contexts or activities related to pleasure or enjoyment. The term popped up this year in the context of ‘happy hormone fashion’ or ‘dopamine dressing’ (duōbā’àn chuāndā 多巴胺穿搭) the art of wearing colorful clothes to foster a good mood and positive vibes. Now, the use of ‘dopamine xxx’ is also used in other contexts.

9. 情绪价值 (Qíngxù jiàzhí)

This refers to “emotional value,” and is originally used within marketing to refer to the impact of consumers’ emotions on the products and services they purchase. This year, the word became more important as Chinese (young) consumers are shifting from merely ‘buying to use’ to actively participating and immersing themselves in experiences, such as the ‘special forces tourism’ (also in this list), city walks, enjoying Zibo barbecue, or purchasing virtual products that bring some kind of emotional value to them.

10. 质疑××,理解××,成为×× (Zhìyí ××, lǐjiě ××, chéngwéi ××)

This phrase means “question, understand, and become,” popularized because of the Chinese TV series iPartment (爱情公寓, ài qíng gōng yù). Initially, viewers questioned the female lead’s decision to prioritize her career over marriage. However, with time, they began to understand her perspective and realized that romantic love isn’t the sole priority. This pattern can also apply to various other scenarios and settings where initial doubts give way to comprehension and acceptance.


Top 25 Buzzwords/Catchphrases by What’s on Weibo


Here, we have made a special What’s on Weibo top 25 of top buzzwords and catchphrases of 2023. Most of these words have previously been featured in our premium Weibo Watch newsletter, where we select a word of the week for each issue.

These words are not in order of popularity, but rather in order of appearance throughout the year.



Juésàiquān Xuǎnshǒu (决赛圈选手)

Over three years after the Covid-19 outbreak in China, it became increasingly uncommon to find people who hadn’t tested positive for the virus. After China eased its strict ‘Zero Covid’ measures in December 2022, infections surged across the nation, peaking in January 2023. By late January, over 80% of China’s population had contracted Covid. During the 2023 Spring Festival travel period, individuals wearing full protective gear stood out and attracted attention. During this time, Chinese media and netizens began calling those who remained Covid-free since 2020 the “final-round players” (决赛圈选手), suggesting that they were like finalists in the last round of the ‘avoid getting Covid’ game (read more).



Liúlàng qìqiú (流浪气球)

The ‘Wandering Balloon’ – liúlàng qìqiú 流浪气球 – emerged as a notable buzzword in February 2023 among Chinese netizens as the so-called ‘balloon incident‘ sparked an international dispute. The incident revolved around the U.S. military shooting down a Chinese balloon off the Carolina coast. While the U.S. labeled it a spy balloon, China contended it was a civilian “airship” (“飞艇”) for weather monitoring that drifted off course due to wind. On Chinese social platforms, this incident linked the balloon to the box-office hit The Wandering Earth II, leading to humorous online discussions. After reports of the balloon being shot down surfaced, some Weibo users playfully mourned the “poor baby balloon,” suggesting it was abruptly brought down without its chance to roam freely. The connection between the balloon incident and the sci-fi film’s popularity wasn’t surprising, given the movie’s enormous popularity and considering its narrative is all about catastrophic events and the future of international society. Read more about the incident and the words used here.



Chóng Yáng Mèi Wài (崇洋媚外)

This word/expression has come up a lot this year and specifically was used a lot when one incident went absolutely viral. In February of 2023, a Chinese associate professor named Chen Hongyou (陈宏友) stirred major controversy for remarks made during a speech at a school in Hefei, Anhui. According to various blogs and social media posts, Chen basically talked about how mixing races – ‘the further apart partners live, the better’ – would provide better genes for the next generation. He is also said to have suggested that his son, now living in the US with an American wife, would have children with better genes. In the middle of his speech, a student in the audience stormed to the stage and accused the professor of “worshipping foreign things and bowing to foreign powers [崇洋媚外].” This phrase, chóngyáng mèiwài, the popped up in hundreds of online discussions following the incident. Read more about that here.



