China: Character of the Year

Every year new words are invented, mirroring new trends in our societies. For example, ‘unfriend’ was voted the 2009 word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. It comes from the practice of dropping a contact from Facebook, and reflects the popularity and ever-changing nature of internet social networking.

The same could be said of China, albeit with a heavier meaning. The National Language Resource Monitoring & Research Centre (Network Media), the Commercial Press and have co-organized an online campaign to select a Chinese character and vocabulary each to describe China and the world in 2009. After one month of recommendations, expert appraisal and voting, the results were released earlier this month, reflecting the views of over 200,000 voters.

Character of the Year: Bei

The character bei (被) was selected as the character of the year to describe China. Technically, it is a preposition, and has to be used in conjunction with some other words. In English it means ‘be xx-ed’. To give some examples, in an attempt to boost graduate employment statistics, some graduates were told by their universities to put stamps in fake contracts to prove that they have gained employment. In the process they ‘were employed’ (被就业). Figures released by the Statistical Bureau showed the average salary of urban workers increased by 12.9% during the first half of 2009, leaving many netizens in disbelief. Many said their salaries ‘were increased’ (被增长). The Bureau admitted later that the survey suffered from a too narrow scope. Netizens said they ‘were represented’ (被代表) by the Bureau.

Below are some comments selected from a sohu forum after the announcement of the results:

野猫佐罗第二  (2010-02-07 03:21:15):  一个“被”字,包含了善良的百姓多少无奈,多少心酸,更有多少压抑和郁闷。公信力在一个“被”字之下,更显得无比的苍白与虚无。

How much helplessness, sadness, repression and depression were represented in the single word bei. Under this word, credibility seems so pale and empty.

七剑下珠峰 (2010-02-08 03:23:59): 国企改革工人被下岗了;教育改革孩子被辍学了;住房改革老百姓的房子被强拆了!医疗改革患者没钱就被放太平间了……..

Workers were unemployed under state-owned enterprise reforms; children were dropout-ed under education reforms; ordinary citizens’ houses were demolished under housing reforms! Those unable to afford medical costs under the health care reforms would be placed in the mortuary……

limingyukorea@sohu_NEW (2010-02-07 04:25:04): 最根本的是我们的各种被!是怎么形成,没有公开 没有民众参与 没有百姓发言 我敢说就连新闻的某些话都是被出来!简单的工资我们基本工资北京850怎么被统计局统计那么高??加班??国家不是说加班只允许38小吗?有超的吗?算违法吗?等等好多数据不知道统计局怎么收集的!

The fundamental issue is how all kinds of bei were formed! No transparency, no public participation, no freedom to express opinions. I dare say that some news reports also had the element of bei! How could our basic Beijing salary of [RMB] 850 be reported so much higher by the Statistical Bureau? Overtime? Doesn’t the government say that overtime is limited to 38 [hours]? Is the limit exceeded? Is the law being broken? We just don’t know how the Bureau collects all those statistics!

Vocabulary of the Year: Min Sheng 民生

The vocabulary of the year is min sheng (民生), meaning ‘people’s livelihood’. It reflects various concerns that ordinary people face, ranging from employment, housing, social security to environmental conditions. In many ways, these issues are connected with lack of public participation and official accountability. Wang Chuantao (王传涛) wrote in a commentary:

… 被”和“民生”分列国内字、词的第一,反映了网民对当下情势的心态。


… The fact that bei and min sheng are selected as the character and vocabulary of the year shows the current mood of netizens.
In fact, bei started to appear in newspapers and websites as early as 2008, though netizens just linked them to standalone cases such as ‘were suicided’ and ‘were increased’, rather than giving it the significance of an ‘era’. However, because too many min sheng related events with an element of bei happened in 2009, ‘the era of bei’ and ‘min sheng’ has combined to become the most influential internet catchphrases.

But he is optimistic about the future:


But we should say that, for Chinese citizens, 2009 is also an ‘era of awakening’ in response to the ‘era of bei’. The lack of rights, or worse, being exploited, is horrible. However, the most horrible of all is that people become insensitive or used to the situation. Luckily, Chinese citizens and netizens are not ‘accustomized’ or ‘insensitized’. Rather, they make a great, black humor out of it.


I believe that, with the spirit to refuse being ‘insensitized’, 2010 is a year worth looking forward to. For those employees who ‘were donated’, graduates who ‘were employed’, citizens who ‘were blessed’, cities which ‘were harmonized’…… they would have a chance to express their anger, raising media and public attention. It will then not be difficult to lead to real resolutions and improvements of the situation.

In the same campaign, fu (浮, meaning a state of drift), and jinrong weiji (金融危机, meaning financial crisis) were selected as the character and vocabulary describing the world in 2009. They represent the states of instability and uncertainty brought about by the financial crisis during the year.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.