Some of the most popular internet slang terms in China have come under the attack of Chinese state media outlets, as the government tightens control over pop culture to eliminate what it sees as bad influences on young people.
Those terms include the Chinese phrase for “paratroopers,” a homophone for a swear word that refers to the female genitalia, and an abbreviation used for praise.
The seemingly coordinated criticisms signal the authorities’ intent to tame an internet language that has become a central part of the Chinese youth identity, although linguists say efforts to curtail internet-speak are likely futile.
Social media in China have given rise to a rich, fast-changing vocabulary of online slang, shaped in part by a desire to get around the country’s internet censorship.
Many young people in China have in recent years embraced pinyin initialisms—new words formed by combining the initials of romanized Chinese characters. The form was first used to circumvent censorship of expletives or politically sensitive words, but young people have also applied it to non-political words, turning it into their own form of code.
A top buzzword for Gen-Z internet users is “yyds,” which combines the initials of the Chinese phrase “forever the God” and describes something spectacular and great. For example, one could say “bubble tea yyds” to express their love for the beverage, or “this shirt is yyds” to praise their favorite piece of clothing.
Words like this have caused confusion for those unfamiliar with Gen-Z internet culture, and prompted criticism from conservative commentators who view the incorporation of alphabet letters as a threat to the Chinese language. In a commentary published last week, China’s official news agency Xinhua said Chinese internet users are suffering from a kind of “language disorder” since they could not express their feelings without using internet memes such as “yyds.”
State broadcaster CCTV also urged people to stop using the word sanbing, or paratroopers, as an euphemism for “shabi,” a widely used insult that sometimes triggers censorship. “Paratroopers is a glorifying, respectable job,” CCTV said in a post on the microblogging site Weibo last week. “Don’t stigmatize paratroopers.”
Following the criticism, Bilibili, a YouTube-like video-sharing site popular with Gen-Z users, said it would ban users from attacking each other with slang like sanbing and “NMSL”—an abbreviation of the Chinese phrase “your mom is dead.”
The attacks on popular internet memes come as the Chinese government enforces a series of new regulations on the day-to-day lives of young people, from their gaming time to celebrity worship to what kind of after school classes they can attend.
Sheng Zou, a researcher on Chinese media and politics with the University of Michigan, said online slang has been bound up with the generational identity of young Chinese and their shared feelings.
But to the authorities, these vulgar or sarcastic terms challenge the civility of cyberspace and the official aesthetic they are trying to promote among young citizens, Zou said.
The scolding from state media triggered a wave of backlash. Internet users have pointed out how the official outlets themselves have used the same terms to appeal to young people. During the Tokyo Olympics, for instance, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily called China’s table tennis team “yyds.”
“Inventing words and changing styles are ultimately how humans use languages,” a Weibo user commented. “Playing with slang, yyds!”
Others commented that it was state censorship that pushed internet users into creating new swear words in the first place. “When you ban foul language, more common phrases will become foul language,” another Weibo comment said.
David Moser, a linguist from Beijing Capital Normal University, said Chinese authorities have over the years been trying to control internet culture, but it is difficult to regulate online language with new slang and memes evolving constantly.
“This is a sort of parochial and paternalistic attitude towards youth and the internet,” Moser said. “It’s almost a cat-and mouse-game. We come up with a nice slang or a nice coded message, you block it. Well, people will always come up with a newer one and a better one.”
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