Dú Jiàocái (毒教材)

Over the past few years, school textbooks that are deemed harmful or contain content that is perceived as offensive, unpatriotic, vulgar, or unsightly have received a lot of attention in China. Remember the ugly textbook scandal of 2022? Or the sexual education textbook of 2017? This year, the term ‘toxic textbook’ or ‘poisonous textbook’ – dú jiàocái 毒教材 – went trending on Weibo after famous commentator/writer Sima Nan made a video in which he warned about the return of the toxic textbooks. Issues highlighted include a geography textbook featuring Japan’s Mount Fuji instead of Chinese landmarks, illustrations depicting Japanese families over Chinese ones, maps omitting Taiwan from Chinese territories, and even primary school books with QR codes leading to inappropriate content. Concerned parents are urging authorities to take decisive actions to ensure the quality and appropriateness of school materials.



Yángkāng (阳康)

As the worst peak of China’s 2023 Covid outbreak had ended by March of 2023, the word used to say ‘recover from Covid’ became a popular online phrase. This novel word is a combination of 阳 yáng, meaning [to test] ‘positive,’ and the word 康 kāng meaning ‘healthy.’ The word is also a pun based on a character in Jin Yong’s martial novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, namely 杨康 Yáng Kāng. New language travels fast, and by now, the word has already become ingrained in everyday life. Some hospitals even opened their own “Covid Yangkang Clinics” (新冠阳康门诊) to help patients who are still suffering from symptoms after testing negative.



Huàyǔ Xiànjiǎng (话语陷阱)

The “discourse trap” (话语陷阱) came up in relation to the speech made by China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Qin Gang (秦刚) in March of 2023. During his address at the Two Sessions, Qin highlighted how foreign media commonly use the term ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ to describe Chinese foreign relations. Qin argued that this term has become a “discourse trap.” By this, he meant that the phrase has been so deeply embedded in Western discussions about China’s foreign policy that it hinders genuine understanding of the actual dynamics. Qin implied that, contrary to perceptions, Chinese diplomats are the ones who are actually ‘dancing with wolves’ while navigating complex international relations. Interestingly, later in 2023, Qin Gang was suddenly replaced in his role by Wang Yi, the CCP’s most senior foreign affairs official. No official explanation was provided for this unexpected change.



Cáo Cāo Gài Fàn (曹操盖饭)

A viral meme originating from the Chinese TV series Three Kingdoms (三国) gained significant traction on Chinese social media in 2023. In a memorable scene from the 2010 series, Cao Cao, a prominent warlord in Chinese history played by actor Chen Jianbin (陈建斌), angrily flips his rice bowl upon receiving news of a surprise attack, only to gather the spilled rice back into the bowl later. This scene featuring an enraged Cao Cao has resurfaced and struck a chord with individuals reluctantly facing reality. Turning into a popular meme, ‘Cao Cao flipping the rice bowl’ (曹操盖饭) became widely employed to convey sentiments of self-inflicted humiliation or the hesitation to undertake certain actions. Read more here.



Bài Zhèn Huá (拜振华) – “Revive China Biden”

While delivering a speech to the Canadian parliament in March of 2023, U.S. President Biden accidentally said he “applauded China for stepping up.” He then quickly corrected himself and saying he meant to say ‘Canada’ instead of ‘China.’ Because of this slip of the tongue, many Chinese netizens joked that Biden secretly supports China. They referred to him by the nickname “Revive the Country Biden” (Bài Zhènhuá 拜振华), also translatable as ‘Thriving China Biden’. This nickname already circulated online since 2020 and matches with one that was previously given to former President Trump, namely that of “Build the Country Trump” (Chuān Jiànguó 川建国). The idea behind these humorous monikers is that both Trump and Biden are benefitting China by doing a poor job in running the United States and saying things that actually make China stronger (read more).



Sàibó Yīnào (赛博医闹)

Yinao (医闹) refers to the social problem of patient-doctor violence and other outbursts of anger against medical staff. A video showing a woman attacking a service robot in a local hospital went viral on Chinese social media and beyond in April of 2023. The incident reportedly took place at a Xuzhou Medical University hospital in Jiangsu, where an angry woman got so frustrated that she started swinging at the robot with a bat. Some netizens called this a form of ‘Cyber Yinao’ (Sàibó Yīnào 赛博医闹). With smart robots becoming a more important part of China’s service industry, from banks to hospitals, we might come across this term more often in the future when patients and their families lash out against the robotic staff members in the medical field.



