Updated: Sep 21
Within China, the power of the Internet is undeniable. As of 2018, China had 800 million Internet users, with that number sure to rise. WeChat, owned by Tencent, rolls a bajillion functionalities into one; Weibo and TikTok launch viral content; JD and Alibaba dominate e-commerce, with the more specialized Pinduoduo and Little Red Book trailing not too far behind. Thanks to the country’s massive population and expansive diaspora, tech giants in China are tech giants everywhere.
The Internet does not exist in a bubble. It bleeds into and feeds off of our everyday interactions. For anyone learning Mandarin Chinese and hoping to live or travel in China, understanding how to navigate the internet is a must.
Here are some examples of Internet slang and ways to use them. Some are more mainstream, or 主流 [zhǔ liú], while others might be the kind of thing you only see in certain online subcultures. As with all Internet slang, things move quickly--what’s viral, or 网红 [wǎng hóng], today may be obsolete next week.
FOR THE DRAMA QUEENS AND KINGS
Everyone is prone to being dramatic sometimes. This seems more true on the Internet than anywhere else. Trolls start flame wars; memes mock everyone from unaware dimwits to the president.
1. 我太难了 [wǒ tài nán le]
Most beginner Chinese learners will know the word 难 [nán] “difficult, hard.” You might describe a hard math problem as a 难题 [nán tí], or say, 这事太难了 [zhè shì tài nán le] when speaking of a difficult situation. While suffering from a bad cold, you might say that you feel 难受 [nán shòu]. However, 我太难了 does not mean its literal translation of “I am difficult/hard.” It is used instead to express an exaggerated sense of suffering. A good correlation in English might be “my life is so hard” or “woe is me.”
老板又让我加班，我太难了。 [lǎo bǎn yòu ràng wǒ jiā bān, wǒ tài nán le] My boss is having me work overtime again. My life is so hard.
The next example is a little harder to translate:
我太难了，上辈子我一定是数学题。 [wǒ tài nán le, shàng bèi zi yí dìng shì shù xué tí] I’m so difficult, in my previous life I was definitely a math problem.
This play on words takes advantage of the slang usage as well as the phrase’s literal meaning of “I’m so hard/difficult.”
Alternatives: 我好难啊 [wǒ hǎo nán a], 我真的太难了 [wǒ zhēn de tài nán le].
2. 我竟无言以对 [wǒ jìng wú yán yǐ duì]
This means something like “I’m speechless” or “I have no words.” You might use this phrase when someone says something so stupid that there can be no proper response, or when something is so hurtfully true that you are left with no words.
Here’s an example of the latter, taken from Baidu:
Question: 今天问老妈：“总交不到女朋友，难道是我要求太高了？” [jīn tiān wèn lǎo mā: zǒng jiāo bu dào nǚ péng yoǔ, nán dào shì wǒ yāo qiú tài gāo le?] Today I asked mom: “I can never find a girlfriend, could it be that my standards are too high?”
Response: 老妈说：“别傻了，是别人的要求太高了。” [lǎo mā shuō: bié shǎ le, shì bié rén de yāo qiú tài gāo le] Mom said: “Don’t be stupid, it’s their standards that are too high.
她说得好有道理，我竟无言以对。 [tā shuō dé háo yǒu dào lǐ, wǒ jìng wú yán yǐ duì] She spoke very reasonably; I had no words.
The longer alternative and original form of the phrase: 他说的好有道理，我竟无言以对 [tā shuō dé háo yǒu dào lǐ, wǒ jìng wú yán yǐ duì] “he spoke very reasonably; I had no words.”
3. 有毒 [yǒu dú]
毒 [dú] means “poison,” and 有毒 [yǒu dú] most literally means “poisonous.” However, there are actually several additional Internet meanings for this phrase.
