The passive tense might seem an unlikely verbal vehicle for satire, but that’s not stopping Chinese netizens from trying to take the wheel.
Spend a few minutes scrolling through any Chinese social media platform, and it won’t take long to spot the frustrations bubbling just below the surface. Between long hours of “optional” overtime, skyrocketing housing costs, andmeddling parents, it’s no wonder that many young Chinese are embracing the apathy of sangculture or declaring themselves “spiritually Finnish.”
Part of the issue is that in China, it’s not always easy or socially acceptable to talk openly about these and other problems. So instead, many netizens turn to euphemism and wordplay — both to express their feelings of alienation and to poke fun at the occasional absurdity of their daily lives. I’m a linguist, which means I’ve spent years studying the laws that govern how we communicate, but I’ve also found that to get your point across, sometimes you have no choice but to break the rules.
One of the more interesting examples I’ve encountered of this linguistic lawlessness has involved the purposeful misuse of the passive tense, much like how a disgruntled English speaker might complain that they hadn’t so much volunteered for a task as been “voluntold” to do it. For example, recent Chinese graduates struggling to find work might joke that they’ve been “jobbed” by their schools, in which the schools — under pressure to boost post-graduate employment figures — invent employment contracts for them, sometimes with companies that the students have never even heard of. Other netizens might laughingly report that they’ve been “enwealthened,” a reference to the tendency of local officials to embellish per capita GDP figures to meet wealth targets. Yet the most well-known — and bleakest — example of this play on words was also the first: “suicided.”
The term “suicided” first entered the Chinese lexicon in 2008, catching the public’s imagination after the mysterious prison death of the whistleblower Li Guofu. Li was a real estate developer and a former minor official in the eastern province of Anhui. In the mid-2000s he made multiple trips to Beijing to file complaints against the local district Party secretary over the construction of a luxury government office building best described as a cross between the U.S. White House and Capitol. In retaliation, in July 2007 — shortly after he returned from one of these trips — Li was arrested and detained by local officials. Nine months later, after his sudden death in a prison hospital, the local district procuratorate— the equivalent of a prosecutor’s office that is also responsible for investigating potential crimes — announced that Li had hanged himself.
After Li’s story was picked up by news outlets around the country, however, this unconvincing explanation became the object of suspicion and ridicule online. To make it easier to talk about the incident — which many believed was a murder, despite the official line — creative netizens remarked that Li had been “suicided.” The term caught on quickly, and according to a contemporaneous article published in the Party-run People's Daily Online, “suicided” was 2008’s second-most popular piece of online slang. It was also effective: The combination of traditional media reporting and social media outrage brought the incident to the attention of the provincial authorities, who moved to punish those involved — including the district Party secretary, who was given a suspended death sentence for his role.
While netizens’ use of “suicided” may have been grammatically questionable, subsequent events only further entrenched this play on words in popular discourse. Take for example the case of Xie Yexin— a low-level discipline inspection officer who was found dead in August 2011 in his office in the central province of Hubei. Prosecutors were again quick to rule it a suicide, but between the presence of ten stab wounds and the fact that he had been investigating the county Party secretary at the time, netizens once again wondered openly whether Xie had in fact been “suicided.”
The term may have peaked in popularity in May 2013, when a girl fell to her death at the Jingwen Market in Beijing. After police ruled out foul play — despite widespread rumors to the contrary — a “pledge not to commit suicide” template went viral on the Chinese internet. The ensuing chaos saw netizens all over the country solemnly — albeit with their tongues planted firmly in cheek — posting the following message to their various social media accounts: “I am XXX, and I would never commit suicide. In the event I die unexpectedly, know that I have been murdered. Please investigate my death thoroughly.”
By then, suicided had spread far beyond the bounds of the internet, to the point where it could be dropped in everyday conversation, no explanation needed. Rather than attempt to crack down on this potentially subversive trend, however, Party media outlets actually embraced it — or at least the sentiment behind it. After the pledge went viral, the online edition of the Party-run Guangming Daily published an editorial noting that there were very real fears beneath the humor of the pledge. The editorial went on to criticize various branches of the country’s local law enforcement and public security organs for their crude investigation methods, opaque procedures, and frequent missteps. Overall, the editorial came down sharply on the side of the public, arguing the pledge was the outcome of a situation in which “ordinary people feel uncertain that their rights to life will be respected by a powerful security apparatus,” and calling it a well-meaning, albeit sarcastic attempt at criticizing official misconduct.
Although “suicided” is not as frequently used now, over time, netizens began applying the term’s underlying grammatical construction more broadly, seeing it as a way to satirize their seeming lack of control over their own lives. In addition to being “jobbed” and “enwealthened,” today’s young Chinese talk of being “satisfactioned” — in which they are made to report high levels of satisfaction on various surveys — or “voluntold” to do things like help their kids’ schools make expensive purchases or enroll them in “optional” extracurricular classes. In 2009, after it was reported that the residents of a small city in the eastern province of Jiangsu had been coached by local officials on how to respond to government economic surveys, netizens joked that it was even possible to be “moderately prosperized” — a reference to the country’s goal of building a moderately prosperous society by 2020.
As a linguist, I find these sorts of spontaneous, purposefully ungrammatical constructions fascinating. Terms like “jobbed” and “suicided” together comprise a sort of language of powerlessness. They perfectly encapsulate how many Chinese — whether at work, at school, or elsewhere — feel like passive players in their own lives.
Yet at the same time, while they may be indicative of powerlessness, the terms themselves are anything but. When “suicided” first burst on the scene back in 2008, it was because the local officials who were trying to cover their tracks failed to anticipate how their clumsy attempts at explaining away Li’s death would play out online. And instead of covering for those involved, the government reacted to public anger by cleaning house. It was a breakthrough traditional Chinese media outlets could never have hoped to instigate on their own.
As for why the central government was willing to embrace terms like “suicided,” it’s because it believes they offer valuable insight into the public mood and can help the authorities identify major problems and solve them before they get out of hand. In a 2009 article on the impact of “suicided” and related memes, People's Daily formally acknowledged that such terms arise in response to real problems, including corruption, falsified statistics, and vanity projects, and noted that they are reflective of a broader “lack of public trust in government actions.” The editorial pointed out that China is a people’s government, and rather than criticize netizens for pointing these issues out, it called on officials to work to strengthen public trust in the system.
In a move indicative of just how widespread these terms had become, the sixth edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary, published in 2012, formally recognized this use of passive tense as grammatically valid.
Yet recognition is not enough. Terms like “suicided” don’t suddenly rise to prominence simply because they sound good, but because they allow people to voice long-repressed feelings they had previously been unable to convey — in this case, a desire for transparency, honesty, and self-determination in their daily lives. No matter how much linguistic purists might complain, or how angry those on the receiving end of public criticism might get, we must remember that language is first and foremost a tool for expressing what we see and how we feel. And if what we see is a world flipped on its head, then maybe it’s time to flip our language upside down to match.
Author: Li Mingjie, a professor at the Folklore Institute of East China Normal University.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.