Talk of Beijing: a language revolution

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

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.

In the mid-1990s, officials briefly moved to police the language. Long diatribes warned of vulgarization. But the change is happening so quickly that few officials challenge it today.

"It is important for every language to watch against foreign words," says Lu Zen Wu, a linguist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "But it is now an unavoidable trend that new words are coming. Many daily words we only find out later are from outside."

Only in recent years has a "language of intimacy" entered the vocabulary. A graduate student recently read letters written by her father, a soldier, to her mother, before they were married in the late '60s. They were love letters. But the soldier dared not state his love directly. Such talk might bring suspicion of petty bourgeois sentiments. "You and I will work and fight on the same battlefield forever," he wrote.

"We can now say 'I love you' every day," says a different student.

For thousands of years, until the turn of the 20th century, language was the province of Chinese scholars. They guarded classical Chinese, especially its written form, almost a separate language, with the fervor of a priestly class. But by 1919, the winds of modernity brought new ideas and a more common usage.

The second major shift came in 1949, with Mao. The chairman brought a language of revolution and a revolution of language. He sped up the simplification of Mandarin characters, and had Chinese words "pinyinized," or transliterated into the Latin alphabet.

Mao's experiment, conducted as China closed itself off from the world, melded the earthy language of Chinese peasants with Marxist ideas. A new vernacular was born with phrases like danwei meaning "work unit" and ganbu for "egalitarian official."

Twenty years after the opening brought by Deng Xiaoping, Chinese is under construction again. Consumerism is incubating a culture of want, need, and demand. By Western standards, that might not sound like a ge ming. But in a country of 1.3 billion people, where collective sacrifice has been a moral ideal, it's a real shift.

Open a Beijing newspaper, and one sees an ad by a utility company showing a dapper white collar or bai ling Chinese saying, "I want more electricity." Perhaps more shocking was a Beijing real estate billboard advertising homes, which read, "I want. I want. I want."

The sign was later removed. But as one scholar commented, "It isn't surprising that the billboard came down. What's surprising is that it ever went up."

Market-driven China is witnessing new forms of business civility. The revolutionary era phrase yin mou, often used to accuse others of ill intent or conspiracy, is giving way to sang yang, which means "you have plans" that are clear to see.

In some ways, the very heart of China's new ideological frontier reflects new usage. San Ge Dai Biao, or "Three Represents," is a new party theory, championed by President Jiang Zemin, that offers a rationale for China's shift from the Maoist era to the high-tech market era. The title "Three Represents" does not echo Marxist-Soviet language. Dai Biao, or "Represents" is an English-derived term that seems to many friendlier and even quasi-democratic. It's essential message: "Go with the times."

"Inside the language of San Ge Dai Biao, you can be either liberal or conservative," says a Beijing business executive. "It is an excuse to move forward."

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