One meaning refers to something that is so odd that it is almost captivating, as if it were an irresistible drug. Another meaning is close to the English “toxic,” with origins in gaming circles; it may be used to describe a keyboard warrior, an unlucky server, a toxic friend, an excessive group chat, and so on. 有毒 [yǒu dú] is often derogatory. It can be sent to a friend in response to a stupid text, spoken to describe a difficult class, or used in any number of situations that range from ludicrous to genuinely toxic. Usage of this phrase is so widespread that it is even used as an ironic marketing gimmick, as in 有读小说, a website for user-generated stories.
Since 有毒 [yǒu dú] is often written as a meme caption, enjoy this discussion thread that includes two examples of its usage.
4. 戏精 [xì jīng]
Everyone has the potential to be dramatic sometimes, but there are those who take it too far. Chinese users might refer to these people as 戏精 [xì jīng], or they might ask:
同学，你是不是中央戏精学院毕业的？ [tóng xué, nǐ shì bu shì zhōng yāng xì jīng xué yuàn bì yè de?] Classmate, are you a graduate of the Central Academy of Drama?
The embodiment of 戏精 [xì jīng] is someone who likes to 博眼球 [bō yán qiú], or attract attention.
This image expresses the general sentiment around 戏精 [xì jīng] quite well.
这位戏精 请你不要加戏 [zhè wèi xì jīng qíng nǐ bú yào jiā xì] This dramatic fool, please don’t add drama.
FOR THE STANS
How many times have you stanned, shipped, or quoted your favorite song lyric to make a point? The heart of a die-hard fan, or 铁粉 [tiě fěn], is the same everywhere.
5. 粉丝 [fěn sī]
No, not rice noodles. This word comes from the English “fans” and refers to just that, “a fan.” When someone becomes a fan of a celebrity or idol, they are said to 转粉 [zhuǎn fěn]. Fans are also sometimes known as 稀饭 [xī fàn], “porridge, gruel.” A fan club is a 饭圈 [fàn quān] or 饭团 [fàn tuán]; the leader is the 饭头 [fàn tóu], often in charge of getting other fans to 打call [dǎ call], or shout and cheer, sometimes with a fan chant made for the specific celebrity.
There is a large vocabulary around the culture of fans and fanclubs in China. When an idol has a scandal or has their behavior sensationalized by media outlets, fans may 脱敏 [tuō mǐn], or no longer pay heed to such things--not, like the original medical definition suggests, “desensitize or remove an allergic susceptibility.” When a female fan sees a picture of her favorite celebrity, she may emit a chortling laugh known as 姨母笑 [yí mǔ xiào], or “auntie laugh,” a term that hints at the way fans may view their idols with indulgent affection.
Many aspects of fan culture, such as fan chants and auntie laughs, can be traced back to the culture of Korean pop star fandoms, much of which has seeped into China’s Internet culture.
6. 组CP [zǔ CP]
The verb 组 [zǔ] means “to form, organize.” CP comes from the English “coupling.” This term’s meaning is thus fairly straightforward--essentially, it means to create a couple in your head, or wish that two people would form a (usually romantic) relationship. 组CP [zǔ CP] is pretty much identical to the English concept of “shipping,” but it comes to China from Japanese. You can 组个CP for two characters in a show, two celebrities, two friends, or even yourself and someone else.
7. 确认过眼神 [què rèn guò yǎn shén], and other lyrics
Let’s break this apart. 确认 [què rèn] means “to ascertain, confirm. 过 [guò] refers to a past experience or event. 眼神 [yǎn shén] is a tricky term that has no exact equivalent in English; it describes the emotion and feeling behind one’s eyes.
The origin of this phrase is a song by pop singer JJ Lin, 《确认过眼神，我遇上对的人》[què rèn guò yǎn shén, wǒ yǜ shàng duì de rén], meaning, roughly, “Having ascertained the gaze, I’ve met the right person.” A looser but more legible translation might read, “When I look into your eyes, I know you’re the one.” 确认过眼神 [què rèn guò yǎn shén] was then taken by the Internet and used to humorous effect:
确认过眼神，你就是送外卖人。 [què rèn guò yǎn shén, nǐ jiù shì sòng wài mài rén] When I look into your eyes, I know you’re the delivery person.
