Suspicious Characters

Posted inID Mag
Thumbnail for Regional Design Awards: 2018 Winner Galleries

Kids in China are breaking linguistic traditions thousands of years old. They use English words like “iPod,” “rock and roll,” “zip it,” “kick your ass,” “CD,” and “DVD.” “KTV” stands for karaoke, and “MTV” stands for any music video. To text is to “SMS.” “3Q” means thank you.

But it isn’t just the kids. It’s the culture. China has a working class, which encompasses employees in the service industry, as well as a highly educated professional class. Both are becoming more affluent. People travel internationally, work for foreign companies, and shop for trendy fashions. As the culture innovates, so does the language, becoming a means for citizens to form in-groups that allow them to distance themselves from a China that was traditional, provincial, rural, and low-tech.

New technology has driven linguistic innovation. Cell phone is shou ji or “hand machine,” and the brand Bluetooth is lan ya or “blue tooth.” These are examples of the most common way of building new words, which is to combine two existing Chinese characters. The word for USB drive is yo pan, a word created partly phonetically (“yo” is close to the letter U) and partly by combining a character (“pan” can mean disk). HDTV has been adopted as a straight English acronym while X-ray or X guang is a hybrid word putting together a Roman letter and a Chinese character. The internet invites all sorts of slang, including “net friend” and kong long (literally, “dinosaur”), the derogatory name for a net friend who turns out to be unattractive.

Some internet slang breaks into popular culture. The abbreviation “PK” spread from online gaming (where it stood for “player kill”) to subcultural slang (in which it was used as an alternative to the Chinese expression tiaozhan, to challenge or compete) and finally to the mainstream by way of the popular TV show Chaoji Nüsheng, the Chinese equivalent of American Idol. Now PK is used in magazines, newspapers, and other media.

Another example of mainstream appropriation is the phrase “My turf, I decide,” from the song “Wo-de Dipan” or “My Turf,” by the Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. The song was used in a China Mobile ad campaign targeting young cell- phone users, and now it’s a popular expression, conveying individualism in a culture that encourages conformity.

Businesspeople are using new terms like “ppt” for PowerPoint, but only if they’ve been exposed to outside cultural influences. Qing Zhang, a sociolinguist at the University of Texas at Austin, compared Chinese professionals working for foreign companies with those employed by state-owed businesses. He discovered that only the former group drew on international sources to create a more cosmopolitan version of Mandarin, the official language of mainland China and Taiwan. In his article “A Chinese Yuppie in Beijing,” Professor Zhang concluded that “cosmopolitan” Mandarin not only reflected social differences, but also produced them.

Which brings us to shopping, where language has always been used to create new in-groups and to inspire consumers to be hip to the latest trend. A measure of China’s move to a consumer economy may be found in the weekly TV show S Qiangbao Zhan or S Information Station, with S referring to shopping. The program caters to young professionals and promotes the latest furniture, accessories, fashion, consumer electronics, beauty products, and sports gear. Its slogan is “Jiang shopping jinxing daodi,” meaning, “carry shopping through to the end.” It’s a play on Mao’s slogan, “Carry the revolution through to the end.” Yes, the Little Red Book has been replaced by the little black dress.

Professor Zhang studied 16 episodes of the show, tracking the language used by the two hosts, who borrowed new words and expressions from mainland Mandarin, Taiwan Mandarin, Hong Kong Cantonese, English, and even Japanese. None of this squared with governmental demands that broadcasts be conducted solely in Beijing Mandarin, or Putonghua. (Which is much like insisting that TV hosts in the U.S. speak with a “neutral” midwestern accent.) The hosts flouted the rules not only by appropriating and mixing foreign languages, but also by imitating foreign accents, dialects, and styles of expression. They used argot like hongxi hu for coffee brewer, jingyou for essential oil, kü for cool, xiangxun liaofa for aromatherapy, kiu for cute, meimei for pretty girl (originally online slang), wa for wow, and many English expressions, such as “download,” “email,” and “DIY.” These words have Putonghua equivalents, but the hosts wanted to show they were hip.

It’s tough to know what’s up-to-the-minute in any country, but it’s especially tough to keep up with the lingo in China, where even the basics are complicated. The blog Hanzi Smatter (, which was founded by Tian Tang in 2004, is “dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture,” such as a tattoo that the bearer thinks says “courage,” but that really says (appropriately enough) “serious mistake.” All Mandarin characters are made up of two syllables, and there are 405 syllables all told, which may be read in four tones. While many of the tens of thousands of characters are pictograms (for, say, human, sun, mountain, and water), by far the majority represent phonetic syllables. Most speakers get by knowing 2,000 to 5,000 characters. Many characters are semantically related, often with identical syllables, known as radicals; this means that the same word can be written several ways with different characters.

“Chinese characters are a means for writing Mandarin but are not themselves a language, no more than the Roman alphabet is itself the English or French or German language,” cautions Mark Swofford, who lives in Banqiao, Taiwan, and runs the website, which explores the romanization of Mandarin. New words can be created phonetically, like fen si for fans (as in sports fans) and sha fa for sofa, but dialects complicate matters. Thomas Talhelm, a high school English teacher in Guangzhou, remembers a Korean student who was surprised that Thomas didn’t know what a particular three-character word for a popular fast-food chain meant since he was, after all, American. In Mandarin, the word Mao Dang Lao made little sense, but in Cantonese phonetics, it sounded more like McDonald’s.

Beyond dialect differences, it’s often difficult to express a new concept. The word “green” can be translated literally to Mandarin to represent environmentalism, as in a green Olympics, but that’s no guarantee people will understand what it means. Lisa Weir, who works for New York University in Shanghai, relies on the aphorism “Bao hu huan jing”, which means “protect the environment.” “This is what I tell the ladies at the local store when they look at me funny after I’ve refused the plastic bag for my bottle of tea,” she says.

When a new concept has become integral to modern life, maybe it’s time to do what is almost never done in the Chinese language: make a totally fresh character.

“Take, for example, the radical for ‘water,’” says the Beijing artist Jiao Yingqi. “There are 470 words using this radical. This reflects the importance of agriculture in the past. Now we’re in the information age, and computers are increasingly important. The Chinese expression for the computer alone requires two characters. Without a radical for the computer, it’s difficult to condense other words related to the co
mputer or the internet.”

Jiao has created new characters for “pollution” (a combination of existing radicals for “air” and “poison”); for “computer” (a square in the middle to represent the monitor, a long cross stroke under the square for the keyboard, and a dot on the right for the mouse); and for “money” (at least, the current obsession with it; Jiao uses the symbol for the Chinese currency, renminbi, to form new words expressing “slush fund”). He has even called for personal characters.

“Creating words is the responsibility of all Chinese users,” Jiao says. “That’s the case with users of English, French, and German. China doesn’t much acknowledge the value of the individual. It’s up to the country to overcome this barrier.” Based in North Carolina, David Barringer is a novelist, journalist, graphic designer, photographer, and artist who writes frequently on design culture. Illustrations by Louise Ma