Quán Zhí Ér Nǚ (全职儿女)

In 2023, Chinese media outlet Toutiao News (头条新闻) featured the story of Nian An, a young woman who quit her job without securing a new one (also called “naked resignation” luǒcí 裸辞), and who made the decision to temporarily rely on her parents for support. She spent every weekend at her parents’ house, assisting her mother with dinner preparations and providing companionship. In return for her presence, her parents offer her a monthly allowance of 4000 yuan ($570), with the option to request additional funds if needed. Nian An viewed being a “full-time daughter” as a “freelance job full of love” (“充满爱的自由职业”). Nian An’s story led to online discussions about being a “full-time child” (全职儿女), which is different from “living off parents” (啃老). Being a “full-time child” is a transitional stage that allows young people to prepare for graduate school or switching jobs while exchanging their caretaking efforts for financial support from their parents.



Èr Yáng (二阳)

This buzzword directly translates as “second positive” and was at the top of China’s social media trending lists over the last summer or late spring, when the country was facing a second major Covid wave. The character 二 èr means two or second. The character 阳 yáng means [to test] positive, and is used in the context of testing positive for Covid-19. The meaning of the phrase is “to get COVID for a second time” as many people in China got infected for the second time in the summer of 2023, after most people got their first infection in late 2022.



Báirén Fàn (白人饭)

This year, the topic of “white people food” went viral on China’s Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) app and beyond. The phenomenon stems from Chinese observations of typical white foreigners’ lunches, often comprising raw veggies, boiled eggs, chicken breast, processed meats, and fruits or juices. In contrast, traditional Chinese meals emphasize warm dishes paired with rice or noodles. “White people food” is commonly characterized by its simple ingredients, straightforward preparation methods, and perceived lack of flavor. Some Chinese netizens try out “white people food” out of curiosity, considering eating raw celery or baby carrots as a novel “challenge.” Others choose it because they are willing to trade the taste of food for the convenience of buying ingredients and preparing meals quickly. One user on Xiaohongshu shared, “After reaching the stage where I eat only for survival, I’ve started to appreciate ‘white people food’ because I can prepare it very quickly” (read more here).



Lízhí Shèngdiǎn (离职盛典)

Hooray, I quit my job! The phenomenon of the “Resignation Ceremony” (lízhí shèngdiǎn 离职盛典 ) emerged as a trend in 2023 where young individuals go to great lengths to celebrate their departure from a job with banners and hotpot dinners. With job security declining, quitting one’s job has become more common in today’s China. This increased frequency has made something that was previously considered somewhat embarrassing more acceptable and natural. Moreover, the prevalence of China’s intense ‘996 work culture’ has fueled the desire among young people to quit their jobs. As a result, the process of resignation has transformed from a secretive and silent departure into a joyous occasion comparable to receiving a promotion.



Xiǎozhèn Guìfù (小镇贵妇)

The phenomenon of the “small-town elites” has been popping up more frequently in Chinese online media and on lifestyle app Xiaohongshu throughout 2023. The term “small town upper class ladies” (小镇贵妇) refers to women who reside in small towns and are leading comfortable lives close to their hometowns. They do not need to rush to work early in the morning, don’t struggle with hard jobs, and earn a comfortable living, seemingly without the stresses of urban life. They are envied by urban dwellers, not only because of their financial stability – often thanks to their affluent families – but also because of the free time they have to engage in various activities, such as decorating their homes or doing yoga.



Nèiyú Chúnyuán (内娱纯元)

They are the ones who are staying “pure” in times of scandal. The “Chunyuan of the entertainment industry” refers to idols in Mainland China who are regarded as flawless and worthy of admiration. The term “内娱” (nèiyú) is a shortened form of “内地娱乐圈” (nèidì yúlèquān), which means the Mainland entertainment industry. Meanwhile, “纯元” (chúnyuán), meaning ‘pure essence,’ symbolizes individuals seen as pure and perfect. In light of the numerous scandals involving idols in mainland China in recent years, including prominent stars like Fan Bingbing (范冰冰), Kris Wu (吴亦凡), or Cai Xukun (蔡徐坤), discussions have emerged around identifying figures who remain untainted by controversy and are still deserving of being cherished as flawless role models.



Zhǐ Shǔ Wéi Yā (指鼠为鸭)

There is a famous Chinese idiom, zhǐ lù wéi mǎ 指鹿为马, that translates to “calling a deer a horse” (or “calling a stag a horse”), meaning to misrepresent something. The phrase comes from a story about the corrupt eunuch and minister Zhao Gao (赵高) during the Qin Dynasty who brought a deer to the second emperor, presenting it as a “horse.” Fearful to disagree with him, many people followed him and also identified the animal as a horse. In June of 2023, a student found a rat head – teeth and all – inside his school canteen meal and posted about it on social media. As the incident blew up, the school refused to admit any wrongdoing and argued that the student was mistaken, insisting that it was actually duck he found. Reflecting on this peculiar incident (read), the idiom has evolved, with people coining the phrase “calling a rat a duck” (zhǐ shǔ wéi yā 指鼠为鸭) to capture the absurdity of the situation.