确认过眼神，就是戏精本人。 [què rèn guò yǎn shén, jiù shì xì jīng běn rén] When I look into your eyes, I know you’re a drama queen.
This phrase is one of many song lyrics that are commonly used as meme captioned, quoted as part of a joke, and otherwise made part of China’s Internet culture.
女人何苦为难女人 [nǚ rén hé kǔ wéi nán nǚ rén] “Why do women bother making things difficult for other women?”
爱我别走 [ài wǒ bié zǒu] “Love me, don’t go.”
FUN WITH LANGUAGE
Thanks to China’s many dialects and accents, cultural exchange with neighboring Korea and Japan, the nature of the Pinyin keyboard, the language’s surplus of homophones, and significant English exposure, the opportunities for wordplay are endless.
8. 酱紫 [jiàng zǐ], and other fun spellings
A staple of written Internet language in China is rewriting words with similar-sounding characters.
这样子 [zhè yàng zi] → 酱紫 [jiàng zǐ]
什么 [shén me] → 森么 [sēn me]
人家 [rén jiā] → 伦家 [lún jiā]
你们 [nǐ mén] → 泥萌 [ní méng]
Watch any Chinese game show or reality show, and you’ll see spellings like these peppering the screen. A variant of this involves writing out the Pinyin, oftentimes with a twist.
是 [shì] → si
吃 [chī] → ci
Other times, the first letters of the Pinyin can be substitutes for the entire phrase.
谈恋爱 [tán liàn ài] → tla
沙发 [shā fā] → sf
One of the most well-known Chinese slang words, 牛逼 [niú bī] “awesome,” can be rewritten according to any of these rules: 牛掰 [niú bāi]、流弊 [liú bì]、牛b、NB.
9. ball ball 你, and other English
As any beginner Chinese learner knows, Chinese has a lot of homophones. This memefied phrase is based in the similarity between the words 求 [qiú] “to request, beseech” and 球 [qiú] “ball, sphere.” A common phrase in Chinese when making entreaties is 求求你 [qiú qiú nǐ], meaning something like, “I beg you,” or an earnest “please.”
求求你 [qiú qiú nǐ] → 球球你 [qiú qiú nǐ] → ball ball 你
Alternative: ball ball you.
Another use of English to coin neologisms can be seen in 粉丝 (#5); oftentimes, English words are borrowed in meaning and sound but transliterated with existing Chinese words. For example, 作秀 [zuò xiù] means to “show off,” with 秀 [xiù] coming directly from English “show.” 作 [zuò] alone means “to do, engage,” and 秀 [xiù] meant “elegant, refined” before the English borrowing added its definition. 秀 [xiù] is now frequently used in this new media sense, as in 脱口秀 [tuō kǒu xiù] “talk show,” and 服装秀 [fú zhuāng xiù] “clothes show, fashion show."
A third sort of borrowing is known as a calque or loan translation. This occurs when a phrase’s meaning is borrowed and translated into the target language. Examples of Internet-age calques in Chinese from English include: 出柜 [chū guì] “to come out of the closet,” 热点 [rè diǎn] “hotspot,” and 快餐 [kuài cān] “fast food.”
10. の [no], and other Japanese
The main function of Japanese の is similar to that of Mandarin Chinese 的 [de]. It marks possession and modifies nouns and other parts of speech to indicate attributes like color, quantity, etc. In China, the borrowing is orthographic, so the Japanese pronunciation of [no] is not carried over. Brands may stick a の, pronounced [de] or [zhī], in the middle of their name design, as with 奈雪の茶 [nài xuě de chá] and 優の良品 [yōu zhī liáng pǐn].
