Twisted Tongues

China’s cultural progress in the year 2012 can be summed up with eight words: weibo (microblog), diaosi (commoners), yuanfangti (a Yuanfang-like inquiry), shejian (tip of the tongue), yangsheng (keeping fit), shisanchai (thirteen hairpins, from a movie title), shige (poetry), and yuedu (reading).

Together, these words are key points on China’s cultural roadmap. True, the roads are littered with potholes. But surveying the context and social phenomena associated with each word can help us read the map. We can see where we’ve traveled, and where we’re going.

Weibo (微博)

Weibo is the Chinese word for the microblogs that have become online channels for popular opinion. But the word means different things to different groups of people.

It is a shared platform for populists, nationalists, and liberals. It helps authorities access public opinion, and it’s a horn narcissists blow to broadcast trivial information. It’s a public display of private emotions, and it’s a classroom where a lot of Chinese learn to differentiate fact from fiction. Weibo is a perfect place for up-to-date discussions—a forum, a toilet, and a clinic all in one. And since we live in times of abundant troubles, it has naturally become an axis for cultural discourse.

Weibo, online shopping, and online gaming are intensifying our Internet craze. A China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) report in early 2012 said there are more than 513 million Internet users in China, and that the Internet penetration rate had risen to 38.3 percent. In 2013, the Internet will transition even further from desktops to mobile devices as a result of improving technologies.

Even as they strive to create the world’s largest local area network, Chinese Internet authorities will certainly find it more difficult to cut off the flow of information. The CNNIC report also noted that “Internet obsessive compulsive disorder” and “Internet autism” are becoming common problems among the youth.

What weibo has done best is to describe for us the chaotic, angry cyberspace our society has created. A popular opinion in 2012 was that despite rigid surveillance, a seemingly prosperous online society has developed. The government imposed real-name registration rules for weibo and installed an even more potent firewall, greatly increasing their power to control. They ramped up general measures and clamped down on specific targets. Nevertheless, there are still many cracks in weibo, cracks big enough for glimpses of truth to spill through.

Always among the hottest topics on weibo are messages involving the close scrutiny of elites. Another of this year’s most important buzz words, then, is diaosi. This refers to a group of people who are using the power of words to control weibo.

Diaosi (屌丝)

The first character of this phrase, diao, means the male organ. Xinhua Press has sternly refused to use the character, calling it too vulgar. But when combined with si, which means silk or thread, it becomes a much grander noun. It’s the kind of word many ordinary Chinese have sought for years to aptly describe themselves.

In the past, they used words like yizu (ant tribe), caogen (grass roots), and shibaizhe (losers). But diaosi refers generally to the so-called “three withouts”—people without money, prominent background, or a future. It’s a class at the bottom of the social chain in areas of life such as career, love, and connections.

Diaosi is also a linguistic strategy. In an era marked by injustice, many people feel they’ve lost the competitive race and opportunities for advancement. If they can’t move up, at least they can hide under the diaosi umbrella and mock themselves. They do so to join in the fun of the trend and make themselves feel safer.

Diaosi also call themselves “short, poor, and ugly” (a play on the popular three-character adjective gaofushuai, which means tall, rich, and handsome). Or they mock themselves as a way to express their frustration at being abandoned, powerless, and having no alternatives.

But on the other hand, the term is also a kind of mask, a means for the non-diaosi to bring themselves down a peg. Among those who call themselves diaosi on weibo there are even several so-called gaofushuai, “successful,” people.

The appearance of the diaosi phenomenon is an important symbol of ascendant feelings of populism in China. As diaosi has become more important, another group on the Internet, “the public intellectual,” has become a target of ridicule.

The Internet has widened China’s social schism. Some in society are desperate to worship elites and become their fans, while others rebel at will, while spitting on and reviling elites with all types of foul language.

Yuanfangti (元芳体)

With the spread of the term diaosi online, many other styles, sentence structures, and popular words have emerged. They’ve enhanced online ridicule.

The expression yuanfangti has roots in the television show Supernatural Detective Di Renjie. The detective’s assistant is named Yuanfang, and his boss often asks, “Yuanfang, what do you think of this matter?”

The line is now used for user IDs, weibo messages, and wherever else it fits. Because yuanfangti is so easy to emulate, it was emulated everywhere and became the No. 1 expression for the year 2012. In an era of muddled values, though, it’s an expression that symbolizes how in terms of spiritual pursuits the general public is at a loss.

With so many people using yuanfangti online, it has more or less lost its bite. It’s now just a popular joke. Such self-replicating styles are nothing more than bubbles, doomed to float on the surface, lighthearted and never scathing. The flow of time has washed most of these away. They’re nothing more than a low-quality comfort blanket for the diaosi generation.

Shejian (舌尖)

The most distinguished word in this year’s special selection is shejian. Undoubtedly, this word originates from the wildly popular, pan-Chinese food documentary film Shejian shang de Zhongguo (A Bite of China). This extraordinary and well-made documentary served as a compass for Chinese gourmets, and incited frenetic appreciation for the aesthetics of gluttony.

