Whoever said technology doesn’t affect language? It wasn't us, that's for sure!
The fact is that technology and language are about as linked as a painter's canvas is to any artwork he creates. Just because the artist might remain the same, doesn’t mean their canvas always will.
It's no secret that China's economic conditions have improved drastically over the past few decades. With that improvement has come the fact that the majority of Chinese people are now on the internet. Those people are responsible for the creation - and use - of what is referred to as 网络用语 (Wǎngluò yòngyǔ). To you and me, that means Internet slang.
This short guide aims to take you through some of this slang, where you can use it, and a few tips on how to pull it out like an expert. You’ll become a 网红 (Wǎng hóng) before you know it! Stick with me to find out what that means, and more. I promise you will not regret it.
When, Where, and Why?
First of all, it’s important to state that Chinese Internet slang should stay on the internet. Unless you want to come off as a bit of a ‘newbie’ – just think of those people who say the world "lol" in real life - you’ll want to avoid saying these in colloquial speech. Sure, you might get a laugh out of it once or twice, but anyone over the age of about 35 is probably going to struggle to understand you.
Which brings about the second point. Internet slang is generally only used by the younger members of Chinese society. Sure, there are some exceptions -like the hip old grandma who makes incredible 煎饼 (jiānbing) - but they tend to be few and far between.
So, where are the best places to use these terms?
Weibo is often dubbed as being the "Chinese Twitter", but really it’s so much more. Unlike Twitter, which seems to have been in decline for the past year or so – Weibo is just getting more and more popular. The social media platform is often used for people to share ideas, news, or funny videos. It’s a great place to get online and start writing some 网络用语 (Wǎngluò yòngyǔ) in response to recent events.
What’s perfect about Weibo is that you don’t have to know anyone to get started. Simply sign up and pick some things you like. Then, find videos or images you want to comment on, or join an already existing discussion!
Oh WeChat, how much I need you.
For anyone who has lived in China, they should know how important a tool WeChat is in their daily lives. From paying for things to communicating with your boss or colleagues, WeChat seems to have quickly become synonymous with “I can do anything you can do on the internet, on my phone....and yes, that includes watching funny cat videos”.
However, there is one thing which might be a bit of a stumbling block for someone largely ‘out of the loop'. If you want to talk to people, you need to know them first. It’s not like Weibo, which is largely open to anyone looking to start conversations. Instead, WeChat is much more private and personal.
That being said, if you manage to find a group on another social media platform or through a website, they’re usually more than happy to let you add them on WeChat. Moreover, the ‘subscription accounts’ have their own comment sections where you can speak with almost anyone. However, you probably won’t get the more detailed back and forth you can expect on Weibo.
I'm hesitant to recommend this as a place to mess around with internet slang because of the obvious reason that it's primarily used for dating, and a lot of Chinese people are serious about dating. However, you're probably going to find this at some point yourself, and when someone starts writing 250 or 666, it's probably best you know what they're saying.
One of the most popular dating apps in China is momo. You might get some pretty good 1-on-1 conversation here, but chances are they're going to be looking for something more than just chit chat.
Listen to the sounds of English.
English Phonic Translations
The first section of 网络用语 words we are going to look at is phonic translations. This type of internet slang takes what every Chinese high school student learns in English classes, and throws on a Chinese twist, resulting in the hybrid Chinglish.
While many students are learning English, some cannot understand what a teacher says. To help, they write down the Chinese sounds instead, so they can then look back over it later and see how to pronounce it. The only problem is that these don’t sound exactly right.
With English now becoming spoken more fluently by more and more Chinese people, these phonetic spellings and sounds have become a bit of a joke on the internet. Many fondly use them to call up memories of their time intensively learning English.
三克油 (sān kè yóu)
This might just be one of the most popular phonic translations you’ll find on the web. As a staple of Chinglish, it’s been spoken in many different situations for time immemorial (ok, mayybbbbee not that long). Though chances are that you’ve heard it before.