Shābùsǐ de Shíjiāzhuāngrén (杀不死的石家庄人)

Shijiazhuang is the capital and most populous city of China’s Hebei Province which has been attempting to rebrand itself as China’s rock ‘n’ roll capital to boost tourism and its local economy. As part of this revamping, the phrase “The Unkillable One from Shijiazhuang” (杀不死的石家庄人) has become a popular term on Chinese social media. Shijiazhuang used “The Unkillable Shijiazhuang” as its slogan to spread positivity, but netizens primarily used it sarcastically. It comes from a song released by the Hebei Communist Youth League in 2022, which serves as a ‘harmonious’ reinterpretation of the renowned 2010 Chinese song “Kill the One from Shijiazhuang” (杀死那个石家庄人) by the Chinese rock band Omnipotent Youth Society. The original song, which delved into the turbulence stemming from widespread job losses, deeply resonated with Chinese youth. The reworked song title and its association with Shijiazhuang’s rebranding as a “Rock N Roll center” led to humorous adaptations online, partly poking fun at the Communist Youth League’s attempt to revise a song that once conveyed hardship into one echoing state propaganda, and showcasing a form of self-deprecating expression among netizens.



Fáng Fúshè (防辐射)

Since Japan began releasing treated radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima power plant into the ocean, various related discussions surged across Chinese social media platforms, making it one of the biggest trending topics of the year. In light of worries over contaminated water, concerned netizens started to actively seeking ways to safeguard themselves against potential radiation risks. The term “anti-radiation” therefore gained significant popularity online and some businesses attempted to profit from these radiation concerns. One Japanese-style restaurant in Shanghai even offered an “anti-radiation” set meal (“防辐射”套餐).



Huāxī bì (花西币)

It was one of the biggest controversies in 2023: China’s most famous beauty influencer Li Jiaqi (Lipstick King) suddenly lashed out against a viewer who questioned the price of an eyeliner he was selling during a livestream. Li was promoting Chinese make-up brand Florasis, which is known as Huāxīzǐ (花西子) in China, and some viewers thought 79 yuan ($11) was a bit expensive for a pencil, after which Li rolled his eyes and snapped that viewers should instead ask themselves if they had worked hard enough to deserve a raise. Him saying “what do you mean, expensive?” (“哪里贵了”) instantly became a meme-worthy phrase. The incident sparked a series of memes and discussions, and among them the question of what one can buy with 79 yuan in China today was a big one. While some suggested they could feed an entire family for one day with that money, others said that it would buy their office lunches for a week. This humorous situation gave rise to the term ‘Huaxi Coins’ or ‘Floracash’ (花西币), with netizens playfully using the eyebrow pencil’s price as a new currency unit, where one Huaxi Coin equals 79 yuan. People even started jokingly expressing their earnings in Huaxi Coins, and some proudly mentioned the cost of snacks or meals, saying things like ‘it only cost me a quarter in Floracash for three’ or ‘tonight’s dinner was just half a Huaxi Coin!'”



Yáo Yáo Lǐng Xiān (遥遥领先)

During the much-anticipated Huawei launch event in September of 2023, consumer chief Richard Yu unveiled an impressive array of Huawei’s latest products and innovations, such as the latest version of its MatePad Pro (the world’s lightest and thinnest tablet of its kind), a new smart TV, wireless earphones, and he also announced Huawei’s first sedan, the Luxeed S7, promising it would be “superior” to Tesla’s Model S “in every specification.” During his speech, Yu recurringly used the phrase “far ahead”, “遥遥领先” (yáo yáo lǐng xiān), to indicate that Huawei is fully future-proof and far ahead of other companies. As a result, the phrase became popular among Chinese netizens, who started using it for all kinds of things. It did not take long for the phrase to get registered as a trademark by some business owners in Shenzhen who hope it might bring them some profit.



