Ten words that defined 2020, according to Chinese internet users

Society & Culture

As elsewhere, people in China endured months-long COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions partly with the help of the internet, where memes provided distraction from quarantine life, old phrases acquired new meaning, and self-deprecating jokes became an outlet for collective distress.

top 10 buzzwords china 2020
Image from Youth Digest 青年文摘

The world has been through a lot in 2020. As elsewhere, people in China endured months-long COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions partly with the help of the internet, where memes provided distraction from quarantine life, old phrases acquired new meaning, and self-deprecating jokes became an outlet for collective distress.

As this tumultuous year draws to an end, Youth Digest (青年文摘), a large-circulation magazine, has released a list of words that dominated the Chinese internet. The winners reflect some of the biggest stories of 2020.

This is the list, with each term annotated with a short explanation of its origin and use.

1. Working people (打工人 dǎgōngrén)

For burned-out millennials in China, self-deprecating humor has long been a coping mechanism to deal with stress at work. Over the years, young Chinese office workers have called themselves “livestock of the company” (社畜 shèchù), “hardworking c*nts” (奋斗逼 fèndòubī), and “overtime dogs” (加班狗 jiābāngǒu), among many other labels.

In October, the old phrase “working people,” which was used widely in the 1980s to describe migrant workers, gained a new meaning when a group of young white collar workers embraced the term as a way to passive-aggressively complain about their stressful working conditions.

2. Balance-owed people (尾款人 wěikuǎnrén)

2020 has been a breakthrough year for China’s ecommerce livestreaming industry. Marrying entertainment and ecommerce, livestream shopping allows consumers to buy products online from people who show off their latest finds (or sponsored products) in real-time videos. After COVID-19 forced millions of people in China to stay at home, the industry witnessed a massive growth in sales, which led to the meteoric rise of several mega influencers, such as Viya (or Wēi Yà 薇娅, the stage name of Huáng Wēi 黄薇).

The economy is largely driven by tech-savvy, cash-strapped young people who can’t afford the full costs of goods but still want to enjoy them by leasing them or buying them on credit. Those who fail to pay their monthly installments are given the name “balance-owed peoplee.”

3. Double festival branches (双节棍 shuāngjiēgùn)

In China, involuntary bachelors, who fail to add offspring to their families, are traditionally called bare branches (光棍儿 guānggùnér). In 2020, they became the subject of a viral joke in which the creator expressed extra sympathy for single people because they survived National Day Holiday and Mid-Autumn Festival, which fell on the same day this year, with no romantic companions.

4. The coming wave (后浪 hòulàng)

One of those rare words whose origin can be precisely dated, this term was coined in a video published in May on Bilibili, a video-sharing website popular among young Chinese. “Dear people of the coming wave, it’s as if all of the wealth, all of the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and art that humanity has been collecting for thousands of years has been prepared as a gift specifically for you,” said narrator Hé Bīng 何冰 in a melodramatic speech dedicated to the 101st anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, an intellectual and reformist movement, and a landmark, student-led protest in 1919.

As SupChina contributor Alexander Boyd noted, while the video received an unusually large number of positive responses as a propaganda film, sharp-eyed commentators were quick to criticize the clip for reclaiming the core values of the historic event and downplaying the real struggles faced by young people, such as limited opportunities for upward mobility and little room for political participation.

5. Suster (集美 jíměi)

The word originated at a livestream session early this year, in which Charming Teacher Guo (迷人的郭老师), an influencer with more than 800,000 followers on video-sharing platform Kuaishou, accidentally invented a new way to say “sisters” (姐妹 jiěmèi) with her heavy Hebei accent.

The phrase instantly entered the internet lexicon as a casual way to call strangers online.

6. Professional team (专业团队 zhuānyètuánduì)

In April, as the coronavirus outbreak waned in China, a series of videos showing Ghanian pallbearers dancing while carrying a coffin went viral on the Chinese internet. The uplifting energy of the videos coincided with the optimistic sentiment shared by many Chinese at the time, who praised the pallbearers as “a team of professionals.”

7. Errand boy/girl (工具人 gōngjùrén)

A self-deprecating, versatile phrase used by people who feel taken advantage of. In the world of romantic relationships, it refers to those who are tortured by unrequited love or being used by another person. In the workplace, it refers to those who willingly endure exploitation in the hopes of being rewarded at some point.

8. “NetEase depression cloud” (网抑云 wǎngyìyún)

For years, the comment sections on NetEase Cloud Music, one of the most popular music streaming services in China, has had a reputation for being both brutally bleak and aggressively sentimental. With little regulation, the app has become an outlet for users to share depressing stories of loneliness and despair. While some are personal experiences related to a particular song, a great deal of the stories are fabricated by attention-seekers, who have been criticized for faking struggles and trivializing the seriousness of mental health challenges.

To address the phenomenon, which people began calling the “NetEase depression cloud,” the platform launched a campaign this year to make the app more positive while protecting users’ rights to “express themselves freely.” The initiative included a host of measures, including cracking down on “fabricated” comments and providing help for listeners in need of psychological comfort.

9. Virtual construction monitoring (云监工 yúnjiāngōng)

In January, at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, the government of Wuhan — the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic first broke out — rushed to build two makeshift hospitals in just over a week.

In an unprecedented move, Chinese authorities invited the public to watch the rapid progress on the construction through a livestreaming broadcast, which attracted around 40 million viewers at one point.

10. Going against the flow-sters (逆行者 nìxíngzhě)

Commonly used to describe courageous people who put their lives on the line in a time of crisis, this “countermarch heroes” specifically referrs to frontline healthcare workers. The usage first became popular among Chinese journalists in their coverage of the pandemic, and average internet users quickly adopted it when praising those who risked their own health and safety to save the lives of patients with COVID-19.