Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New languages of the Chinese internet

Chinese Weibo

When we compare the Chinese microblog (Weibo) with Twitter, we often forget that as each Chinese character is, in fact, a word. This means you can communicate a lot more in 130 Chinese characters as compared to 130 Latin characters. Chinese microbloggers are fully utilizing this freedom and license and the Weibo has become a hotbed of protest, expression of solidarity, generosity and philanthropy and even romance. The last one did lead to some unexpected consequences for a Chinese official, who mistook Weiboi as a one on one, private communication tool and was found to be romancing his mistress and fixing a surreptitious rendevous, in open sight of millions of bemused Weibo users!

First on Weibo

It is not surprising, therefore, that often Weibo is the first to report important news and generate a lively debate. When China’s image of progress and dynamism, assiduously created by erecting an enormous and still expanding network of bullet trains, was tarnished with a collision of two trains near Wenzhou, in which more than 30 people lost their lives, the accident was first reported on Sina Weibo (a popular Chinese microblog). The topic touched a raw nerve with the Chinese consumers and the continued discussion on Weibo thereafter generated strident criticism of the railways for lack of transparency and possible flouting of safety standards. The authorities have taken the lashing seriously and have withdrawn several trains for safety examination and actually reduced the speed of many trains, including the flagship Shanghai to Beijing service. The defiant mood is characteristic of the Chinese middle class consumers, who are trying to protect themselves and their families from anything ranging from sub-standard infant milk powder, to restaurant food prepared from recycled oil to unsafe rail travel – and quite often Weibo is the platform where they first air their grievances.

The language of the internet

It is often said that the development of a civilisation or a society is indicated by the degree of sophistication of its language. In Weibo and other parts of the Internet, Chinese netizens have developed not one, but several languages on the internet. These, referred to as "Mars languages" (火星文) are widely used on the internet not just by the consumers, but now increasingly also by the marketers. These include "pao xiao ti " or the roaring style, which the consumers often use to express their frustration on the many challenges of life – often linked to study and work. Or the “tao bao ti”, named after the all pervasive e-commerce platform called Taobao, where you can buy anything from a freshly slaughtered chicken to a luxury automobile. “Tao bao ti” embodies the solicitous attitude and the language that the vendors on Taobao often adopt to win customers in face of an extraordinarily fierce competition.

高考(Gao kao), the mega test of endurance and knowledge that the young Chinese need to go through to secure college admission, unfortunately decided to prohibit the use of 火星文(Mars language) in the exam, earning the epithet of "ungelievable" (meaning not cool or awesome) from the 8 million students who undertake this examination in an attempt to secure a position in a good university and pave the way to a bright future. These students, who face immense pressure (yali da 压力大as they like to say - which can also mean "my pear is big” when you change to another set of homonymous characters) will have to curb their inclination for these unorthodox modes of expression - at least for the two and half days that they toil in the examination hall.

Written by Ashok Sethi

No comments: