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China crafts its own word of the year

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

Every December 20, Beijing linguists from publishing houses, media, and universities invite the public to submit their picks for the ten most popular Chinese words and slogans of the year. They have done this every year since 2006. Initially, their list was simply intended to show how the Chinese see and evaluate the situation at home and abroad. It also served to measure the mood of the people and as an alarm signal for Beijing’s leadership.

Since Xi Jinping took office in 2013, the party decides what the people should think and already decides and censors the words in the selection lists. No wonder the party also likes the result in 2022. “Stability” and the triumphant “20th Party Congress” won the words of the year for China. War, conflict and chaos, on the other hand, characterize foreign countries. There is no place for “Zeitenwende” in Beijing’s choice of words.

China’s words of the year 2022 as a contrast. All is well at home – everything is difficult abroad. Zhan (top left) is the international word of the year and means “warlike times”. Wen (top right) stands for stable development in China. Bottom left: Most popular international buzzword means “Russian-Ukrainian conflict”. Domestic word number one: “20th Communist Party Congress”. The calligraphy was created by writer Liang Xiaosheng.

As expected, the German Language Society chose Olaf Scholz’s phrase “Zeitenwende” as its word of the year 2022. In early December, the Chancellor also popularized his linguistic creation internationally in another op-ed. He defined Zeitenwende as “an epochal tectonic shift” after both the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine and pandemic, climate change, inflation and political chaos shook the world all at once.

Consequently, the lexicographers of the Collins English Dictionary chose the word “permacrisis” as the British word of the year. The term, which first appeared in the 1970s, describes “an extended period of instability and insecurity.” Tokyo’s Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation went one step further. It picked the kanji 戦 (pronounced sen in Japanese), a character once adopted from Chinese. It means war. Twenty years ago, Tokyo already named “sen” the word of the year. The trigger, like the Ukraine attack today, was the al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, and its impact on the entire world. Even Beijing was shocked at the time.

Today, that is different in China. Although, like Japan, it also chose the character for war 战 (戦) as the word of the year 2022, but only within its category for international words (国际字). They represent the People’s Republic view of foreign countries, but otherwise have nothing to do with China. The word of the year chosen for China (国内字) is wen (稳), “stability.” Beijing also differentiates between inside and outside when choosing the ten most popular slogans or catchphrases for 2022. First among its new ten national slogans (国内词) is the slogan of the victorious “20th Communist Party Congress” (党的二十大). On the list of international buzzwords (国际词), the phrase “Russian-Ukrainian conflict” (俄乌冲突) moved up.

In Japan, war also represents 2022. Tokyo’s language commission Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation chose the kanji 戦 as the word of the year 2022. The abbot of the Kiyomizu-dera monastery Seihan Mori painted the kanji on a giant canvas.

The absurdity of the lists and their picks can be seen in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In China, it is not allowed to be called a war. Beijing refers to it as a “conflict,” even though Russia has been bombing Ukraine for ten months, both sides have suffered tens of thousands of casualties, and millions of Ukrainians have become refugees. Xi Jinping stands by his comrade-in-arms Putin, even down to the wording.

Initially, China’s search for the words of the year was still conducted professionally. The lists with a selection of 10 words and terms each, which are posted online for voting, are actually compiled by experts from the national center for language research (国家语言资源监测与研究中心), from book and online publishers, universities and Internet platforms. They draw on their year-round analysis of millions of data from print, TV and online media, from which they filter out words and terms according to their frequency and meaning.

But nowadays, the party is in charge. This year’s month-long pre-selection process for China’s words of the year turned into a farce. Terms such as “zero-Covid” (动态清零) or lockdown policy did not appear on the nomination lists, even though they kept China in their grip all year long. In fact, since Beijing completely changed its pandemic response on December 7, these words have become taboo. Thus, the only obfuscating paraphrase found in the ten buzzwords selected for 2022 is “precise prevention and control” (精准防控). The words pandemic or Cmicron variant can only appear in the list of international words or slogans of the year.

