Is there life after 996?

Slow Chinese 每周漫闻

Here’s the latest edition of my Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 newsletter, a collection of Chinese words, phrases, idioms and slang to help you maintain and improve your Chinese language skills, and keep on top of the latest language trends in China.

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In this week’s Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 newsletter we:

  • catch up with a group of young Chinese who are discovering life outside of work as 996 pressures are slowly easing,

  • discuss how crazy China’s livestream e-commerce shoppers are and some of the darker aspects of livestream sales

  • and review some of my favourite North East dialect (东北方言 - Dōngběi fāngyán) slang words from earlier newsletters.


Interviews with tech firm employees about changing 996 culture

In September this year, China announced ‘996’ working practices were officially banned.

Even before that a number of China’s big tech firms had started to cancel their ‘big small week’ (大小周 - dàxiǎo zhōu) policies, where employees are expected to work six days every other week.

But as we learned in last week’s newsletter, the Workers Lives Matter! (打工人也需要生活) campaign showed that there is still pressure in many companies to work long hours.

In numbers:

  • 996: 9am to 9pm 6 days a week - now illegal but still prevalent (72 hours)

  • 955: 9am to 5pm 5 days a week - the dream (40 hours)

  • 1095: 10am to 9pm 5 days a week - the reality (55 hours)

Despite the slow progress, some employees are finding themselves with more time on their hands. Interviews with side-hustling KOL, a live-streamer, an online shop owner and a skateboarder (Sohu - Chinese) show that things are changing for the better.

The conversations are a good source of vocab to talk about changing 996 culture and side-hustles.

Useful words

  • 卷 (juǎn) - the shortened verb for 内卷 ‘involution’ (this seems to be coming into more common use)

    在外企工作,下午五六点钟就可以下班了,没人会拉着你“卷” - Working in foreign companies in China, when you get to around 5-6 o’clock, you can finish work without the pressure from colleagues to stay and work longer hours.

  • 魔爪 (mózhǎo) - evil clutches

    他们逃离了加班的魔爪,可以平衡工作与生活之间的关系 - They escaped the evil clutches of over-time, and are able to balance their work and their life much better.

  • 潜规则 (qiǎn guīzé) - unwritten rules

    虽然算不上“996”,但是“995”就像一个“潜规则”一样悬在我的头上 - Even though it’s not exactly ‘996’, but there is an unwritten rule hanging over our heads that we have to work 9am to 9pm five days a week.

    • can be pronounced second or third tone; here it is third tone.

  • 死循环 (sǐ xúnhuán) - dead loop, dead-end

    后来我发现自己陷入了死循环 - I realised I had worked myself into an impossible position.

    • Related: similar to 恶性循环 è xìng xún huán - vicious circle; 死循环 is more informal/slang


  • 得心应手 (déxīn yìngshǒu) - what the heart wishes the hands accomplish; with high proficiency

    随着我做KOL之后的思考越来越多,文字类的工作也变得得心应手 - While being a KOL it allowed me to think, it enabled me to improve my writing ability to a high level.

    • Related: 如鱼得水 - ‘like a fish to water’; different use as this idiom shows no effort required

  • 叫苦不迭 (jiàokǔ bùdié) - pour out one’s grievances endlessly

    行业内其他公司的朋友叫苦不迭。他们失去一个“大周”,就等于失掉了2000块钱 - Friends at other companies in the industry were up in arms - no more ‘big small week’ which means they’ve lost around RMB 2000 [overtime] income each week.

  • 打怪升级 (dǎ guài shēngjí) - tricks or hacks to get promoted

    我喜欢分享有关于职场升级打怪,有关于对职场的感悟 - I like to share hacks I’ve learned to help people get promotions, and also like to share my thoughts and reflections of being at work.

    • Background: 打怪升级 is a modern idioms that has crossed over from gaming. It was originally a phrase used by gamers describing tricks to get to the next level of the game.

A Colloquialism

  • 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 (my favourite word in this week’s newsletter!)

    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.

    • 店铺 is not necessarily an online shop; but in this context it is

Want to learn more about young side-hustlers in China? Read more in last week’s newsletter.


Discussing Double 11 Shopping Festival Live E-commerce sales

The Double 11 shopping festival live e-commerce pre-sales continued to make the news this week.

Austin Li (李佳琦 - Lǐ Jiāqí) brought in unintelligibly large sales:

  • 累计交易额高达106亿元 - accumulative transactions of RMB 10.6 billion on his first day alone

An article in 36Kr points out that the combined sales of Austin and his oppo Viya (薇娅 - Wēi Yà) in their first day of Double 11 pre-sales exceeded the annual sales of more than 4,000 listed companies in China. (in Chinese).

Lǐ Jiāqí and Wēi Yà are now so big, Netizens have invented two idioms to describe their power (and perhaps future precariousness…) taking their names and dropping them into well-known idioms:

  • 薇机四伏 (wēi jī sìfú): from the idiom 危机四伏 - ‘threatened by a growing crisis,’ which you could translate as ‘Viya is dominating everywhere’

  • 琦虎难下 (qíhǔ nánxià): an adaption of the idiom 骑虎难下 - ‘riding the tiger and hard to get off’ which I translate ‘Austin Li’s uncontrollable success.’

