China in 2021 in 21 words
Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 Year End Review
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It’s at times like this when you need a good Chinese poem to set the scene:
挥手自兹去，萧萧班马鸣 huīshǒu zì zī qù, xiāoxiāo bān mǎ míng.
Upon waving goodbye, each of us goes our way,
A horse separated from the pack neighs in sympathy.
Background: it’s the last two lines of a poem by Lǐ Bái 李白, called Bidding Farewell to a Friend, 送友人 sòng yǒurén. You can drop it into conversations when saying good bye to somebody, moving on from a phase in your life, or bidding farewell to a year that’s just finished.
As I waved goodbye to 2021, I looked back through the archive of 1331 words, phrases, idioms, colloquialisms and slang shared in this newsletter, collecting my favourites from the year to share with you.
I’ve got it down to 21 words covering:
In the recommendations at the end, there’s even more words from 2021.
CHINA IN 2021 IN 21 WORDS
杀熟 shāshú - ‘killing customers’ - over-charging existing customers
这又牵涉到外卖平台对用户大数据“杀熟”的问题 - This involves [the practice of] delivery platforms using their data sets to charge existing customers higher prices.
Context: In July this year, Didi was placed under investigation by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) for violating laws and regulations relating to the usage of customer data - such as using it to charge existing customers higher prices.
Related: 偷脸 tōuliǎn - ‘stealing faces’ is another way companies have been accused of abusing customer data in China this year.
罗生门 luōshēngmén - Rashomon affair; a deepening plot where each character has their own version of the truth
国内的“造车新势力”蔚来和汽车零部件供应商伟巴斯特也先后卷入其中，并上演了“罗生门” - China’s new force in the domestic EV market, Nio, and its supplier, Webasto, have been drawn into this issue - it’s becoming a Rashomon story [where all sides have their own version of the truth].
Context: In April, Tesla was in the news following a customer rights activist wearing T-shirts saying “malfunctioning brakes” 刹车失灵 shāchē shīlíng) protesting on top of a Tesla at the Shanghai Auto Show. Tesla’s response created a PR disaster. The mess was described as a ‘Rashomon Affair’ in the Chinese media - meaning a story with twists and turns and lots of different versions of the truth.
Backstory: Rashomon is a cult Japanese film from the 1950’s. Its plot revolves around different characters giving subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of events.
Related: 特黑 tèhēi - a Tesla hater
屁滚尿流 pìgǔn niàoliú - ‘rolling farts and flowing piss’ - sh*t storm; market chaos
现在如屁滚尿流般在股市里嗷嗷砸盘 - In the stock market sh*t storm there was absolute chaos as it crashed.
Context: following the announcement of the ‘double reduction policy’ (双减政策 shuāngjiǎn zhèngcè) in July, the education sector fell into chaos. One company hit hard was education business, New Oriental 新东方 xīndōngfāng. This idiom was used to describe the free-fall of its Hong Kong listed stocks in aftermath of the policy announcement.
跑马圈地 pǎomǎ quāndì - ‘running horse, encircling land’; claiming markets through preemptive investments
三方面食品牌的竞争只会让新老玩家加速跑马圈地 - The competition between the three main noodles brands will only lead to more aggressive investments by old and new players.
Context: Charles Lu (陆正耀 - Lù Zhèngyào), the founder of Luckin coffee, and still $320 million in debt after he was accused of financial fraud, made a comeback with a new noodles chain Quxiao Noodles (趣小面 - Qù xiǎo miàn) in Beijing in August. His is a classic story of entrepreneurial relentlessness and balls as he goes from one big thing to the next - making aggressive moves into new markets.
Related: 风口 fēngkǒu - the next big thing
刮骨疗毒 guāgǔ liáodú - ‘scraping poison from the bone’; a drastic solution is required
患上大公司病的阿里或许到了不得不停下、“刮骨疗毒”的时候 - Ali has a ‘big company disease’, perhaps it is time for the business to pause and take drastic action.
Context: Also in August, a female employee at Alibaba alleged she was forced to drink at a business dinner, groped by a client and sexually assaulted by her boss. A protest in a company canteen and a viral essay pressured Ali into eventually taking action. According to media reports, Ali was sick and in need of a drastic solution. But based on the eventual outcome of the allegations, it would appear that much more bone scraping is needed at Ali.
