Tea Leaf Nation

The Word That Broke the Chinese Internet

The Word That Broke the Chinese Internet

It might be gibberish, but it’s also a sign of the times. The word duang, pronounced “dwong,” is spreading like wildfire throughout China’s active Internet – even though 1.3 billion Chinese people still haven’t figured out what it means. In fact, its particular combination of sounds can’t even be represented with China’s existing writing system. Notwithstanding, since Feb. 24 it has appeared over 8.4 million times on Weibo, China’s massive Twitter-like microblogging platform and spawned a synonymous hashtag, still top-trending on Weibo as of Feb. 27, with more than 100,000 mentions. New mentions and iterations continue to roll in.

The story of duang started with film star Jackie Chan, a Hong Kong actor famous both in mainland China and abroad for his often-silly action flicks. U.S. filmgoers may be unaware that Chan has burnished the revenue from his cinematic empire with product sponsorship, most notably for Chinese herbal shampoo Bawang. Chan has been the shampoo’s spokesperson for years, but on Feb. 24, what looked like a new ad appeared on Youku, a video streaming site, featuring Chan. “It makes your hair so black, shiny, and moisturized,” Chan appears to say of the product. “It’s just … it’s just … duang!” he then declared, as if describing the sound reverberating from his flowing tresses.

In fact, the video was a fake advertisement that remixed actual footage of Chan with a voice-over. But the facts hardly mattered to a bored netizenry. “Have you duang’ed today?” asked one user. “I’ve already been brainwashed by duang!” wrote another. Some have even circulated a new Chinese character to represent the word, pictured in triplicate above, comprising the two characters of Chan’s Chinese name.

Perhaps it’s the tilt of the planetary axis. With the northern hemisphere mired in a nasty winter — it’s currently 28 degrees Fahrenheit in Beijing — Internet users around the world seem content to occupy themselves with viral trivia, be it a silly word in China, or the color of a dress, which swept the U.S. Internet on Feb. 27 as Americans debated its hue. There used to be a time when Chinese netizens invented new words or slang as part of a constant effort to keep ahead of government censors. But the latter, particularly over recent months, seem to be winning, expanding the zone of forbidden speech and driving the noncompliant further into the shadows. Perhaps it was inevitable that a new word would emerge that simply meant nothing at all.

Weibo/Image remix by Foreign Policy