From House Slaves to Banana People

Seven new words that explain modern China.


Last week saw the release of the eleventh edition of the mammoth Xinhua Dictionary, China’s official compendium of the Mandarin language. Available in hardcover and softcover, with an e-version in the works, the 711-page tome is the world’s best-selling reference book, with over 400 million copies printed since it launched in 1953.

This edition includes slang and online terminology for the first time — remarkable for an official Chinese publication for which informal language has long been prohibited. Indeed, the Xinhua Dictionary has always been a guide to what’s new and modern in China, but a few steps behind, aimed more at the masses less aware of the cutting edge. In the early days, it was like the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary rolled into one, teaching a mostly illiterate country about everything from umbrellas to fertilizer to how to write the word “pigeon.” A 1971 edition, published at the height of the Cultural Revolution, contained 46 of Mao’s proclamations, which many readers already knew by heart. Today, competing publishers release numerous alternative dictionaries, but the Xinhua edition remains a staple of most schools.

In many languages, there are disagreements about whether dictionaries should standardize how language should be used, or reflect how language is used. The Xinhua Dictionary contains far more words that actually reflect how language is used than in previous editions, yet it still omits sensitive entries. There is unsurprisingly no entry for the Tiananmen Massacre, but it also leaves out shengnv (“Leftover Ladies” a common term which refers to ageing, unmarried women) and the reappropriation of the word “comrade” to mean gay. “We abandoned these words because it’s kind of rude to label this group,” Jiang Lansheng, a linguistics expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was responsible for the revisions, told Chinese Central Television.

So what does the new edition, compiled over seven years and featuring more than 3,000 new words and expressions, include? Many of the new entries are deeply vernacular, originating from Internet memes, tabloid scandals, and other informal sources. Some, like boke (blog), and tuangou (online group shopping, along the lines of Groupon) reflect today’s new, digital world. Others, like fenqing (nationalists, literally “angry youth”) and xiangjiao ren (banana person, which usually refers to Chinese-Americans — yellow on the outside, white on the inside — though unlike in the United States this is not pejorative), are names for new social categories and subcultures that have emerged. The seven words below offer insights into the movements and preoccupations of today’s China.

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 “House slaves” (fangnu)

People “enslaved” to their high mortgage payments are now referred to as “house slaves,” a coinage that now joins “car slaves” and “credit card slaves” in the dictionary. Buying a home, often seen as a pre-requisite for Chinese males to get married, has grown increasingly difficult over the last decade as housing prices have skyrocketed in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities. In 2009, authorities banned a television drama called “Snail House,” which depicted a couple’s struggles to buy and own a home in a Shanghai-like city. The show was popular because the high price of property is a flashpoint in China for anger and resentment over the widening gap between rich and poor — always a recipe for social unrest. In March of last year, the National Development and Reform Commission announced an aggressive new “social housing” plan, which aims to build 36 million apartments by the end of 2015. Indeed, liangxian fang (“two-limit homes”) a housing program referring to apartments limited in both size and price for the urban poor, is another new term included in this year’s Xinhua Dictionary.

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Yes, the three letters “N”-“B”-“A”, as in the National Basketball Association, are now officially a Chinese word. The NBA is by far the most popular sports league in China, domestic or foreign. The inclusion of this term reflects not just China’s rabid passion for all things “Kebi” (Kobe Bryant), “Aifosen” (Allen Iverson), and “Lin Shuhao” (Jeremy Lin), but also the inevitable impact of the United States on China — and vice versa. Just as English has many loanwords derived from Chinese and various dialects — including brainwash, yen (as in craving), silk, and even ketchup — Chinese has absorbed many words from English, like sandwich, sofa, bye-bye, bus, and chocolate. English letters are especially prevalent in online slang because English is much easier to type than Chinese. “3Q,” for example, is phonetic slang for “thank you” because the number three pronounced in Chinese (san) combined with Q sounds like “thank you.”