Backstory: Idiom from the Three Kingdoms period. The General, Guān Yǔ 关羽, on being hit by a poisonous arrow needed a ‘magic doctor’ to remove the poison by cutting through his flesh to scrape it from his bone. Ouch!
吃人血馒头 chī rén xiě mántou - ‘eating human-blood-soaked steamed bun’ - taking advantage of other people’s suffering
河南暴雨，康桥地产竟然吃“人血馒头”。借此打广告，被不少人谴责 - With the torrential rain in Henan, Kangqiao Real Estate shockingly took advantage of people’s suffering, leveraging the disaster as an advertising opportunity - which was condemned by many.
Context: In June, the company Kangqiao Real Estate, took advantage of people’s suffering, leveraging the catastrophic floods in Henan as an advertising opportunity.
Backstory: Eating steamed buns soaked in human-blood was apparently a thing, used in traditional Chinese medicine. The phrase has evolved to mean taking advantage of others’ misfortune. More on that here in this 1 min video.
饭圈 fànquān - fan groups, or ‘chaotic fan groups’
牛奶事件再一次把‘饭圈’问题拉到了广大群众的视野里 - The milk issue has again brought the problems of chaotic fan groups to the attention of the general public.
Context: In May, video-streaming platform iQIYI (爱奇艺) pulled the season finale of one of its flagship reality TV shows - Youth With You 3 (青春有你3) - because one of its marketing campaigns went too far. Fans gained extra votes to support their favourite stars by scanning QR codes on milk bottle caps of the show sponsor, Mengniu. The QR codes were on the inside of the cap so to cash in, fans had to buy boxes of milk to get the codes, tipping gallons of milk away in the process.
Related: 私生饭 sīshēngfàn - crazy fans, obsessive fans; originally a Korean word ‘sasaeng fan’
佛媛 fó yuán - ‘fake buddhist socialites’
最近又开始流行一种新的网红——佛媛 - There’s a new kind of internet celebrity that’s become popular - a female Buddhist socialite.
Context: In October, we explored this new online trend in China, of young women dressing in Buddhist clothing, taking selfies at Buddhist sites and sharing on social media.
Backstory: 名媛 míng yuán means ‘notable female celebrity.’ 媛 yuán has taken on a negative meaning - a fake, an exhibitionist, someone shallow. According to Sixth Tone, yuán has been distorted to fit a sexist narrative, allowing it to be used to satirize, deride, and insult young women.
Related: 支教媛 zhījiào yuán - ‘fake volunteer teachers’
碰瓷 pèngcí - ‘breaking porcelain’; faking an accident to claim for compensation; extortion
去海底捞碰瓷的绝对不止一人 trying to extort Haidilao is not just a one-off
Context: In June, a man in Shenzhen was arrested after trying to pull a scam in Haidilao hotpot restaurants. He visited two restaurants within twenty-four hours, both times ‘discovering’ a cockroach in his hotpot.
Backstory: The story of 碰瓷 pèng cí, or breaking porcelain, is about the Eight Banners Brothers (八旗子弟) during the late Qing Dynasty. The once elite military force, also known as the Banner men, became ineffective and corrupt. The well-paid Banner men spent their time gambling and boozing, paid for through extortion. One tactic was to carry a large, fake expensive-looking piece of porcelain on a horse and cart intentionally allowing others - often in a rush - to bump into and smash it. The Banner men would then extort the full value of the original in compensation.
Related: 杀猪盘 shāzhūpán - ‘killing pig plate’; online scam
三天打鱼，两天晒网 sān tiān dǎ yú, liǎng tiān shài wǎng - fish for three days and dry the nets for two; working in fits and starts
我经常因为公司的工作兼顾不过来店铺，不得不“三天打鱼，两天晒网”，也因此流失了一部分顾客 - I didn’t have time to focus on my online shop when my day job got busy, so I had to jump between them when I could. Because of that I did lose a few customers.
Context: In September this year, China announced ‘996’ working practices were officially banned. Despite the slow progress, some employees found themselves with more time on their hands, starting their own side-hustles.
一粒老鼠屎坏了一锅粥 yī lì lǎoshǔ shǐ huàile yīguōzhōu - ‘one rat shit ruined the pot of porridge’
我们绝不能让几颗老鼠屎破坏整个大环境 - We cannot let a small number rat shits spoil the whole environment.