Another fun borrowing from Japanese is the phrase 今晚的月色真美 [jīn wǎn de yùe sè zhēn měi] “tonight’s moon is beautiful.” In Japanese, the word for liking someone or something is 好き, pronounced suki, while the word for the moon, 月, is pronounced tsuki. Due to the similarity between the two, the phrase “the moon is beautiful” is an indirect way to express romantic feelings to someone in Japanese. (A common story behind the phrase involves a mistranslation.) 今晚的月色真美 [jīn wǎn de yùe sè zhēn měi] “tonight’s moon is beautiful,” is so well-understood in China that Chinese dramas often poke fun at it during romantic scenes, while nevertheless maintaining the phrase’s original romantic meaning.
11. 细思恐极 [xì sī kōng jí], and other Internet idioms
We arrive now at the deepest hole in Chinese Internet language, at least for a second-language learner--the online chengyu. There are anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 “official” four-word idioms in the Chinese language. In Chinese culture, understanding of these idioms is seen as a mark of cultivated intelligence, and Chinese students start learning them in school from a young age. Anyone learning Chinese as a second language is compelled to learn the most common chengyu, if only to understand the ones that are quoted often in daily Chinese life. As if that weren’t enough, the Internet spawned countless “informal” chengyu that, much like ancient proverbs, come from clever wordings or shortenings of longer utterances, making them indistinguishable from the “official” corpus.
细思恐极 [xì sī kōng jí], also 细思极恐 [xì sī jí kōng], refers to thinking deeply about something, or 仔细思想 [zǐ xì sī xiǎng], and finding that it’s quite terrifying, or 恐怖至极 [kǒng bù zhī jí].
Here are a few others:
不明觉厉 [bu míng júe lì], when you don’t understand what someone is saying but still find them impressive
火钳刘明 [huǒ qián liú míng], when you leave a comment or message before something becomes a hot, or 火 [huǒ], topic; a rewriting of 火前留名 [huǒ qián liú míng], from the first results on a Pinyin keyboard
累觉不爱 [lèi júe bu ài], too tired to love; a shortening of 很累，感觉自己不会再爱了 [hěn lèi, gǎn júe zì ji bú hùi zài ài le] “I’m very tired, I don’t think I’ll love again”
Some four-word idioms are not set phrases but structures, as with xx本x, often ab本a, with the meaning of ab. That is, 可爱本爱 [kě ài běn ài] simply means 可爱 [kě ài] “cute.”
12. 沙发 [shā fā]
There are several theories about the origin of the Internet usage of 沙发 [shā fā], “first responder (on a thread, comment section, etc.),” most of them explained here:
The first responder must have been quick, or “so fast.” This might also be written “sf,” which, when typed into a Pinyin keyboard, outputs 沙发 as the first result.
The original poster in a forum is commonly called the 楼主 [lǒu zhǔ], which literally means “landlord.” The landlord only has one sofa, or 沙发 [shā fā], so this seat naturally goes to the first guest, or in other words, the first responder on the forum.
Some people comment so quickly that you can’t help but wonder if they randomly responded without even reading the original post. We might say that they 瞎发 [xiā fā] or “blindly send.” 瞎发 [xiā fā] sounds like 沙发 [shā fā], hence the transition to the latter, more indirect option.
These competing theories serve as an interesting illustration of the different ways Internet slang may originate in China.
Linguistic wordplay is at the heart of most communication, but it has been magnified, accelerated, and made visible by the sheer size of the World Wide Web. On every social media feed, we see visual evidence for a simple truth: the rules for language are constantly changing. The only new thing now is the medium. Informal communication used to be reserved for in-person interactions, coded into gestures and intonation. Now, with the Internet and its technological predecessors, we have audio, short-form writing, photos and videos and gifs, and all sorts of ways in which informal language is exchanged and changed and those changes recorded for all time.
This list is in no way comprehensive; for example, it did not touch on number-based slang or other informal language. Nevertheless, let this be a starting point for anyone who wants a little more insight into the kinds of expressions, jokes, and turns of phrase that make up the vibrant online culture of a rapidly globalizing language.
Start learning Chinese with ReDefiners World Languages today. ReDefiners offers virtual and in-person courses for all ages. Sign up at www.redefinerswl.org or visit our website to find more information.