This phonic translation is a good way to say thank you when you don’t mean it--if you wanted to inject a bit of sarcasm into the conversation, or to some humor to the situation. For example, if someone tells you are stupid, you can just say to them 三克油.
砍柴 (kǎn chái)
This is the Chinglish way of saying ‘can I?”. It gives your speech a childish twist and lets your target know to maybe cool down a little on the instructions. It can be funny if used correctly, but don’t use it too much more you might end up not being liked.
你out了 (nǐ out le)
The fashion police are here again! Here to stop you from falling behind and ‘out’ of fashion. That’s exactly what this phrase means. It means you’re out of fashion. For instance, if someone says they don’t use WeChat (one of the most important apps for doing basically anything in China), you can say 你out了.
狗带 (gǒu dài)
Literally meaning ‘go die’, this internet slang came from the lyrics to a song by Huang Zitao. Now, it’s a famous internet slang term used to tell someone to go somewhere else in a pretty harsh way.
The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword.
Known as Jiǎnxiě (简写), shorthand Chinese expressions are where only the first letter of each character’s pinyin is used to represent something. This has largely become popular as a way to overcome sensors and breach the great firewall of China. However, sometimes it’s just for fun.
Most well-used Chinese phrases have shorthand equivalents, not just those below. If you happen to come across a combination of numbers and/or letters, you have probably encountered one of these types of internet slang phrases. Try to think about the pinyin and see if you can’t solve it yourself. Otherwise, head to the internet to look it up.
MM （美眉 měiméi)
You probably recognize mei mei as 妹妹 (mèimei) or little sister. Whilst this is one form of mei mei, the version we’re using here means to call someone beautiful（漂亮的女生 Piàoliang de nǚshēng）
ZF （政府 zhèng fǔ)
A way of referencing the government without actually using the characters. Typically used when people are complaining or disagreeing with something the government has done.
NC （脑残 nǎocán）
This delightful shorthand expression is all about telling someone that their brain has a problem. In other words, that the way they are thinking is wrong. This doesn’t tend to be used as a question, but rather as a statement. For example， 你是个NC (nǐ shìgè NC)。
520 (wǔ èr líng)
Now this is a sentence with a meaning; the meaning of love. 520 is thought to sound similar to 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) - I love you - and so has come to mean as much on the internet. Give it a spin if you think we’re wrong--chances are good, that someone will blush.
250 (èr bǎi wǔ)
This Chinese numeric expression started a long time ago, but the important thing is that it’s now used as an insult to call another person stupid. Proceed with caution.
666（liù liù liù）
Use this to tell people that they’re awesome! Originally from an online video game as a way for gamers to tell each other they’re doing well quickly, it’s now become popular throughout China. Don’t stick it in a sentence, write it on its own as a response to something and you’ll be making our fellow internet users smile in no time.
Note: Remember: these are just a few of the different shorthand phrases available. There is a multitude of more out there some of which you might be able to find on online Chinese Urban Dictionaries. A simple google will net you results if you can't figure it out for yourself. Go get em!
If there was ever something a 土豪 would do, this is it.
What better use of internet slang is there than for referencing people? We can't think of one (ok, we can think of a few).
The point is though, that using internet slang to reference people is one of the oldest forms of it. And in the world of Chinese Internet Slang, there are many, many ways to refer to other people. Some of them are nice, some of them are not so nice. All of them, however, will make you seem like a native Chinese speaker if you can pull them out without hesitation in the right situations.
网红 (wǎng hóng)
The leaders of the internet. Influencers, people with power, people with their own video channels.
In recent years, the 网红 has become a huge thing in China. In western countries, we tend to call these people internet stars or YouTubers. The Chinese people have used 网红. It’s incredibly clever, actually, because 网 is similar to 王, which means king. Hence forth, 网红 are the kings of the internet.
Whilst 土豪 used to be a pretty bad thing to say to someone, it’s now become more and more of a joke. Several years ago, it was used to refer to those who had recently come into money and had a tendency to spend it foolishly and squander their new found fortune. Now, it means generally the same, but with a much less serious tone.
