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Chinese still see themselves as slaves

London Telegraph | August 21, 2007
Richard Spencer

China's national anthem promises its people "will no longer be slaves".

But a list of new slang expressions compiled by its Ministry of Education suggests the country's economic reforms have simply multiplied the ways its people can fall into serfdom.

Among the most popular phrases used by the country's growing middle class are an expanding variety of equivalents to the English "wage slave".

The most common is "house slave", meaning someone who struggles to pay off the mortgage. But there are also "car slaves" who, unlike lucky government cadres, have to pay all their own petrol, servicing, and road toll fees.

More specialised versions are "grave slaves" who have bought expensive funeral plots in advance, and "feast slaves" whose jobs mean their lives are an endless round of banquets, weddings, funerals, and other social events requiring the cash gifts, or "red envelopes" expected on such occasions.

Chinese is especially suited to slang and abbreviations, partly to make up for the impossibility of acronyms in a character-based language.

Its favourite clichés all take the form of four characters in a row, while talk is often littered with apparently meaningless phrases. Beijing University, or Beijing Daxue in Mandarin, is known to all simply as Bei Da, or North Big.

The ministry list, which also includes popular new names such as character versions of "Lucy" and "Jenny", dwells on the influence of English, and points out the contrast to the days of the Cultural Revolution when patriotic names such as "Lianjun", or Unite the Army, "Wei Dong", Protect Mao Zedong, and "Aiguo", Love the Country, were all the rage.

One popular new Chinglish phrase is "ding chong jia ting", meaning double income couples with a pet instead of children.

Ding is used simply because it sounds like the western acronym Dink - double income no kids.

Judging by what the ministry took to be popular slang, however, the country has not moved on entirely from traditional political correctness.

It said Olympic slogans had already passed into common usage, as had "ba rong ba chi", or eight honours, eight disgraces.

This list of virtues and vices, such as "Honour the Motherland, Do not Dishonour the Motherland", was published to great fanfare by President Hu Jintao last year.

But some would say that the latter is now mostly used ironically, as in "What became of the ba rong ba chi?", when some new scandal involving Communist Party officials is revealed.

Particularly curious is the ministry's claim that youngsters refer to homosexuals as "duan bei", or Brokebacks, after the Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain.

Maybe it is just being optimistic. The Chinese government has always been reluctant to discuss the most common slang term for gay men, a usage which has dramatically altered the way party officials talk about each other.

That term is "tongzhi", which used to be translated as "comrade".

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