Chinese netizens are finding all sorts of creative ways to avoid the censors’ filters, coming up with a whole new vocab to talk about sensitive subjects. Many of them require only a slight tweak in tone to sound like something entirely different.
This year, 25 new words or phrases have been added to an unofficial lexicon collating these terms.
In "Decoding the Chinese Internet: A Glossary of Political Slang,” compiled by the China Digital Times, an independent media outlet, China scholar Perry Link and China Digital Times editor-in-chief Xiao Qiang write in the introduction that linguistic innovations have helped the Internet seem like a “new, open realm” in a China where plenty of subjects remain taboo.
About half of China’s 1.3 billion people were using the Internet at the end of last year, a statistic from the China Internet Network Information Center quoted in the report. Among them, 198 million are active monthly users of Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, up a phenomenal 38 percent from the previous year.
But Weibo is tightly controlled, and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked.
“Chinese netizens are still speaking in a heavily monitored environment, and so their demands for greater freedom of information and expression often find voice through coded language and metaphors that allow them to avoid outright censorship,” the authors write in the report.
Many of these metaphors describe the government, for obvious reasons, but they are also used to get around prudish censors. One of the most famous Internet puns revolves around a character called the caonima or grass-mud horse, the report says. With slightly different inflections, the words that make up that character's name sound like an insulting profanity that WorldViews will avoid spelling out to protect innocent eyeballs.
Here are some of the terms added to this year’s lexicon.
你国 (nǐ guó)
Instead of saying “China,” it’s common here just to say “my country” (just as Japanese and Koreans use “my” or “our” country for theirs). But turning the saying on its head, liberal, pro-human rights netizens are using the phrase “your country” to refer to the nationalists running the country.
“Terms like 'your country' separate the Chinese Communist Party from the state, which are often conflated in official rhetoric,” the report says.
Examples from Weibo:
@kongsanduo: The west invented the train, the car, airplane, bike, motorbike, electricity and all the appliances, among other things. Your country invented the hukou [geographically restrictive family registry] system, the one-child policy, fees for choosing a school, limits on car plates, limits on house purchasing, etc. While others invented things to bring convenience to people, your country invented things to restrict people’s freedom!
@Gongcheng: The TV shows in your country finally got out of decades-long rule by your party and became more like those from South Korea.
Check the water meter
抄水表 (chāo shuǐbiǎo)
You don’t want the police knocking at your door in China. That can only spell trouble. So police have taken to posing as meter readers from the water company to trick people into opening their doors. Hence “check the water meter” has become Internet-speak for a house call from the police.
Example: @guhuomaoshaoye: Hello, here is a delivery package for you. Please sign for it. Hello, the water supply company is here to check the water meter. Hello, please hurry up and open the door. We will not hurt you. If you don’t open the door, we will just open fire!
(Death by) hide-and-seek
躲猫猫(死)(duǒ māomāo (sǐ))
There’s a new way of dying in China: death by hide and seek. This euphemism has become shorthand for dying in police custody under suspicious circumstances.
It stems from the explanation offered by prison authorities after farmer Li Qiaoming died while in detention on charges of illegal logging in 2009. The police said Li died of a head injury suffered while playing hide-and-seek with other prisoners. The “hide-and-seek incident” now refers to cover-ups of police brutality.
Examples: @Dong Minghui: There is a place, a magical place where you can die by vomiting, die by having physical abnormalities, die by hide-and-seek, and by all kinds of magical ways. What a magical place. What a magical country!
@Qubo: Sigh! Death by seek-and-hide, death by taking a shower, is not news anymore. When power is not being supervised, it is inevitable that violence associated with official work would occur. No matter who you are, you won’t be able to run away from it if you come across it.
跪国 (guì guó)
This is a play on the similar-sounding term for “distinguished country” (贵国 guì guó) and mocks the idea that Chinese people these days feel they should kneel in front of government buildings to get their grievances heard. This term suggests that citizens now feel compelled to kneel to get things that should be theirs by right.
Example: @Zhangsan ZJ: More than 170 years have passed, mob people are still mob people, the stupid masses are still stupid, and the kneeling country is still kneeling. What is the difference then? Purses are fuller? Modernized? Civilized?
@tooti188: No human rights in the kneeling country. I don’t want to live in the kneeling country…
大麻时代 (Dàmá shídài)
A phrase made by joining the nicknames for President Xi Jinping – Daddy Xi, or Xí Dàda in Chinese – and his wife, Peng Liyuan — Mama Peng or Péng Máma – to make the word for marijuana: dama. So China enters the “Dama era” or “marijuana era.” “Marijuana” is now blocked on Weibo.