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“Awesome” (geili)

Literally “give strength,” geili means empower, but it’s used as slang akin to “awesome” or “sweet.” A version of the term first appeared in a Chinese animation of the classic novel Journey to the West and took off fast. Just a few months later, in November 2010, it was used in an Intel commercial, and, most significantly, in a headline that month in the otherwise staid Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily. The headline used the original and not the slang connotation, but was set in quote marks. While it’s impossible to say what the People’s Daily editors were thinking, netizens were thrilled. It was a big moment: a lumbering, line-toeing, propaganda-spouting mouthpiece of the Communist Party acknowledged and legitimized a cynical, questioning, envelope-pushing, and sometimes renegade online youth culture. This prompted an even bigger frenzy among Chinese Internet users, but an attempt at an English version (geilivable, also meaning “awesome”), was banned for publishing, along with other “Chinglish buzzwords” in what administrators of the media watchdog the General Administration of Press and Publication described as an attempt to “purify” the Chinese language. A December 2010 article in the state newspaper China Daily said, with a healthy sense of irony, that “Chinese netizens who like to create and use cyber words such as ‘geilivable’ might find a new regulation very ‘ungeilivable.'”


PM 2.5

Over the last seven years, Chinese have become more aware of the devastating effects of air pollution. PM stands for damaging air pollutants called “particulate matter,” and 2.5 refers to their size in microns (a unit of measurement that is a millionth of a meter). Exposure to high levels of PM 2.5 can irritate the respiratory tract, worsen asthma and bronchitis, and eventually lead to increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease.

The word entered the Chinese lexicon with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which runs a popular Twitter feed that posts hourly readings of Beijing’s notoriously high levels of PM 2.5. Previously, the Beijing city government only reported PM of 10 microns or higher. Bowing to foreign and domestic pressure, in January, Beijing switched to reporting PM 2.5 as well, and in June, China’s vice minister of environmental protection, Wu Xiaoqing, suggested the U.S. Embassy stop tweeting. The Embassy refused, diplomatically. “The monitor is an unofficial resource for the health of the consulate community,” said Richard Buangan, its spokesman in Beijing.

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Shocking” (leiren)

Another wildly popular slang term that took off online over the last few years, leiren literally means “thunder person” and is used to express amazement, like “whoa” or “shocking” or “that’s crazy.”

Geili may have made it into state media, but that doesn’t mean authorities aren’t deeply wary of online culture and all that it represents. The term leiren was outright banned during March 2010 in any reporting to do with the “two meetings” of China’s National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.  

That may not necessarily be significant — one could view the directive as analogous to a professor not letting students use informal words like “cool” in an essay. But terms like leiren are used to comment on online memes, often politically loaded ones like the Chinese version of the U.S. “Pepper Spraying Cop“: In early July, protests against a planned metals plant in the southwest city of Shifang turned violent. A cop was photographed beating protestors, which spawned a series of mocking, Photoshopped images. Netizens inserted the cop into various well-known images, such as charging at the famous Chinese Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang, chasing down Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, and pointing his baton at the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Similar to Americans who wanted to restrict rap music in the 1990s because they feared its culture would spread violence or antisocial activity, some Party officials view terms like leiren as words of a destabilizing subculture. 

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Otaku or “Internet freak” (zhainan/nv)

Zhainan is the Chinese translation of the Japanese term otaku, which in Japan means someone obsessed to the point of being homebound by their fixation. Chinese zhainan (females are called zhainv) are gamers, Internet addicts, and other people who spend enormous amounts of time glued to the computer. Young Chinese Internet freaks proclaim themselves zhainan and zhainv in the same half-self-deprecating, half-proud way that Americans teens might call themselves “geeks.”

For Chinese officials and millions of parents, however, they are a real concern. China, which boasts the world’s largest population of Internet users, became the first country to officially recognize Internet addiction as a disorder in 2008, and there are addiction treatment centers operating throughout the country.  


Internet of Things (wulianwang)

A direct translation from the English, Internet of Things (IoT)  is a new technological idea that uses cloud computing, radio-frequency identification, and other sensor technologies to create a universal network of trackable objects. This allows logistics, warehousing, inventory, and other systems to communicate with each other and operate without human input. For example, your refrigerator would know what’s inside, how long it’s been there, and order items for you when they run out or near their expiration date. 

IoT became a buzzword last year when it was named in China’s 12th 5-year plan as one of seven “Strategic Emerging Industries” of key importance for economic development; IoT alone will reportedly receive $785 million in government funding. China could have a significant advantage in this emerging field over the United States, where IoT technology is held back by concerns about abuse of information and invasion of privacy — things that aren’t an issue for an authoritarian government.

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Eveline Chao is a freelance writer based in New York City and the author of NIUBI! - The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School

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