China economy

Poor and ugly: Chinese net users have just summed up 2018

  • The made-up character sums up the reality of many Chinese and contrasts dramatically with the “tall, rich and handsome” at the other end of the social spectrum
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 2:22pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 2:22pm

In many Chinese-speaking parts of the world, there is a tradition of picking the Chinese character of the year. The selected characters will probably summarise the past year or represent the public mood in some way. For example, Taiwan’s choice of 翻 (fan, meaning turn or overturn) for 2018 reflects the dramatic changes in society in the past year. It may also imply the people were not very happy in 2018.

In mainland China, the official choice for 2018 is 奋 (fen, meaning exert), but the unofficial Chinese character of the year, which has been trending on Weibo and making the news, may be more telling. It is qiou, a word invented by netizens and which cannot be found in the dictionary: it is a combination of 穷 (qiong, meaning poor) and 丑 (chou, meaning ugly). Even the romanisation of the word, qiou, is made-up.

Of course, it is not new for netizens to invent or reinvent words. The rare Chinese character 囧 (jiong) was adopted as an emoticon across the Chinese-speaking world more than 10 years ago. Originally a pictogram for a bright window, the character is now read as a face with sad eyes, expressing helplessness or embarrassment.

But back to qiou, a word that self-deprecatingly sums up the reality of many Chinese and contrasts dramatically with 高富帅 (gao fu shuai), the “tall, rich and handsome” who are at the other end of the social spectrum.

Economically speaking, “poor” is a more honest word for the situation of the Chinese in 2018. Under the twin pressures of the trade war and economic restructuring, China’s economic growth has slowed markedly. After rapid development over 40 years, GDP growth next year is expected to be less than 6.5 per cent. Such a growth rate is not low by international standards, but can be seen as a precursor to an economic crisis in China, which needs to maintain high growth to alleviate internal problems.

Also, the Chinese private economy had a tough year in 2018 and the stock market tanked. Ordinary Chinese have suffered severe losses in the stock market, while pay and living standards stagnate.

Of course, you could see qiou as a bit of playful invention, a word Chinese web users created to amuse themselves. How could any one word comprehensively sum up 2018 for China? But I have to say the words that make up qiou do more or less reflect the current situation.

Xu Hui, Beijing