Examples: @zhuodaoren: “Hello everyone, I am Xi Dada!” “Hello I am Peng Mama!” We are —Dama couple!
@villiva: Is the combination of Xi Dada and Peng Mama foreboding the prospect of the legalization of “Dama?”
Foreign (hostile) forces
境外(敌对)势力 (jìngwài (díduì) shìli)
Any thought or action that does not conform with Chinese Communist Party doctrine, according to the China Digital Times. Beijing has blamed “foreign forces,” sometimes called “foreign hostile forces,” for masterminding everything from the 1989 protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square incident to the pro-democracy movement that brought Hong Kong to a standstill last year. Now, Chinese Internet users employ the term “foreign forces” to mock the idea that there must be an outside player behind any domestic movement, such as the protests at the Southern Weekly in 2013, the lexicon authors noted.
Example: @Haohan Zhangmazi: The people's police love the people and fight bravely against the 'unruly people' who do not obey them. They must be foreign hostile forces.
To use the Internet scientifically
科学上网 (kēxué shàngwǎng)
A term mocking former president Hu Jintao’s slogan about having “scientific outlook on development,” which was meant to incorporate both communist ideology and material development.
Now, to get around the Great Firewall of China and access blocked sites, netizens talk about “using the Internet scientifically.” There’s even a Google Chrome app called Use the Internet Scientifically.
Example: @Mr. Ding-LD: Every time I use the internet scientifically, I just become more determined to go overseas. Disturbance from government is everywhere, no matter where you are, but at least I will find a government that doesn't care if I go on Facebook.
This is cyber-speak for an online commenter who defends the Chinese government, for free – contrasted with those “50-centers” recruited for the job, who allegedly earn 50 cents for each post that’s positive about the government.
Volunteer 50-centers instead emerged as a reaction to criticism of the government and liberal intellectual commentary, the Decoding Chinese Slang report says. The authorities are also encouraging people to spread “positive energy” online through programs such as the Communist Youth League’s Youth Internet Civilization Volunteer Campaign.
Example: @Lingfengtingyu paomaodao: Volunteer 5o-centers are all smart, they can poke the sore spots of the public intellectuals with one sentence. How can we not hate them?
With so many people “dying” online — having their social media accounts ordered deleted by the authorities if the users post about sensitive issues — some netizens “reincarnate” themselves in a new form on the same platform to continue speaking out. Their new username will sometimes be a combination of the old name and the word “reincarnation” to make the new account easier for previous followers to find, the report says.
“Political cartoonist Kuang Biao has reincarnated dozens of times on Weibo, and for several years has included his reincarnation count in each successive username,” the report says. “His latest incarnation as of May 10, 2015 is ‘Uncle Biao Fountain Pen Drawings 47’.”
Example: @Chunzhendeyun06: Strongly recommend a good friend who has been reincarnated many times: @zhugewenjun
But sometimes, netizens come up with new terms to be funny. As in this case:
Kim Fatty III
金三胖 (Jīn Sān Pàng)
A nickname for Kim Jong Un, the rotund leader of North Korea since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, at the end of 2011. Chinese netizens began making fun of the third-generation leader of the Kim dynasty, calling him “Kim Fatty III.” Such a pejorative name is unlikely to cause too much dissatisfaction in Beijing, though — Chinese authorities are also far from impressed with the young leader, who has repeatedly rebuffed his country’s patron.
Example: @duoduo: Recently, Kim Fatty III announced at a general meeting that North Korea was going to land on the sun. The audience burst into an uproar: “It is so hot there on the sun, and how could we land there?” Kim Fatty III detected everyone’s confusion and said, “We will go there when it is dark!” The whole audience, stunned by the wit of Kim Fatty III, instantly broke into thunderous and prolonged applause.
@yingzhou laoji: The nuclear weapon issue in North Korea must be solved now. I don’t believe it has the capacity to drop a nuclear bomb on the U.S., even Japan. China is the most threatened. We can’t think of Kim Fatty III, who is extremely arrogant and does not know the immensity of heavy and earth, with the rational thinking of normal people.
Separately, netizens have taken to calling China “West Korea” to refer to the increasingly draconian, North Korean-style controls the authorities have been imposing.
Elena Liu and Gu Jinglu contributed to this post.
This post has been updated to clarify that Xiao Qiang, founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, and China scholar Perry Link wrote the introduction to the lexicon, which was compiled by China Digital Times staff.