The People’s Daily triumphantly applauded the results of China’s word of the year, announced at a big event in Beijing on December 20, under the headline, “stability comes first!” (稳 “字当头!). It acted as if it was a huge surprise. China’s English China Daily newspaper celebrated the vote under a different headline in its Wednesday edition: “’20th CPC Congress’ voted top phrase of year.” The paper also praised other propaganda phrases, from “China’s modernization” (中国式现代化) to “whole-process people’s democracy” (全过程人民民主), which China’s dictatorship uses to praise itself in party gibberish.

Since 2006, China has been choosing buzzwords and slogans of the year. Here are the top picks from 2018 to 2021. Left word and slogan for China – right for foreign countries.
2018: “Struggle” and “40 years of reform” – “Regression” and “Trade problems”.
2019: “stability” and “me and my motherland” – “difficulty” and “trade problems”
2020: “people” and “poverty alleviation” – “pandemic” and “Covid”
2021: “order” and “100 years of CP” – “pandemic” and “metaverse”.

The officially orchestrated search for the word of the year provoked critical bloggers to weigh in. They pleaded for a word that was popular on the net but constantly deleted. It is called bai (白, white). In combinations such as “white revolution” or “white paper,” it has come to symbolize public protests against Beijing’s zero-Covid policies. The character yang (阳) also often appeared on the web. It means positive, that is, to be infected with Covid. Bloggers equated the sign with the identically pronounced sign yang (羊), to be a “sheep”. Don’t be sheep, they yell out to their readers. For two days, more than 100,000 users rejoiced over the online word cao (操, actually: to handle, to drive). Then even the censors realized that it was slang for the extended middle finger, with the subversive message to the party: “Screw you”.

Another blogger proposed two words for 2022 and 2023. For the past year, 封 (feng) “being trapped in lockdown” is a fitting expression, and for the coming year 疯 (feng) follows: “In 2023, we go completely nuts” (我一下选两,明年就省啦! 22年是 “封”,23年是 “疯).

The official search for the word of the year 2022 prompted many bloggers (who were not invited to participate) to submit their own counter-proposals. The censors quickly deleted them. One blogger suggested two characters at once – for 2022 封 (feng, in lockdown) and for 2023 疯 (feng, to go crazy).

But despite all the Internet mockery, the party never before exerted as much influence as it did this year on the selection of a word of the year. This was different at the beginning of Xi Jinping’s reign in 2013. Even then, the language commission had put Xi’s key political words at the top of its list of suggestions. Most notably, the characters meng (梦) for Xi’s dream of making China’s nation rich and strong, and lian (廉) for his purge campaign against corrupt officials, were considered words of the year for 2013. But 100,000 online voters voted differently. 42 percent chose the character fang (房) for house and 25 percent chose mai (霾) for smog. Their alternative words reflected the frustration that their dream of owning their own apartment was unaffordable and unattainable. Mai was used to protest against air pollution.

In 2013, publishing director Liu Zuochen of the Commercial Press, who led the word of the year project, told me: “We want our search for words and terms of the year to also give our government an important clue: What do the people want? What do they think? How did it feel this year?”

In 2009, the word bei (被) chosen by a majority as the word of the year had already given Beijing’s politicians food for thought. Bei is used as a passive character and stood for the citizens’ anger at feeling increasingly disempowered and controlled by an all-powerful party bureaucracy. They fought back linguistically: When Beijing’s official figures glossed over the extent of inflation, they responded with the passive form: “We have been price-stabilized.” When propaganda declared them happy Chinese, they said, “We were made happy.” At the time, even the official news agency Xinhua regarded the choice of bei as the word of the year as a latent signal for their “call for more freedom” and self-determination. South China’s Nanfang Dushibao newspaper commented that in a situation where open criticism and opposition are not tolerated, citizens use a word to “show awareness of wanting to exercise their civil rights.”

Bloggers answer to the manipulated words of 2022. “Which character do you choose?” 53 characters are up for choice, each of which in combination with other characters signifies criticism of the ruling powers. The first character on the top left is called bai (white) and stands for the protest against zero-Covid.

Today, Xi Jinping’s party would not only prevent such comments. It does not even let online voters pick China’s word of the year. Courageous citizens protest in a cat-and-mouse game with censors. Following the announcement of the official words of the year, bloggers posted on Wednesday under the headline “Which word would you choose?” 53 individual characters to choose from online. In combination with other words, they become critical terms that challenge Xi’s party rule. The list starts with the character for “white”, China’s new protest color.

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