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Private argot in the public sphere

It often seems that most discussions of contemporary slang in the Chinese media are variations on the complaint, "I don't understand what kids today are talking about." Hand-wringing over student essays written in netspeak and SMS shorthand is nothing new, and even netspeak-to-Chinese glossaries are old hat.

Here are two articles that approach the issue from slightly different angles. First, as a postcript to the recent YWeekend feature on online movie subtitling enthusiasts, reporter Huang Jian writes that movie translators can either adopt new slang or be left by the wayside:

Out with the old and in with the new, or culture won't grow. Language, too: only by going with the flow will people pass it on.

For eons, language has been renewed, wave upon wave. As the ancients wagged their heads while shouting 之乎者也, did they not also graciously accept new, foreign words like "sofa" and "coffee"? It's the same with today's online language — on the lips of millions of netizens, we cannot deny that it is today's popular slang.

In the face of this netspeak, film translation is in an awkward position. If they use it, they seem a bit low-class, as if proud high art is bowing its head to the Internet. If they don't, then the shrinking film translation environment will make it hard for there to be any more lines like "There will be bread...there will be everything" [Lenin in 1918], "Akira has jumped, Doko has I ask you to jump. Jump!" [Manhunt by Junya Sato] Such well-known lines. Actually, if you can't create your own words, what's wrong with making appropriation your philosophy?

The value of language lies in its vitality and fluidity. When Garfield mugs for the audience and speaks in his strong Chinese accent, the audience feels closer to him rather than being put off. When foreigners speak in "Feng [Xiaogang]-style" language, the audience is surprised that such language can exist in more than one context. New language is in a continual process of experimentation, usage, and revision, working to establish its position in the wild. No matter how vulgar and unbearable some people deem it to be, or how damaging it may be to cinematic elegance — regardless, its very existence speaks to a reason, and its ability to packs the seats demonstrates is suitability — everything depends on strength of speech.

But netspeak is not the only source for slang in popular culture. In the op-ed translated below from last week's Southern Weekly, educator Wu Fei turns a standard "kids today" complaint into a reflection on how the violent language of secret societies may harm the social order:

Baiping, gaoding, and others

by Wu Fei / SW

Several elementary school students were chatting on a public bus. One girl had "rank," and in the manner of a mob boss, said, "Don't say any more about it. I'll make a call and he'll get whacked."

Hearing the girl say "make a call" (dǎ zhāohu, ) and "whack" (bǎipíng), I gasped involuntarily, and felt a shiver on that warm spring day. That uncomfortable feeling lasted for quite a few days. This kind of hooliganish language has been popular for many years; people think nothing of it, and it has even entered the structure of social discourse. Regardless, someone who has been educated or who is a bit civilized should have an instinctive repugnance toward such language. This baiping and the widespread gǎodìng and fēngkǒu were not originally part of everyday speech, but rather pure bandit argot. I don't recall that language during the Cultural Revolution, so I don't know when it started. Even kids today know how to use it.

Please forgive me, gentle reader, but I cannot help but bring up some painful old memories of the Cultural Revolution. Poor writing technique existed prior to the CR — it was called "party bagu"* or "empty words" — and it developed until the CR, when even cruder language appeared in the official newspapers — "gang bagu" and "bandit bagu" appeared as well. For example, in the early days of the CR, the line "Knock them to the ground and then trample them," was widespread, and it was hard to understand: you've knocked them to the ground, which is brutal enough — what need is there to step on them? Who knew that there was another line that answered that question: "So they never can stand up!" Others, like "smashed dog-head"*, were popular until 1969, until word from on high came: "What dog heads? I see only human heads" and it was over. Liu Shaoqi was called "Thief Liu", Lin Biao was called "Thief Lin"; what is there here that resembles civilized language? Common phrases among the masses included "The fury of us lower-class peasants explodes our lungs," and through 1975, the papers contained such mystifying language. After the Cultural Revolution ended, though the people who had suffered "knocking down" and "trampling" were freed, many Red Guard heroes and members of CR mobs did not do so bad for themselves (and some did quite well). Because that generation refuses to discuss the literary talent of those years, some of Cultural Revolution language was lost, so that today, in order to explain what is meant by "Knock them to the ground and then trample them, so they can never stand up" requires speaking a bunch of rubbish. However, the CR language that was recorded is not necessarily entirely without value.

After the Cultural Revolution, linguistics scholars and academics were finally able to speak. Once, Zhou Dingyi gave a lecture in which he suggested a need to clean up the "language of hooligans and bandits." He mentioned a good number of specific phrases, all of which he said were invented and popularized just before and during the Cultural Revolution. Following his analysis, everyone felt that the problem was quite serious, for those words and phrases had been used in the periodicals of the time, and had penetrated deep into the lives of the common people. Some had become political terms, and for some of them no other substitute words could be found. What was to be done? For example, guòdeyìng — a fundamentally illogical term that has ended up enduring for more than 40 years since the 1960s.

Returning to the present, what terrifies people today is of course no longer "gang bagu" but rather "bandit bagu" and "mobster bagu." Today's society is set in an environment of civilization and rule of law, but because there is still insufficient pursuit of political civilization, no advocacy of the necessity of civilized speech, and because of a poor basic political character, a large amount of "syndicate" language has not only infiltrated social discourse, but has even entered political speech. In what context to words like baiping, gaoding, and fengkou normally appear? Are they the words of government in accordance with the law? With just a small comparison, it's not hard to imagine — this is the language of depravity that disgusts civilized people, and it commonly appears in gangs of hoodlums and criminals. Who would imagine that baiping, gaoding, or fengkou would come out of the mouth of a leading cadre? "Fear the triads, or fear corrupt society" — if the language of politics and government is this indistinct and hooliganish, can society be civilized and harmonious?