Context: In June, a student from Hebei was caught cheating during his Gao Kao exam using the app, 小猿搜题 (Little Monkey Search Questions), to find answers to maths questions in his test.
Related: ‘One bad apple’ (‘rotten’ in Chinese - 烂苹果) is someone who creates problems or causes trouble for others, leading them astray. But, a Chinese rat shit is someone that spoils the whole environment for everyone else. Slightly different.
3. SOCIAL MEDIA
笋 sǔn - ‘bamboo shoots’ - damaging, harsh (笋 sounds the same as 损 sǔn - to harm)
这也太笋了 - This is going way too far!
Context: in November rumours were circulating online that Dalian Wanda Group chairman, Wáng Jiànlín (王健林), had died. This rumour was quickly squashed by Wanda.
Related: 夺笋 duó sǔn - Internet slang which sounds the same as 多损 - ‘so harsh.’
蹭热度 cèngrèdù - ‘rub hot spot’; attention grabbing on social media
可是很多网友根本不买账，这摆明了就是想蹭热度，明明做错了，可是道歉也不够诚恳 - Many netizens don’t buy the excuses. The [restaurant] is simply trying to grab attention through social media. This is clearly wrong, and their apology is not sincere either.
Context: In June, obsessive fans of Xiao Zhan (肖战), a Chinese actor, descended on a hotpot restaurant in Chengdu after staff there revealed Xiao was having dinner at the venue. The restaurant apologised but netizens didn’t buy it, accusing them of using it for their own PR.
Related: 蹭流量 cèngliúliàng - leveraging web traffic
露马脚 lòumǎjiǎo - ‘exposed hooves’, show true colours, let the cat out of the bag
自己做了亏心事，肯定早晚有一天会露出马脚的 - If you’ve done something wrong, it’s inevitable that sooner or later you’ll let the cat out of the bag.
Context: Lin Shengbin (林生斌), who lost his wife and three kids in 2017 when the family domestic helper deliberately set fire to their home in Hangzhou, shared news of his new wife and baby on social media in July. His fans were not impressed, accusing him of taking advantage of the dead and cashing in on public sympathy. He had finally shown his true colours, or hooves in this case.
Backstory: More on the background of this word in this 2 min video - which dates back to the Tang dynasty.
Related: 露馅儿 lòuxiàn’er - ‘expose the dumpling filling’ - let the cat out of the bag, expose yourself.
彩虹屁 cǎihóng pì - ‘rainbow farts’ or excessive online flattery of your favourite idol
在饭圈里，粉丝一开口就开始放彩虹屁 - The fans in chaotic fan groups are always flattering their favourite celebs.
Context: In November, China's market regulator (SAMR) published draft rules in its continuing campaign to sort unfair competition in the Internet sector. One of the problems, according to some netizens, is the excessive flattery of some celebs by their fans.
Related: 坑了 kēngle - hurt; done one over on
薇机四伏 wēi jī sìfú ‘Viya is dominating everywhere’ (or, more accurately now, Viya is totally f*cked)
Context: live-streamers, Lǐ Jiāqí (Austin Li) and Wēi Yà (Viya) have got so big, Netizens invented two idioms to describe their power (and/or precariousness…) taking their names and dropping them into well-known idioms. In Viya’s case, 危机四伏 wéijī sìfú, ‘threatened by a growing crisis.’ With a nickname like that, it’s not that surprising that Viya has since been done for tax evasion.
Related: 琦虎难下 qíhǔ nánxià for Austin Li, an adaption of the idiom 骑虎难下 - ‘riding the tiger and hard to get off’ which you might translate ‘Austin Li’s uncontrollable success.’ But in the Year of the Tiger, and a nickname like this, Austin may also have a difficult time ahead.
昙花一现 tán huā yī xiàn - The Queen of the Night Flower blossoms fleetingly; ‘fleeting’ or ‘a flash in the pan’
聊斋已经在中国昙花一现 - Clubhouse is already just a flash in the pan in China.
Context: Netizen’s described the brief appearance of Clubhouse on the Chinese Internet with this beautiful idiom. It’s a useful one as many things in China - especially on the Chinese Internet - come and go quickly.
