An encyclopaedia on Chinese internet slangs
Written by Li Shiyu and voiced by Wu Manling, this is a small segment of the weekly literary program Ink&Quill.
As the internet usage becomes ubiquitous, we tend to interact with others more frequently online than offline. Therefore, cyber-slangs such as snatched, YOLO, and Netflix n'chill have been widely spread and used in the English-speaking world.
But how fluent are you in Chinese online slangs?
If you find these terms rather head-scratching or unable to find a satisfying explanation on the Urban, we will introduce to you a book, which may help you become a connoisseur in Chinese online patois.
In this posed photograph, students from East London Youth Dance Company pose holding mobile phones displaying slang words that they use in daily life at the University of East London, in east London, on February 13, 2016. A group of teenage dancers, whose age range from 14 to 19, laughed about how quickly their language changes, rattling off "old" words still unfamiliar to many older English speakers. [Photo: VCG]
Shao Yanjun is an associate professor in Chinese literature from Peking University, one of the most prestigious universities in China.
"For six years, I conducted research on literary magazines and journals, which is a very orthodox field of research in academia. During my search, I realized that these magazines and journals were losing their readers. They were supposed to be the most preferred leisure time consumption for literary lovers; yet they were increasingly marginalized. I thought the vitality of Chinese literature might lie elsewhere. So in 2010, I changed my research interest to online fiction. Now as I look back, around that time, Chinese online literature had already become quite exuberant for over ten years. With a wide variety of literary genres and a readership of over 200 million, online literature had developed its own integrated fee-charging and sharing mechanism as well as fan culture. "
In 2011, Shao set up a course on Chinese online fiction, which immediately drew in a cluster of students.
It was then she realized how uninitiated she actually was:"I encouraged my students to speak up in class. But I failed to understand what they were talking about. So after class, I invited them to dinner and told them to ignore me and carry on their conversation. As I observed, I noticed that I could hardly take in the words and phrases they were using or make sense of the content of their dialogues."
"It felt like when they speak to me, they use standard Chinese; and then when they put their heads together, they switch back to their own dialect, which turns me into a total outsider."She recalled, "I always believe that it's impossible to understand a culture if you cannot discern its lingo. So I have started to learn internet jargons and acronyms from my students."
As Shao Yanjun and her students carried out their research, essays and research papers were submitted in which certain terminologies of online fiction had to be explained. That was when other problems occurred.
"Each individual had their own interpretation. For example, at mention of slash fiction, students would decipher this term in different manners. So we had to set the standard. A glossary of online literature was thus created. But when we edited the entries, we realized that not every entry originates from web-based novels. Some actually derive from the gaming community or fandom. Therefore my team members, who could all be considered as some sort of old hands at various youth subcultures, decided to make a new dictionary that unravels all the keywords of our online culture. "
Titled "Keywords in Chinese Internet Subculture," or "Po Bi Shu" in Chinese, this encyclopaedia-like book not only defines the secret argots of Chinese youth, but also serves as a history book that documents social changes and cultural trajectories. [Cover: Courtesy of Shao Yanjun]
Titled "Keywords in Chinese Internet Subculture," or in Chinese, "Po Bi Shu," this rather lofty-looking "dictionary" tries to decode the finely nuanced argots among today's youth and helps it's less tech-savvy readers navigate in the ever promiscuous cyberspace. Carefully picking out 245 terms that stem from six major categories, such as anime, video games and internet memes, the book narrates the etymology, evolution and funny anecdotes of each word in detail.
Shao listed a few examples: "Some words have a very long lifespan. For example, the word 'nao dong(脑洞),' which literarily means a hole in the brain, usually refers to strange or weird imagination. So buzzwords like this can be effortlessly and intuitively understood. Yet for some words such as 'da call(打call),' people might misconstrue them quite easily. Interpreted literally, 'da call' means making a phone call; but in fact, it is used to express 'rally support!'”
There are also some terms that enter the mainstream thanks to the rise of certain pop culture. For instance, the word 'chuan yue(穿越),' or 'time-travel' in English, originally represented a subgenre of Chinese online fiction. As time went by, TV dramas with a time-travel twist became really popular back in the day. So, the term 'chuan yue' was gradually accepted by the general public. Some parlances that are originally exclusive to a small group of people can ultimately invade everyday speech. " She further explained.
The term "da call" has been one of the most popular online buzzwords in China since 2017.[Picture: VCG]
However, as a myriad of more bewildering and attention-grabbing neologisms comes into being at an astonishing speed, the internet always does what it does best: it obsoletes. Slang terms that are modish at the moment can easily get old in a blink of an eye.
So how could Professor Shao ensure that the words she and her students select are up-to-date?
"The keywords we chose are not just some one-time viral hits. They also represent certain values. These entries bear witness to the history of certain subcultures. In a way, we regard these words as the cornerstones for these communities. People may wonder whether these words will be out of touch after a while. We reckon that as the lingos that lay foundations, only very few of them would gradually retire from the stage. It is highly unlikely that all these words would go out of style; otherwise an entire culture will vanish. Even so, to say the least, some other culture will reclaim these words." Shao replied.
Compiled entirely by academics, the encyclopaedia-like book "Keywords in Chinese Internet Subculture" is not a primer on internet shorthand, but rather, a comprehensive roadmap to explore every hidden nook and cranny of the internet, including some of its seedy side. Flipping through the pages, there are certain slang words and phrases that might appear to be overly audacious, too bawdy, or superbly deviant to the liking of upright defenders of standard Chinese. Some may regard the popularity of these terms as a sign of degradation of the linguistic canons.
But the lexicographer Shao Yanjun argued that there is no need to get fraught, since a few salty words will not impair the purity of the Chinese language.
"In fact, every cultural system has its own vulgar tongue. Some morbid, crass phrases have certain charms and they could even enrich our culture. Without these sleazy components, a linguistic system will be as insipid as distilled water. Language is not static. That's the reason why people keep revising dictionaries. A language system has never been absolutely stable or pure. It is a mobile, capricious thing that constantly integrates new words and new ideas. But this time, the internet has helped process the large amount of information behind these slangs and helped spread these teen parlances. The integration has been speeding up. The trend has come on so strong that we better adapt to these vernacular changes."
A dictiionary always gives the most authoriative definitions of a language. Yet Professor Shao Yanjun argues that lanuage is not static so dictionaries have to be revised to serve the time.[Photo:VCG]
But Shao Yanjun also emphasized that people should not overstate the power of internet slangs. There is no way that those words and phrases will become the lingua franca for all Chinese people.
"They are not going to replace standard Chinese. But they will become a major subject during the media convergence. The change won't happen overnight. They will infiltrate into our everyday speech quite slowly. The introduction of internet slangs doesn't signal a complete replacement. Instead, it showcases the compatibility of our culture."
More than just a dictionary, "Keywords in Chinese Internet Subculture" not only defines the secret argots of Chinese youth, but also serves as a history book that documents social changes and cultural trajectories. A guide that helps readers avoid internet faux pas and improve web literacy, it has scored 8.4 out of 10 on Douban.com, the Chinese equivalent of Goodreads.
In the eyes of the leading compiler Shao Yanjun, this book could come in handy if the older generation wants to keep on track with their children.
"Cross-generational communication is imperative. To be honest, the culture of today has already become quite youth-driven. The TV and film industries have given great preference to the needs of young audiences and the internet will become their next main front. Now young people are still consumers of all those subcultures. They are basically informed by older generations. In the years to come, when this generation wields power, the once-marginal subcultures will automatically become mainstream. Whether we like it or not, we are living in the digital age. So updating our slang wardrobe is an assignment that we have to finish." She said.
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