Tèzhǒngbīngshì Lǚyóu (特种兵式旅游)

Fun, fast, frugal travel was all the rage in this ‘post-lockdown’ year. As people could go out to travel again, so-called ‘special forces travelers’ flooded popular tourist spots across China. Their mission: covering as many places as possible at the lowest cost and within a limited time frame. On social media, young travelers shared their strict schedules of arriving in a certain place and then climbing mountains in the morning, doing city tours during the day, and participating in a local cuisine cooking class at night before taking off again and save on hotel money by taking a night bus to the next destination. While the travel trend became a social media hype, there were also those criticizing the trend for being superficial.



Fǎnxiàng Xiāofèi (反向消费)

This year, especially during the online shopping festival season, the concept of Chinese consumers engaging in ‘reverse spending’ or ‘reverse consumption’ – also known as ‘rational consumption,’ – became a hot topic. ‘Reverse consumption’ is a recent trend that is especially popular among Chinese young people, and that is all about pursuing sustainable and cost-effective products instead of focusing on consuming for the sake of buying brands or spending money. The trend does not necessarily suggest a focus on cheap products, but rather a refusal to celebrate consumerism and overpay for products that lack value for the price. Some Weibo users view this trend as a reaction to the constant shopping festivals and the pressure on young people to keep buying more in the thriving Chinese e-commerce market, leading to increased luxury consumption. As consumer attitudes gradually begin to change, young people no longer simply believe that “expensive means good,” and are now being more rational in their shopping behavior that is more about ‘value for money.’



Rǔmàshì Zhuīxīng (辱骂式追星)

In China’s ever-evolving fan culture, the phenomenon of ‘rǔmà shì zhuīxīng‘ (辱骂式追星, lit: ‘abusive-style celebrity admiration’) or ‘toxically fangirling’ has become a trend this year. This term refers to a rather extreme way for fans to engage with their their idols. When pleased, they express intense love and support for their idols, but they can turn into abusive trolls targeting their idols when dissatisfied. This shift from love to aggression can be triggered by small things, like an unflattering photo or an unsatisfactory performance. Initially viewed as a departure from blind loyalty, this fan behavior has now turned somewhat toxic. Netizens interpret this ‘toxic fangirling’ phenomenon half ironically, half seriously, suggesting its origin may be rooted in the collective childhood trauma of Chinese fangirls.



Kēmù Sān Tiàowǔ (科目三跳舞)

‘Subject Three’ has become a buzzword on Chinese social media in 2023 in connection with a viral dance, the Subject Three Dance (科目三舞蹈). From Douyin to Bilibili, the dance is super popular online and is performed by various people, from online influencers to virtual vloggers. The dance has become especially big since the renowned Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao allowed its staff to perform this viral dance for diners upon request, leading to amusing and occasionally awkward situations. The term ‘Subject Three’ allegedly first gained traction in 2022 or early 2023 following a video showcasing the jubilant atmosphere of a Guangxi wedding. Subsequently, ‘Guangxi Subject Three’ (广西科目三) became a popular joke. Although traditionally associated with the third part of a driver’s license exam, people playfully suggested that Guangxi locals undergo three significant “exams” in their lifetime: one for singing folk songs, one for mastering the art of slurping rice noodles, and the third for dancing (“广西人一生中会经历三场考试,科目一唱山歌,科目二嗦米粉,科目三跳舞”). By now, the dance has transcended its original context of Guangxi weddings and Haidilao staff dances, as it’s turned into a true social media hype where people create and share videos of themselves and others performing the Subject Three Dance, which is characterized by playful and exaggerated movements accompanied by the background music of “江湖一笑” (Jianghu Smile), making it entertaining, humorous, and, most of all, meme-worthy. .



Shǔxì Shuàigē (鼠系帅哥)

The term “Rat-Type Handsome Guy” (鼠系帅哥) has actually been around for some time, but attracted more attention on Chinese social media recently. The word is part of a group of other terms to describe popular aesthetics of famous men with features resembling animals. In 2022, for example, the “Monkey-Type Handsomes” (猴系帅哥) were especially popular. The term was used to describe the kind of Chinese celebrities who were undeniably handsome and also showed some resemblance to monkeys due to their strong brow ridges, narrow and long face, thin upper lip, and prominent T-zone. When categorizing handsome men in China’s entertainment industry into animal-types, from monkeys to snakes, from dogs to birds, it is not always only about facial features but also about a certain air or vibe (氛围感) that surrounds an idol. A loyal and cute dog-like vibe, a calm and strong ox-like feeling, or a sharp and sexy cat-like character. This year, the ‘rat-like’ handsome men have been more in vogue. They have small eyes, a pointed jaw and a small mouth. Although not all actors who are rat-like are deemed handsome, those that are handsome are all the more rare – and popular.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang, Zilan Qian, and Miranda Barnes

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China Media

Wang Huidi: Stop Referring to Singapore as a Chinese ‘County’ (坡县)

The author suggests that comparing Singapore a small county in contrast to the giant nation that is China not only reflects negatively on Singapore but also on the Chinese individuals who use this term.

