Linguistic Bifurcation and Internet Satire in China

Chinese languages have been changing rapidly over the last half-century. From developing pinyin to simplifying characters to standardizing Mandarin, Chinese has changed so fast that the youngest generations of some households struggle to communicate with their elders. Today, there is no place in China, however, where linguistic evolution is more innovative or unimpeded than online. Professor Perry Link shared his thoughts on Chinese internet satire.

According to Professor Link, a fascinating bifurcation has arisen in Chinese language - the divergence between "official" and "unofficial language." Official language, Link says, is used in an environment where political legitimacy is at stake, such as government meetings, news broadcasts, or school lessons. He says that for post-Mao official Chinese, there are five identifying features, the first of which he calls lexicon and metaphor. This is best explained by an example Link cites in both his talk and his book - the "fruit language" as dubbed by political commentator Cao Changqing. If an official were to say that fruit is good, but a higher-level official were to say bananas are bad, the lower level official could say that he really meant apples. Such ambiguity can be handy down the road when unexpected events come up and government leaders come into the public spotlight. The other four features he calls grammar and rhythm, moral weight, goal orientation, and fit or efficacy of language as a kind of truth.

At first glance, the last category - "fit" - is a bit confusing. A helpful example by Link shows that it would be appropriate to describe China as a you jieji de shehui 有阶级的社会 'society with classes' but unacceptable to say call it a 阶级社会 'class society.' It is this kind of language "game" that the government plays with the people in order to preserve the moral center stage and put all others on the perpetual moral defense. As a result, when people find themselves in any sort of official capacity, they must constantly self-censor their words. Link designates this the "anaconda in the chandelier." A perpetual threat, one must carefully navigate the political space for fear of being eliminated at any moment.

After his carefully crafted explanation of this linguistic bifurcation, Link turned to satire, especially online. The internet in China is not quite the same as anywhere else; it has more than 600 million users and is heavily monitored by the government. Link discussed how the term pimin 屁民 'fart people' came to prominence and mentioned that it became a trendy badge of honor for netizens. Link discusses the rise of the term here and how it came to be a rallying point for netizens to express their frustration with the government and the party. The Communist Party will continue to use "official language" to condemn activists bent on destabilizing social harmony, but the resonance of unofficial language, like "fart people," will continue to mobilize internet users. The internet will remain a battleground where linguistic innovation pushes the boundaries of free speech in China.


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