It’s now an annual tradition that Chinese magazine 咬文嚼字 Yao Wen Jiao Zi (literally meaning “Biting Words”) releases a “Top Ten Popular Words / Phrases of the Year” list; it’s also regularly joined by a list by National Language Resources Monitoring and Research Center (NLRMRC) on key “internet slang terms”. The run-downs are usually a mixture of Party-pleasing political vocab and pop culture buzzwords — and 2019’s offerings (released on Monday 2 December) are no different.
Here’s our quick-fire guide to the best of their lists to help you understand some of the key terms that defined China in the past year.
文明互鉴 wénmíng hù jiàn
Biting Words‘ list really got off to a flyer with this term. Don’t worry, things get more exciting — we promise.
Briefly, this concept was first put forward by Xi Jinping in 2014 and revived in the popular (well, Party) discourse five years later. The term has, according to state media outlet The Paper, now “become one of the hottest terms in the world, being used in both domestic and international media.” Not sure how you missed it.
This was the only stodgy political term to hit Biting Words‘ top 10 this year, but the NLRMRC’s list also featured the nationalistic term “1.4 billion flag bearers,” which emerged online in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and the phrase “Remain true to our original aspirations,” the origins of which also lie in a Xi speech.
区块链 qū kuài liàn
In at number 2 on the Biting Words list was “blockchain,” a word that has seen no shortage of use in China in the past 11 months, even if the context for it has often been a bit confusing.
You can read more about China’s on-off relationship with the technology in our round-up of 2019 tech trends in the country right here.
These Were China’s Biggest Tech Moments of 2019
硬核 yìng hé
Alright, here we go. Has a wave of punk-like music swept China without us noticing? Alas, not quite. Although the Biting Words write-up of this term acknowledges its roots in music (though they highlight “hardcore rap” rather than straight-up “hardcore”), it quickly moves on to discuss how the Chinese word for hardcore has become a prefix for a whole host of subjects, in the sense of them being extreme, powerful, or simply difficult: “hardcore regulations,” “hardcore mom,” “hardcore game.”
The magazine also notes that the release of smash hit science-fiction film The Wandering Earth in February sparked discussions around what constituted “hardcore sci-fi” — which neatly leads us onto another term on both lists….
XX千万条，XX第一条 XX qiān wàn tiáo，XX dì yī tiáo
As China went crazy for the Frant Gwo blockbuster during Spring Festival, this phrase — originally a road safety message in the film (using “routes” and “safety”) — went super viral. As we noted in our piece on the movie’s wide-ranging social impact at the time:
“Not long after the film’s opening day, this robotic voice message could be heard both on Alibaba-owned navigation app Amap and Tencent-owned QQ Map, with variations also to be found on ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing.
“People who had driven to reunite with family for the Spring Festival could also see these lines on public LED screens lining highways around Chongqing, Suzhou, and Shanghai.”
“The Wandering Earth”: Propaganda, Ratings Wars, and the Future of Chinese Sci-Fi
From there, it practically took on a life of its own with the XXs above being swapped for all sorts of terms and being used for anything from advertising skincare products to encouraging healthy sleeping practices.
好嗨哟! hǎo hāi yo!
High as in happy, nothing else. Originally a song name, this phrase has become a popular bit of internet slang to express feeling uplifted and “high” in the most innocent form. Sorry.
Amid Regulatory Uncertainty and Global Demand, China’s Hemp Industry is Booming
柠檬精 níngméng jīng
This one basically means the trait of being bitter about things — from the outward appearance of others to the innermost aspects of their personality — to the extent that you become an master in it. So an expert in bitterness, essentially.
It started out as kind of a negative term, but in 2019 it took on more of a self-deprecating nature, shifting from talking about someone as being sour on everything to a more wistful expression of being jealous of someone or of being extra sensitive to finding the bitterness in any situation. So when a friend finds love, someone with strong lemon spirit (or who is a “lemon spirit” in the fairy sense of the word) would be able to turn the news into a sad reflection of their own single status.
One of the more controversial terms of the year, and one to make both lists, was 996. This is the idea — practiced at many of China’s leading tech companies in particular — that employees ought to work from 9:00 AM. to 9:00 PM, six days a week, and seemingly be happy about it.
Digitally China Podcast: The Inside Story of China’s Viral 996 Protests
This term really took off in March when the practice became the subject of a GitHub protest. It’s since bubbled away in the background of numerous discussions and recently made it back into mainstream discourse courtesy of hit TV debate show Qipa Shuo.
霸凌主义 bà líng zhǔ yì
The first two characters of this phrase “bà líng” are taken as a (close enough) homophone for the English word “bullying”; the latter two often indicate an -ism. No, this isn’t related to bullying drama Better Days, which recovered from censorship to become one of the biggest movies of the year in China, but instead is to do with the current state of US-China relations.
As the Biting Words description had it:
“Bullying refers to the way of ‘bullying’ to deal with the contradictions between countries. In dealing with international affairs, the United States ignored the norms of international relations, ignored the reasonable requirements of other countries, frequently wielded the sticks of sanctions and tariffs, and was prone to pressure other countries and interfere in other countries’ affairs in a rough way.”
Ooph. The write-up also went on to lambast the US for its “America first” policy.
融梗 róng gěng
Finally, this term from the Biting Words list became particularly topical and pertinent toward the end of 2019, even though its origins lie in something of a joke. In short, it refers to plagiarism, and has emerged in numerous online debates over where the line should be drawn between out-right copying and knowing references when it comes to the arts.
Long-Delayed Movie “Better Days” Tops Global Box Office Amid Plagiarism Accusations
And here’s what everyone in China was talking about last year:
These Are China’s Top 10 Words of the Year 2018
Cover photo: Nery Montenegro on Unsplash
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