Imagine, for example, that you’re at a shopping centre and there are two jackets on sale. They both look great, they both fit, the only difference is that one of them has a gold symbol on the colour. That gold symbol caused the price to double. You don't need it, in fact, you don't even know what it's a symbol of. You buy the more expensive one anyway. You are now officially a 土豪。
歪果仁 (Wāi guǒ rén)
歪果仁 (Wāi guǒ rén) means 外国人 (wàiguó rén), or foreigner. It's got the same pinyin and meaning as its counterpart, but the characters are different. Ok, so the tones are a little different, but the meaning is still the same. 歪果仁 has come to be a way for Chinese people to mention foreigners on the internet.
If you’re a foreigner and easily offended though, don’t give this piece of internet slang a Google. You’ll only be met with some ‘crooked nuts’.
五毛党 (wǔ máo dǎng)
The 五毛党 are a group of people believed to be paid by the Chinese government to spread pro-party sentiment throughout the internet. It's rumored they are paid 50毛 (half 1元) for each post they make.
It’s probably best you don’t use this yourself as an outsider, but if you happen to be reading through a post, someone seems overly supportive of something, and another person starts calling them a part of the 五毛党, then they’re essentially telling them that their point is worthless (it’s just advertising).
Chinese Internet Phrases
Important to know. These aren’t quite 成语 (Chéngyǔ) idioms, but they’re close. These are sentences whose literal meaning doesn’t seem to make much sense. But you will know that they actually work as a metaphor.
Keep an eye out for them by looking for anything which seems to not make a lot of sense, but which others are agreeing to.
友谊的小船说翻就翻 （Yǒuyì de xiǎochuán shuō fān jiù fān）
This literally translates to “Friendship is like a boat, it can always capsize”. The sentence has been used to express when someone feels let down by their friend. For instance, if they asked for help or wanted them to do something. It doesn’t always have to be serious, though. Often it is used as a sarcastic response.
"I don't want to be your friend.", "What?", "I Like you"... “Friendship is like a boat, it can always capsize”
富二代 （fù èr dài）
This translates to the “rich second generation”. It’s used in a mocking way to say that the second generation of rich families are spoilt and largely incapable of looking after themselves. Savvy online commenters might want to combine this with the old Chinese saying of 富不过三代 Fù bùguò sāndài, or, “money doesn’t last for three generations”.
The final type of Chinese internet slang we're going to look at is words which have come from Chinese dialects.
You may be aware that China has many different dialects and that Mandarin is just one of them. As the internet has gotten bigger in China, and has thusly made China a smaller place (digitally), Chinese internet users have started popping bits of their dialect into online conversations to inject a bit of humour and solidarity in their online conversations.
Important - Remember, these are slang terms, so they should be kept to the internet. Whilst the sounds may sound similar to the original, there is still a high chance that a lot of people on the street won’t understand you, especially if you start speaking it in an area where the dialect doesn't originate.
Used instead of 喜欢 (xǐhuān) when you want to say that you like something. It’s really just a cooler way of saying it and packs a bit of a dialect punch from one of China's many different dialects.
酱紫 is used instead of 这样子 (zhèyàng zi). It’s shorter, easier to pronounce and adds an element of youthful modernity to any sentence.
If you want to say that you don't want something, then instead of saying 不要 (bùyào), simply pop out this easier, shorter way of saying it.
The Internet Doesn't Stop Here
So now you’ve seen some examples of internet slang, it’s time for you to get out there and use them. Just remember that there is a load more than those we’ve managed to cover on this page. I really can't stress that enough. What makes it even harder is that new ones are being made all the time!
Don’t worry though, follow the general guidelines above and you’ll be able to figure out if you’re being confronted with a new Mandarin Chinese word, or if it’s just a new piece of internet slang. Learn to use them well, and you will sound like one of the cool kids in no time.