Manya Koetse



In Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, author Wang Huidi (汪惠迪) recently wrote a column in which he argued that Singapore, officially the Republic of Singapore, should no longer be referred to as “坡县” (trad. 坡縣, Pōxiàn) in the Chinese-language online media sphere.

The topic received quite some attention on Chinese social media, where Singapore is often nicknamed “坡县”/Pōxiàn, “Po County.”

The names of many foreign countries are transliterated in Chinese, which means Chinese characters are used to create a word that sounds similar to the original name of the country. The characters may or may not actually mean something, and some characters may even have multiple meanings.

Singapore in Chinese is 新加坡, Xīnjiāpō, which also sounds like ‘Singapore.’ The character for ‘Po’ 坡 () in Xīn Jiā Pō means ‘slope.’ In Chinese, this part of the name is sometimes combined with the word for ‘county,’ 县 (xiàn), which is an administrative division unit in China.

Referring to Singapore as ‘Slope County’ or ‘Little Po County’ may give the impression that it’s merely a small part of China, as some Chinese netizens or Chinese immigrants living in Singapore might see it as a place no bigger than a county-level city in mainland China. China is approximately 13,344 times bigger than Singapore.

In his latest column, Wang Huidi, a renowned Chinese editor, writer, and language researcher, argues that it is derogatory to refer to Singapore that way, especially when ‘Po County’ is used by Chinese who are living and working in the country.

The article by Wang in Lianhe Zaobao.

Wang referred to the famous ‘little red dot’ incident, in which third Indonesian President Habibie had allegedly made an unfriendly remark about Singapore and had pointed to a map, saying: “(..) there are 211 million people in Indonesia, [just] look at this map: all the green areas are Indonesia. Singapore is only that little red dot.”

While the derogatory term “little red dot” eventually gained popularity and was embraced by Singaporeans as a self-defining moniker, Wang argues that it still carries a deeper significance, highlighting the country’s diminutive size and vulnerability.

Wang suggests that those who refer to Singapore as ‘Little Po County’ in the Chinese language should consider how they would feel if others referred to China in a similar fashion. He emphasizes that words carry weight and convey a specific perspective on the part of the speaker.

The author goes on to suggest that comparing Singapore to a “little dwarf” in contrast to the giant that is China not only reflects negatively on Singapore but also on the Chinese individuals who use this term. As a result, Wang concludes that this expression should not be used casually, and people who use it should recognize the significant impact it holds.

By now, a hashtag related to this story has garnered over 100 million views on Weibo (#中国网民叫新加坡坡县引发争议#). Although the column has triggered quite some discussion, it also was a reason for banter.

Some joked that Australia must feel bad for its Chinese nickname ranks even lower in administrative level; it is sometimes referred to as “澳村” (Ào Cūn), or “Aussie Village.” This nickname isn’t related to Australia’s size but reflects how some Chinese see the country’s urban environment and way of life as more akin to a ‘village.’

“You should be happy we don’t say Po village (坡镇), and still call it a county!”

“Would you like us to call you ‘Po prefecture’ (坡州区) instead?”, others write.

Some commenters argue that it’s simply a sweet term of endearment and that people shouldn’t overanalyze it. They write: “You are too sensitive.” Or: “Even my friends in Singapore use this term themselves!”

A few commenters do agree with Wang, writing: “I do feel that calling [Singapore] this isn’t appropriate, especially after it has been pointed out. If there’s no good reason to do so, it’s better not to use this name anymore.”

Other Weibo users mention that they hadn’t used the term ‘Little Po County’ before, but Wang’s article has introduced them to it: “Thanks for that, I’ll start using that now!”

Most netizens appear to agree that Wang is making a big deal out of nothing. However, Wang does have a point in noting that the same online population tends to get easily upset when foreigners refer to China in ways that are considered offensive or derogatory. One Weibo commenter wrote: “A lot of web users in China do seem to have double standards.”

By Manya Koetse

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Featured photo by Jay Ang (link).

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