Watch the first episode of “A Bite of China”:



Food Paradise or Hell: A New Documentary Sparks Debate

Sun Yunfan & Qiaoyi Zhuang
A seven-part documentary on China’s food culture, “A Bite of China” (which translated literally means “China on the Tip of the Tongue”) premiered on the main channel of China Central Television (CCTV-1) on May 14, 2012 and became an instant...
 Some have gone so far as to praise the movie as the “best patriotic education film ever produced.” But such grandiose proclamations obstruct the awful cacophony of Chinese food quality issues lurking behind the beautiful symphony of delicacies. The documentary depicts a delicious China of sunshine, nostalgia, beauty, and appetite. But outside is the real world of poisonous China, with its rampant gutter oil trade and hundreds of food contamination scandals every year.

What people seem to forget when making smug comments about China’s “food culture” is that the so-called culture originates from the primal desire of sensory organs, which ranks it low on the culture scale. In an era with no beliefs, with degrading morality and declining culture, there are only two possible outcomes for any kind of “foodie” movement, centered on only what’s enjoyed by the mouth: It can drive up consumer demand for food, or it can serve as a foil for the spiritual emptiness of our time.

Yangsheng (养生)

Yangsheng (keeping fit) was one of the hottest buzz words in 2012. The yangsheng frenzy stems from concerns about serious pollution and contaminated food, an ineffective health care system, and spiking incidences involving major diseases including cancer. Chinese people have become increasingly involved in yangsheng movements over the past few years, basically in hopes of saving their lives.

Yangsheng TV shows, most of which center around Chinese traditional medicine, have become popular, as have yangsheng commercials. They’ve helped a few doctors become cultural icons. Not only has the yangsheng movement complemented popular foot massage, body massage, and cupping, but it’s also led to the revival of a slew of traditional treatments, including tendon regulation, stretching, scraping, and medicinal liquors massage. Clinics and health centers designated as yangsheng are nowadays annoyingly full. And again filling the air on big city streets are the pungent smells of boiling medicinal herbs.

Shisanchai (十三钗)

Jin ling shi san chai (The Flowers of War) was a movie directed by Zhang Yimou. Patriotic Chinese were disappointed when the movie did not become an object of international reverence. It was the Chinese box office champion of 2012, but lost to the competition in North American and European theaters. Zhang was passed over by Golden Globes and Oscars judges.

The movie was little more than a vessel for showing off advancements in Chinese film technology. It came loaded with the kinds of impressive effects one expects from an international blockbuster. But its producers paid a high price for the movie’s heavy-handed theme, based on a kind of erotic patriotism.

The Hollywood Reporter claimed “it’s something you’d think only the crassest of Hollywood producers would come up with—injecting sex appeal into an event as ghastly at the Nanjing massacre.” Producer Zhang Weiping attributed the film’s cold reception in the United States to negative American political attitudes toward China. But if that’s true, why did the Oscars panel give the best foreign-language film award to the Iranian film A Separation? Does that mean U.S.-Iran relations are better than U.S.-China relations?

Shige (诗歌)

Shige (poetry) has been used of late by officialdom and the public. It’s also been a driving force behind many public events.

ArtsBJ.com planned to award the first International Chinese Language Poetry Award for outstanding achievement in modern poetry in Beijing. In 2012, poems written in Chinese and English—actually, nothing more than government proclamations in verse—appeared on 300 billboards across the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. Sixty girls participating in an international models gala were given a nighttime tour of 8th-century poet Du Fu’s cottage in Chengdu, Sichuan province, to pay homage to one of China’s greatest. Interestingly, Du was diaosi.

Nearly 20,000 people gathered in the Sichuan community of Jiangyou for a mass poetry reading. They recited works written by the Tang dynasty’s best poet, Li Bai, in unison, breaking a world record for simultaneous poetry recitation. A poetry reading in Shanghai’s ritzy Tianzifang neighborhood that lasted almost twenty-four hours brought together people from all walks of life, shedding light on a microcosm of bourgeois poetry lovers.

Tongji University in Shanghai established a “poetry research center,” and not wanting to fall behind, neighboring Fudan University opened a “poetry library.” In Shenzhen, officials organized the first Shenzhen Poetry Festival, and closely linked it to the previously established Guangdong Poetry Festival.

With this resurgence in poetry came a sharp spike in poetic publications and new poets. Everybody started throwing poetry-themed parties, and to a limited extent poets have garnered more respect. It may take time, however, for the masses to really understand poetry again. So there’s no telling when we might see the next great Chinese poet.

Yuedu (阅读)

Yang Yiyong, the head of the National Development Reform Commission’s Social Development Research Center, was on the record in 2012 when he said “China’s national revival was 62 percent complete.” Meanwhile, in an almost satiric response, a UNESCO report claimed that aside from textbooks and technical manuals, the average Chinese person reads less than one book per year. It’s anybody’s guess which books go unfinished.

Reportedly, the most popular books borrowed from libraries by university students are popular novels and foreign mystery books—in other words, light reading that can fall into the category of cultural trash. This trend has spread beyond migrant laborers, salesmen, and middle school students and is now sweeping major universities. It’s a step on the way to the “retardation” of Chinese students.

The classics sit lifeless on shelves, and reading for leisure has already completely replaced reading for learning. This is making a generation of innocent young students shallow, average, pragmatic, and stupid. If this trend reflects a 62 percent “resurgence,” then “resurgence” is by far the funniest word of the year. Like a leather balloon floating in a boundless sky, it seems, our resurgence burst in the winter of 2012.

Media, Society