ZIYU YVONNE YAN explores the meaning behind novel expressions on the Chinese Internet.
“The True Story of Ah Q,” a novella by the famous early twentieth-century Chinese writer Lu Xun, is a classic in Chinese literature. The protagonist, Ah Q, is a poor peasant living at the bottom rung of Chinese society. When the son of his landlord Zhao passes the Imperial Examination, Ah Q celebrates with his landlord’s family and presents himself as a “Zhao.” Landlord Zhao retorts, “You think you are also worthy of the surname Zhao?”
Since Lu Xun wrote the novel in 1923, the idiom “Ah Q Spirit” has become popularized, used commonly to refer to a disadvantaged person who denies reality and tends to think optimistically. Starting December of last year, however, a new, more cynical Lu Xun-inspired metaphor has outshined “Ah Q Spirit,” and become viral on the Internet —“Zhao Family,” or Zhao jia ren.
Behind the rise of the phrase “Zhao Family” is a growing divide between social classes, a divide fueled by Party-led political favoritism. “Zhao Family” is an explicit reference to the wealthy and the powerful in Chinese society today, typically “princelings,” the well-connected offspring of Mao-era revolutionaries who utilize their social connections with large state-owned companies to gain support for their financial ventures.
Although “Zhao Family” is typically used in a light-hearted and sarcastic way, underlying political, economic, and cultural connotations of the phrase highlight serious fissures in Chinese society today. Frequent references to “Zhao Family,” be it in daily conversations at dinner or on online microblogging platforms like Weibo and WeChat, indicate a rising wave of cynicism. Jokes, jingles and literary references have become an outlet for people to express their political discontent and frustration with the Chinese authorities.
There are many other examples of online slang that, like “Zhao Family,” reveal popular frustration with the growing economic divide in Chinese society. “Compare fathers,” Pin Die, for example, literally meaning “dad fight,” has become popular in recent years. The phrase is used by teenagers and young adults who believe that the socio-economic status of their families is a crucial determinant of their future success. “Compare Fathers,” now used as a term to criticize this generation’s foul play with money and political power, reveals a clear resentment for those who use powerful familial connections to get ahead.
Another phrase that has become popular is ni guo, “your country.” This phrase emerged in response to use of the phrase wo guo, “our country”, by Chinese media outlets in official statements announcing China’s recent achievements. For example, a CCTV reporter on the nightly news or a headliner on People’s Daily often says, “Our country’s economy has been looking positive.” The use of the possessive pronoun in state-regulated mediums indicates a sense of shared pride and dignity resented by a public that feels that it is not truly being represented by its government. The separation between “my country” and “your country” indicates a growing disillusionment with the government in present-day China, a desire to separate one’s personal identity from the national identity dictated and imposed on its citizens by the Chinese government.
Wang Jun, a Chinese ping shu artist familiar with the folk slang that appears frequently in traditional stories, explains that “folk slang originates from people’s dissatisfaction and even resentment, yet they often don’t have specific and effective suggestions for the sources of their discontent to improve.” This is evident in the now commonly used phrase zhuan jia, or “brickspert”, used to describe experts who downplay economic, health, and safety problems in the face of government pressure. The witty yet ironic replacement of the first character in the Chinese word zhuan, meaning “expert”, to another homophone meaning “brick” conflates bricks and China’s supposedly erudite scholars. “Brickspert” has become the customary word that netizens use in response to any professional comments that seem politically orchestrated. Most people don’t have their own suggestions for solving the problems, yet they nevertheless ridicule the experts for whatever they say as an outlet for their discontent.
This frustration with the authorities also stemmed from former president Hu Jintao’s call for a “harmonious society.” To achieve harmony, government censors “harmonize” the community by stifling free online discourse. From online blogging to even TV dramas, Xi Jinping’s administration has further strengthened the state’s control over various media sources. Results for phrases like “Zhao Family” on search engines such as Baidu are partially or fully blocked with an explanation that some of these results violate “relevant laws, regulations, and policies.” Nevertheless, the widespread usage of phrases like “Zhao Family” calls to attention class differences and social inequality in China. More importantly, such popular online slang rallies those who don’t belong to the “Zhao Family” against the elites that are responsible for such the deeply inequitable society China is today. Introducing new ideas and new mindsets, Internet slang has tremendous potential to facilitate an online dialogue that pushes for a social order that doesn’t just belong to the “Zhao Family.”
Ziyu Yvonne Yan is a senior at the Lawrenceville School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.