Written by Elaine Yuan.

Like other social spaces in contemporary China, the Chinese Internet, with more than 600 million users, is always energetic and eventful. One of the few ways to keep pace with the bustling online scenes is by tracking “Internet buzzwords”– words or phrases that emerge from significant social events and incidents by capturing and evoking the stories and sentiments, and spreading among internet users like wildfire. Among the memorable buzzwords that made the most popular lists in the past few years were those that introduced us to a defiant “grass mud horse” (草泥马), a sour face “jiong” (), a fateful cry “My Dad is Li Gang” (我爸是李), a culturally despicable class of “nouveau riche” (土豪), and self-mocking underdogs calling themselves “diaosi” ().

Often punchy, provocative, and highly symbolic, Internet buzzwords serve to capture the high drama of social moments, communicate public responses, and encode their cultural implications. Some buzzwords are innocent utterances or blatant claims by those involved that manage to become the defining sound bites of the incidents. Others are created by people keen to draw on linguistic, cultural, and technological resources to reflect on the unfolding events. Some buzzwords are playfully expressive; others enable a form of resistance to oppressive power. Spreading quickly, often while morphing at the same time, Internet buzzwords are an intriguing cultural phenomenon in contemporary China whose interpretation and assessment attracts much interest.

Although gestated and rooted in mass culture, Internet buzzwords have been deemed a relevant form of political critique in the specific media ecology of China. When unpacking the buzzwords “grass mud horse”, for instance, LSE media scholar Meng Bingchun argues that this phrase demonstrates the power of foul language (as the phrase literally means “f*** your mother” in Chinese) by ridiculing and resisting official attempts to control content on the Internet. As such, buzzwords mediate the connection among Internet users and allow the expression of shared concern over government censorship, thereby enabling the dispersed participation of a public debate. Consequently, buzzwords highlight the tensions between China’s authoritarian regime and the distributive communication networks challenging the hegemonic order.

Internet buzzwords also relate to deeper socio-psychological structures in contemporary Chinese society. For instance, media researcher Marcella Szablewicz interprets the popularity of the phrase “diaosi” in terms of Raymond Williams’s notion of ‘structures of feeling’. She maintains that ‘diaosi” (meaning “losers”) as a self-derisive label is indicative of psychological discontent among contemporary Chinese youth. Though funny and playful on the surface, the word signals young Internet users’ disillusionment with the perceived lack of possibilities for upward socio-economic mobility. She further contends that the “diaosi” phenomenon is an emergent form of affective identification through which alternative desires and forms of mobility are imagined and enacted.

In order to decode the meanings of Internet buzzwords and explain the mechanisms of their genesis and popularity, we need to take into consideration the broad social and technological contexts. One of the most significant characteristics of emerging communicative practices on the Internet is the blurring boundary between the cultural and the political. Internet buzzwords are good examples of such a discursive mode that integrates elements of politics, popular culture, and entertainment. Moreover, Internet buzzwords spread in a rhizomatic style characterized by non-linear connectivity and the heterogeneity of network communication. Comments from diverse sources, stimulated by the quickly spreading buzzwords, feed off each other generating further momentum. In addition to these generic technological features, government censorship and long-term disjunction between official and popular discourses in Chinese political communication also contribute to the Internet buzzword phenomenon. In attempting to overcome the difficulty of conducting serious political debates on the Chinese Internet, buzzwords serve as an alternative means of political discussion by using entertainment discourses to mediate between the two discursive universes.

Symbolic Systems and Power Structures

As an important symbolic space in China, each year the Internet incubates as many buzzwords as mediated events and moments. These buzzwords comprise a topographic map of variegated and quickly shifting cultural and political scenes. However, Internet buzzwords are not simply linguistic devices referencing isolated online or offline events. They are result of purposive discursive practices, in linguistic and textual forms, in the cultural and symbolic field embodied by the Internet. Such discursive practices generate codes of thought, perception, appreciation and action, as exemplified by Internet buzzwords that channel deep structural meanings of the symbolic system shared by all members of a culture. It is important to note, however, that cultural and symbolic resources, or capital, in the field of the Internet are not equally distributed among all members of society. Only 46% of the Chinese population has access to the Internet and thus more than half of the Chinese people cannot participate in this cultural and symbolic field, let alone enjoy either form of capital. As socio-politically meaningful as they are, these buzzwords mainly contribute to the habitus of China’s resourceful Internet users.

At the same time, linguistic, textual, and discursive practices in the cultural and symbolic field of the Internet are also reflections on other social fields such as those of the economic and the political. In “grass mud horse” and “diaosi”, we see the power dynamics among Internet users and government censorship in the political field, and of the Chinese youth against the established order in the social field. As codes of the symbolic system that articulate mental structures to the larger social and power structure, Internet buzzwords demonstrate the social origins of symbolic systems.

Public Sphere or Mediated Habitus

Contemporary China has witnessed an increased level of social fragmentation and stratification along the lines of gender, age, ethnic, and social economic status. Consequently, there has been a multiplicity of social interests contesting the complexity of new power structures in various social fields. Drawing on differentially available cultural and symbolic capitals on the Internet, various social groups generate a plurality of discourses in efforts to represent and legitimize their own versions of social division. In this sense, Internet buzzwords evoke a digitally mediated habitus structured by changing social conditions while also structuring the emerging social order.

This Bourdieusian understanding of Internet buzzwords as mediated habitus in the cultural and symbolic field on the Internet differs significantly from the Habermasian notion of public sphere, which has been a prevalent framework in understanding the role of the Internet in China. As critics have pointed out, the ideal type of an independent, egalitarian, and unified rational space for political deliberation in democratic processes does not fit the reality of contemporary media landscapes consisting of multiple communicative sites where heterogeneous and oppositional expressions are constantly generated and contested. Moreover, we need to recognize in our analyses the concrete social roots of symbolic practices in various forms of communication instead of believing in a social order based on an abstract notion of commutative rationality. In this regard, the symbolic power of Internet buzzwords demonstrates the connection between symbolic practices and social structures.

Elaine Yuan is Associate Professor at the Department of Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago. Image Credit: CC by Cory M. Grenier/Flickr.