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Talk of Beijing: a language revolution

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2002


From boardrooms to coffeeshops, urban China is crackling with words and phrases never heard before.

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New Internet users are called xiaoxia, or "small lobsters." Among Chinese teens, the word "faint" is now popular for anything fun, or "ku" (cool). In the business sector, the pejorative term for capitalist, zi ben jia, now often gives way to zhi ben jia or "new knowledge man."

As China reforms, the language of daily life is changing dramatically. Scholars say 1,000 new words are added yearly – a mix of global pop-speak, creative Internet usage, Western business terms, and new advertising phrases. Some call it the third language revolution in modern China, and it is outpacing efforts by language cops to stop it.

"The language is changing so fast, that it changes nearly every week," says Zhou Yu, a TV broadcaster here. "Friends use so many new words that when we meet, that is practically all we talk about."

Cyberspace may not have brought rapid grass-roots political change to China. Yet new expressions are opening an array of conceptual worlds for the xinxin renlei, or "new human kind," as educated youth call themselves.

Moreover, as this new vernacular spreads, China is moving further away from the martial language of the Maoist era revolution. Sacred phrases like "class struggle," "comrade," and "imperialist" are rarely heard these days.

"Between the liberation [1949] and the opening up [1979], most new words were political," says Han Ji Ti, who has helped edit the Dictionary of Modern Chinese for 30 years. "Today, they are social, economic, legal."

Even the word "revolution" or ge ming is being deradicalized. Once the passionate cry of social-engineering projects like the 1960s Cultural Revolution, ge ming, which translates "kill to change," no longer implies a dedicated and grueling mission that will require all the efforts of the Chinese people. Today it is heard everywhere, like the patter of rainfall: One speaks of an IT ge ming, a consumer ge ming, a learning ge ming, even an ATM ge ming.

The 2002 Dictionary of Modern Chinese contains a thick wad of pink addendum sheets – 48 pages of new words added to the Chinese lexicon.

"We look for words that everyone uses," says Mr. Han. "We add a lot more than we take out. The dictionary is getting very big."

But lexicographers of Chinese, which uses Mandarin characters, often don't have time to invent a lengthy character for every new word. Instead, words like "e-mail" and "T-xu" (t-shirt) are phoneticized.

Chinese are also adopting English abbreviations, such as WTO, CPU, AIDS, and CD. In Chinese firms, abbreviations are not only fashionable, they are a language of power. Terms like CRM (customer relations managers) and HR (human resources), concepts formerly alien in communist China, are dropped into speech by those who aspire to corporate greatness, or to be, as another expression has it, a "Chinese Morgan," a reference to J.P., the American magnate.

"My nephew just got a job at a JV (joint venture)," says a Beijing scholar. "His English is poor, but he talks about 'CEOs' and 'MBAs.' "

Some words come from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, commercial centers with many Chinese. An jie means to pay back a mortgage. Zou xiu is a showcase event. Neither concept was part of life in mainland China.