Chinese puns on the Internet


Welcome to the world of Chinese social media, dominated by those who were born after the 90s, and who speak a Martian language that confuses even the Martians themselves.

The situation is fascinating: a 5000-year old language that is continually evolving and morphing within the Great Firewall of China.

Beyond the fascination, however, brands and social media practitioners need to be sensitive to these linguistic changes – and learn how to make sense of them – in order to navigate the dynamic social media landscape in China.

Fortunately, We Are Social’s work for brands across Chinese social media has helped us build an in-depth understanding of the evolving, everyday language, allowing us to reconstruct the meaning of unusual Chinese characters and stay in tune with the ever-changing use of homophones and euphemisms in written Chinese.

Before we explore the specifics of Internet Chinese though, let’s set things into context.

The Chinese characters that lie at the heart of languages like Mandarin and Cantonese are rooted in pictograms. And given that a picture can supposedly say 1,000 words, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Chinese reinterpret the meaning of their script with such wicked sense of humour.

Take for example the word (jiong3). This word originally referred to ‘windows’, or ‘brightness’ in ancient Chinese, but it has since been phased out of context, only to be revived for comical effect.

Thanks to the character’s uncanny resemblance to a person’s face, it is now commonly used to convey awkwardness, shock, embarrassment, annoyance and even amusement. It is used in multiple ways – as an emoticon, a noun, a verb and an adjective.

Beyond the characters of their own language, the Chinese’s ability to make sense out of unrelated symbols and letters in any script is exemplified in the use of “Orz” (using these Western characters).

Originating from Japanese manga, it is the Asian equivalent of a ‘facepalm’. Orz supposedly resembles a person kneeling down in exasperation, with the ‘0’ representing the person’s head, the ‘r’ symbolizing their hands, and the ‘z’ representing their legs.

In fact, the 囧 symbol often replaces the ‘0’ to form囧rz, to express a whole new level of exasperation. 囧rz indeed.

Similarly, the Chinese are no strangers to homophones, partly due to the sheer complexity of the language.

The same character can often be pronounced in completely different ways, while different characters often sound exactly the same. Furthermore, words with the same pronunciation could also differ in intonation (for more on this, we recommend the excellent ‘Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den’).

Homophones are also often used as euphemisms for cruder terms. We’ve noticed that the Chinese seem to have a particular penchant for referring to animals, to the extent that there are now Wiki-style entries dedicated to worshipping the Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures.

Furthermore, Chinese people who have received a Western education, or who have lived abroad and returned to China, are affectionately (or mockingly) known as “sea turtles” (as if they literally swam back from foreign shores).

Meanwhile, the use of homophones aligns with Chinese notions of superstition, and wordplay is often used as a smart way to avoid saying inauspicious things.

For instance, the word ‘tragedy’ (惨剧), is often replaced by ‘cutlery’ (餐具), as they differ only slightly in intonation.

Above all, homophones have evolved from pure wit, to represent a new form of political awareness amongst the youth. The battle between the ‘Grass Mud Horse’ and the ‘River Crab’ humourously sums up the tension caused by political censorship in the age of Social Media.

Internet slang has also changed the way people greet each other.

Gone are the days when people addressed each other as comrades (although this term has taken a completely new meaning today).

Today, Chinese social media are full of great affection, with people everywhere addressing each other as “亲” (qin), which is both a short form for ‘dear’ and the verb, ‘kiss’.

This began on Taobao, China’s eBay, where sellers would address buyers as ‘dear’ as a part of their CRM.

While there was initial aversion amongst some conservative Chinese shoppers, many have come to embrace this as an endearing way to address their friends.

Similarly, acronyms derived from the pinyin system are also employed. ‘MM’, which stands for ‘meimei’, refers to younger sisters in Chinese. The use of ‘MM’ is now used to refer to young girls. It is also often viewed as a compliment to a lady’s youthful appearance.

Like all viral content, popular Chinese phrases also often stem from seemingly normal quotes dripping with hypocrisy.

For instance, the phrase “很黄,很暴力” which translates to “very erotic and violent”, comes from a comment by a 13 year-old girl in Beijing, in support of increased government regulations on the Internet.

Chinese netizens speculated that the news station instructed the girl to say it –  hence, the hypocrisy and propaganda that laced the comment was what struck meme gold.

Another similar phrase “很傻,很天真” (“too naïve and innocent”) was uttered by Hong Kong celebrity Gillian Chung during her press conference in the aftermath of her leaked nude photos with fellow Hong Kong star Edison Chen. That phrase was parodied in a similar fashion for the obvious irony in her confession.

But knowing the language and understanding its evolution is just one part of understanding Chinese social media. Chinese Internet slang is an art form that also requires an acute understanding of Chinese culture and the Chinese psyche.

Consequently, social media practitioners keen to engage Chinese youth in channels such as Sina Weibo and Renren need to ensure they are always up to date with the trends and popular topics in Chinese media, in order to add vital context to what’s being said.

Without this, brands risk “all kinds of chaos”.