The popularity of syndicate language has a special social background. Since things that cannot be done according to normal channels and legal procedures can be accomplished through unusual channels if not illegal means, then is it not normal to bring in some triad argot?

Some other terms popular in official circles are unclear to me to this day: pèngtóu, chuīfēng, and da zhaohu. I once inquired of an official, what is a chuifeng meeting? The answer was, "it's a leak of information before the formal document is released, so that the lower levels won't act blindly." This is a profound mystery, one I do not understand. I continued, are there principles involved in da zhaohu? Are their legal effects? The official replied with a non-sequitur: "What No. 1 says, goes." This label "No. 1" (一把手) once again caused my mind to wander — it appears to be a term that sprang up during the Cultural Revolution and remained; in parallel with it are the terms "boss" and "head" that can be used in public to address a department head, a bureau head, a district governor, a principal, or an office manager.

What I find hard to accept about popular language in today's society is just words like these, whose definitions I cannot find in the reference books of my mother tongue. Baiping, gaoding, chuifeng, da zhaohu, fengkou, pengtou....if you read these words several times a day, you may come up with some peculiar feeling, you may feel as if the sun is blindingly bright. If at some gathering this kind of language pours endlessly into your ears, you may have the impression that you're at a gathering of the brothers of the Green and Red Guilds or the Society of Elder Brothers. Secret societies have no written statues, but the organization is strict; a few secret words to launch a relationship, a handshake and a glance to commence an important action, no need to announce a meeting. Relying on pengtou, chuifeng, and da zhaohu, baiping, gaoding and fengkou are accomplished. I was born late, and even if I was born several decades earlier, I have no ferocious ambition, so I may not have had the guts to join a gang or society, and no desire for cries like "The emperor covers the tiger"* that today are heard in polite society.

As cultural heritage, the language system of secret societies has value for study. However, its spread and its use in officialdom may illuminate the poor level of political civilization in our society. The present situation indeed sheds light on the officials' work habits. Those characters whose records are spotted with misdeeds scrambled into official careers using any questionable technique they had available, and continue to rise in rank in the midst of scandals. So they will not, and do not care a whit for, finding out about civilized politics. They feel that their fame and position lies precisely in baiping and gaoding, and their power is to have the public fengkou.

A less than civilized framework for discourse and no aspiration toward civilized politics will shame those people who yearn for civilized things. Rampant hooligan language makes politics wretched, self-abased, and the capacity for social and cultural progress is thus limited.

Note 1: 党八股: bagu, lit. "eight-legged", from the essay style required in China's dynastic civil service examination; it later came to refer to stereotyped writing.
Note 2: 砸烂狗头, from the slogan, "Bash in the dog's head of whoever opposes Chairman Mao!"
Note 3: 天王盖地虎, a coded greeting between bandits in the novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest. An annotated version (in Chinese) of that scene from the 1960 film adaptation is here.
Note 4: Wu Fei (吴非) is the pen-name of a Wang Dongsheng (王栋生), an author, columnist, and a teacher in the Chinese department of the high school attached to Nanjing Normal University since 1982. Wu made an impact as a columnist with a 2004 piece in Southern Weekend lamenting the long hours and testing burden that high school teachers and students face and the mistaken approach that administrators took toward a solution. See Wu's Baidupedia entry for more info.
Note 5: There are a number of interesting working papers hosted at Indiana University, including Revolutionary Rudeness: The Language of Red Guards and Rebel Workers in China's Cultural Revolution by Elizabeth J. Perry and Li Xun from UC Berkeley that draws similar parallels between Cultural Revolution rhetoric and gangster speech. (IU has taken the pages down; links go to Internet Archive cache.)

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There are currently 6 Comments for Private argot in the public sphere.

Comments on Private argot in the public sphere

Such a great read. Thanks Joel.

Interesting read...yo

Oh lord the google ad:

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Nothing wrong with a little leet speak yo, this is the net.

I agree in a formal setting one should never use these sorts of slang. Unless you consider posting on Danwei a formal setting. Perhaps. Try that in a class and don't expect anything greater than a D. Since I'm a student I can only comment on such settings, but I doubt the workplace would be any different.

A side comment:

Thanks for the bloody picture. All day with the crazy news I log onto Danwei and see your bloody picture...

"I believe that, in general, one of the first principles of every wise man
is to CONFORM strictly to the laws of the country in which he is living,
even when they are unreasonable."
- Joseph-Louis Lagrange

I also think that some are just too old fashioned. Young people like to use these kind of words, because they hear it in movies etc... Their peers speak it. Should they care about some old dude who thinks the slangs are destroying his precious civilization?

I believe most of the kids as they mature will speak the appropriate language in the appropriate settings.

Some of these words will become a part of the lexicon. I mean when I say ba ta gao ding, I don't have am imagery of gangsters at all. Perhaps it's because I don't think about the meaning in the first place. I just use it, because that's what people say in those HK movies and what my peers say. The meaning to me is get something accomplished.

Even in English the word "whack" can have different meanings. Whack and mean kill someone. Whack and also mean that this song is whack... The dude is whack yo!

You get the same thing in the States, people thinking slangs are destroying their precious Christian values etc... whatever.

Um, not really such a big fuss as per values in the States, we just think it's making kids dumber when they write this way.

Sorry, Jay - up late finishing the post (back-stamped it three hours), and I hadn't seen the news when I picked this image.

Great stuff Joel, thanks (and for the link to those papers).

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