'Netspeak': The New Cultural Bridge

05/10/2015 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2016

Isabel Cruz interviews Véronique Michel, the author of China Online: Netspeak and Wordplay Used by over 700 Million Chinese Internet Users.

Véronique Michel could hardly contain her excitement as she described her favorite Chinese saying to me. "All of the wasted food you left will block your way to Heaven," (你浪费的粮食都会堵在你去往天堂的路上) she explained with a giggle. I, too, couldn't help but join in her nerdy gaiety. As a student of Mandarin myself, I could relate to her appreciation of Chinese Internet jargon, or "netspeak," which represents modern Chinese popular wisdom. I remember the first time when someone explained how Chinese youth use "Grass Mud Horse" (草泥马) in place of its homonym "screw your mother," I was overwhelmed with girlish delight at its naughty wit. Michel, author of China Online -- a new book that explores Chinese wordplay and Internet culture -- expressed her appreciation for the sense of play and humor embodied in netspeak and sayings, but saw them as more than simple fun. "Virtual reality has a stake in real life," she said, "Netspeak shows us what China really is today."

A self-described "multilingual netizen," Michel has always had a knack for bridging people across cultures through language. In her over 25 years abroad, she studied and worked in China and Japan, and returned to Europe to work as a translator in Germany for the Japanese government. Her interest in Internet lingo and Chinese netspeak sparked when she happened across a Chinese-to-Martian translator based off the popular television series Shaolin Soccer. Fascinated by this playful and creative tool, she began spending several hours a day scouring the web for more. "Honestly, it was addicting," she admitted, "The more I learned, the more I wanted to know." As she immersed herself further in China's Internet culture, she saw potential to turn her fun addiction into a meaningful project. "These words and sayings help to demystify what is going on in China. They are like keys -- you can use them to unlock a door and unveil the treasures of China today."

China Online is the culminating product of her work. Although the book is a deeply personal project at its core, she hopes the phrases, jokes, idiomatic expressions and cultural analyses complied in its 160 pages will provide people around the world with a greater understanding of contemporary China. "I carefully selected content that I think best represents modern Chinese life and thought. Although I could not include all of the rich cultural phenomena of China today, I think my selections highlight the essential aspects and I had to get them right."

Although she maintained that all of her selections are critical to understanding China holistically, she immediately highlighted the "tribes" (族) as the ultimate embodiment of Chinese culture for her. In her book, tribes signify like-minded groups of young people with similar ideals and lifestyles. Of the plethora of tribes, she feels "Rush Rush Tribe" (奔奔族) exemplifies youth culture and what she views as today's "Chinese Dream" for some people: getting rich, becoming famous and living in a house. "Understanding their aspirations is key to understanding their culture and where China is headed going forward."

Since she introduced netspeak and her cultural analyses as a way for people to relate to contemporary Chinese culture, I was curious as to which tribe best resonated with her life and ideas. She considers herself a part of the "Low Carbon Footprint Tribe" (低碳一族) because she thinks environmental issues are pressing in today's world. She also sees them as a point of international solidarity: "One of the many issues that China and Paris [where she lives] have in common now is pollution. It's commonalities like these that allow popular wisdom and netspeak to bring people closer across cultures." As I turned back to the book to pick a tribe for myself--settling on the wacky "Crazy Jargon Tribe" (怪字族) -- I reflected on the significance of these tribes in China and their resonance around the world. In some respects, Michel tends to focus specifically--and perhaps too narrowly -- on the playful and relatable aspects of these tribes, and netspeak and popular wisdom more generally. Although the wordplay and wit involved in tribes like "Rush Rush" and "Low Carbon Footprint" are certainly cheeky, they allude to the serious challenges in Chinese society such as materialism and pollution. Unfortunately, Michel does not at all discuss the role that censorship has played in the evolution of Chinese wordplay and online culture and prefers to leave the room for interpretation to the readers.

Although Michel may be a bit too optimistic in her cultural depictions, ultimately her insight into the cultural power of these words and phrases is spot on -- these sayings and practices are as playful and fun as they are deeply meaningful, making them the perfect gateway to finding common ground on social issues. Michel hopes her work will help foster deeper cultural connections in an increasingly globalized world and show people a side of China that they rarely see: its creativity and innovative spirit. In the short time her work has been out, she already reports stories of readers around France reflecting positively on the takeaways of the book. Among all the reactions she received, her favorite was when an elderly Chinese expatriate approached her at a conference and thanked Michel for allowing her to understand what Chinese kids are doing on the Internet these days, and for showing her what is happening in her homeland. Michel is grateful for the opportunity to share her world experiences with readers across the globe. By now, she has almost finished her second book project, which is an extension of China Online with a focus on Chinese Horoscopes.