Backstory: The Queen of the Night Flower (昙花 tánhuā) is an orchid cactus indigenous to Central America. It was introduced to China in the 1600’s. The flowers bloom only for a single night, and just once every year. So, like Clubhouse in China, they are very short-lived.
温室里的花朵 wēnshì lǐ de huāduǒ - ‘flower in the greenhouse’; standalone issues
中美在具体领域的合作不是温室里的花朵 - China-US cooperation cannot treat certain issues as standalone.
Context: Since January this year, ‘a flower in the greenhouse’ describes China’s position on climate cooperation in the context of US-China bilateral talks. ‘A flower in a greenhouse’ is normally used to describe a spoilt child with protective parents. But the meaning has changed here.
Related: 娇生惯养 (jiāoshēng guànyǎng) - spoilt (as a result of being an only child - mostly boys)
带节奏 dàijiézòu - ‘set the pace’ - mislead public opinion
国际上的事应该由大家共同商量着办，世界前途命运应该由各国共同掌握，不能把一个或几个国家制定的规则强加于人，也不能由个别国家的单边主义给整个世界“带节奏” - World affairs should be handled through extensive consultation, and the future of the world should be decided by all countries working together. We must not let the rules set by one or a few countries be imposed on others, or allow unilateralism pursued by certain countries to set the pace for the whole world.
Context: Since December 2020, and throughout 2021, this phrase has been used by China’s officials to criticise the US, who in China’s opinion is misleading international opinion about China on a range of issues. In April this year, President Xi used this phrase in his opening speech at the 20th Boao Forum.
Backstory: 带节奏 dài jiézòu was originally used by Chinese gamers to praise experienced players with good leadership skills able to organise, and set the pace, to lead their teammates to victory in the game in the game, League of Legends. But ‘set the pace’ here means something more like ‘misleading public opinion’ or leading other countries against the interests of China.
Related: 冲塔 chōngtǎ - ‘rush the tower’, another gaming word from LoL that’s gone mainstream, meaning protest against authority.
朱门酒肉臭 zhūmén jiǔròu chòu - Behind the Vermillion gates of the rich
朱门酒肉臭， zhūmén jiǔròu chòu,
路有冻死骨。 lù yǒu dòng sǐ gǔ.
Behind the vermilion gates of the rich meat and wine go to waste,
Along the road are bones of the poor who have frozen to death.
Context: In April, MFA spokesperson, Hua Chunying (华春莹), quoted a Du Fu (杜甫 - Dù Fǔ) poem in a response to a question about China’s international vaccine roll out, which in her opinion was hypocritical.
Backstory: It’s a well known line from a poem called Feelings from Beijing to Fengxian County in 500 Words (自京赴奉先县咏怀五百字).
何不食肉糜 hébù shí ròumí - why can’t they eat meat porridge? ‘Out of touch’
‘何不食肉糜’般地不接地气 - This guy is totally out of touch.
Context: In June, Zhu Lieyu (朱列玉), an NPC Delegate who called for the three-child policy years ago, suggested that women should have three-year maternity leave to encourage more families to have more kids. This phrase was the top comment on social media in response to Zhu’s proposal - saying he was out of touch with reality.
Backstory: It’s a story of Emperor Hui (晋惠帝 Jìn huì dì) of the Jin Dynasty (266 to 420 AD). When asked what to do about his starving subjects, he suggested they eat meat porridge (肉糜 ròumí), which for him was cheap food, but totally unaffordable for his people. The phrase is used to criticise politicians who are out of touch with reality. The equivalent English idiom is from the French: ‘Let them eat cake’. The French is ‘Qu'ils mangent de la brioche’, attributed to Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France during the French Revolution.
Related: 一刀切 yīdāoqiē - ‘one size fits all’; out of touch [policies] - another common way to criticise government policy that’s out of touch.
More words of the year
If you want more words that help describe what life was like in China in 2021, then here are two more articles you could dig into.
Slow Chinese: The Chinese words you need to know in 2021
Keen readers will notice I intentionally didn’t include any of these ‘official words of the year’ in my ‘China in 21 words’ above.
For completeness, two articles published this week also have some good words and insight into China in 2021:
SupChina: 2021: The year in censored terms on the Chinese internet
Sixth Tone: The Best Chinese Internet Slang, 2021 Edition
Finally, there are big plans for Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 in 2022 which I’ll be updating you on soon!
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