The 36Kr article has useful words to discuss the live-streaming e-commerce phenomenon in China, and some of its darker aspects.

Useful two-character words

  • 刷手 (shuā shǒu) - livestreamer (slang)

    一位直播带货的职业“刷手“表示 - one professional live-streamer said….

  • 刷单 (shuā dān) - fake customers; used to bump up the sales numbers

    为了战报漂亮,有些品牌会遮遮掩掩地主动联系刷单机构 - Some brands, in order to make their sales numbers look better, secretly do deals with specialist organisations that buy products [and then return them after the numbers are published]

  • 牛叉 (niú chā) - ‘amazing’ - same as 牛, but a more down-with-the-kids version of it; the ‘new niú’ you could say

    电商老大是多么牛叉 - It just goes to show how brilliant the leading e-commerce companies are.

    • 叉 chā can be understand as a ‘bleep’ or an ‘X’ - replacing the traditional, but more vulgar, 牛逼 niú bī.

    • A similar construction is 傻叉 shǎ chā, instead of 傻逼 shǎbī - stupid idiot

  • 太水 (tài shuǐ) - ‘too watery’, Internet slang for rubbish, really bad (similar to 太差了)

    是李薇两个团队太厉害,还是这4000家上市公司太水?Is it that Viya and her team are so good, or those 4000 companies a so sh*t?

Three-character words you should know

  • 坑位费 (kēngwèi fèi) - brand or broadcast fee; the fee brands pay to livestream influencers to promote their brand in their online shop; in the past kēngwèi fèi would have been the fee you paid to use a public toilet

    李佳琦和薇娅团队只是从其中抽佣,再加上坑位费 - Austin Li and Viya’s team only charge commission on sales, and their brand fee.

    • 蹲 (dūn) - sticking with the toilet theme, the verb for ‘being’ in a livestream room, or watching one, is to ‘squat’ - 蹲 (dūn)

  • 美眉们 (měiméimen) - ‘beautiful sisters,’ a play on words of 妹妹, meaning female shoppers, also ‘MM’

    许许多多的“美眉们”在李佳琦和薇娅直播间反复来回切换 - Many female shoppers [spent their evening] flicking between Viya and Austin’s livestreams.

    • Related: 女铁粉 (nǚ tiě fěn) - ‘die-hard female fans’

      不少女铁粉坚持蹲守看直播 - Many die hard female fans insisted on watching [the whole] livestream.

  • 开光嘴 (kāiguāng zuǐ) - ‘open light mouth’ - has the gift of the gab, silver-tongued

    李佳琦的嘴开过光,他一喊美眉们,我就输支付密码 - As soon as Austin Li opens his [silver-tongued] mouth, calling to the měiméimen, I input my payment code immediately.


  • 昏昏欲睡 (hūnhūn yùshuì) - sleepy

    不仅吓跑了昏昏欲睡的昆虫,还加热了气氛 - it not only got rid of the sleepy customers, it also warmed up the atmosphere

    • 昆虫 (kūnchóng) - from the mythical sleeping insect 瞌睡虫 kēshuì chóng; here it means ‘sleepy customers’

  • 四舍五入 (sìshě wǔrù) - ‘basically the same as free’

    再嫌贵了就除以两年,四舍五入就是不要钱 - If are worried about the price, just divide it over two years. If you round it down so much it’s basically free!

    • 四舍五入 sìshě wǔrù usually means to round up or down. But it’s often used to mean ‘basically free’, a translation you won’t find elsewhere.

  • 瞠目结舌 (chēngmù jiéshé) - dumbfounded, staggering [staring - eyes - tied - tongue]

    最近几年双十一仍在创造各种令人瞠目结舌的数据 - Over the last few years Double 11 has had some absolutely staggering stats.

Have you ever watched an Austin Li livestream session? Here’s a Youtube video of his 12 HOUR livestream marathon last week. Skip forward to 41 mins in when he appears. You can listen to 5 minutes to get the idea.

It’s striking how many times he encourages his fans to ‘shop rationally’ (理性消费 lǐxìng xiāofèi). Not so sure they listened to that bit judging by the numbers…. ;)


How many North-Eastern Chinese (东北方言 - dōngběi fāngyán) slang words do you know?

If you’ve been reading this newsletter over the past year, you will have learned more than ten words from that region of China, as well as many more that have crossed over from Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghainese, Sichuanese and Mongolian.

With the popularity of Rock and Roast comedians, Dōngběi slang is becoming more mainstream in China.

Dropping North Eastern slang words into your conversations is a great way to make your Chinese sound more authentic and current.

Here’s a short article I wrote about it:

It’s a two-minute read. All words and example sentences are from previous issues of this newsletter..

Here are my favourite five words from that article:

  • 贼 (zéi) - "very" or "extremely" (instead of 非常, but only in the positive)

  • 白瞎 (báixiā) - "a waste" (instead of 白搭)

  • 埋汰 (máitai) - “dirty”, “in poor taste” (instead of 脏)

  • 老鼻子 (lǎo bízi) - “lots of” (instead of 很多)

  • 霍霍 (huòhuò) - "pull a fast one" (instead of 占便宜)

Want more? Read these newsletters for more regional slang words:

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