Chinese Internet Buzzwords: Research on Network Languages in Internet Group Communication

by Zhou Yan, Routledge, 2021, 134 pp.
Hardback £130.00, ISBN 9781032040677 

Chinese Internet Buzzwords: Research on Network Languages in Internet Group Communication addresses Internet catchphrases in Chinese cyberspace since 2010. This book adopts a communication studies approach to the language of the Internet while also employing perspectives from cultural studies, linguistic, gender studies, sociology, and politics. Author Zhou Yan analyzes the features and generative mechanisms of network language, with a particular focus on how the development of media technologies facilitates the generation of network language. The book also captures the complexities of contemporary Chinese media culture and public opinions to highlight Chinese Internet buzzwords’ social, cultural, and political significance. 

The first chapter introduces the definition, characteristics, research significance, and impacts of network language on society and politics in an overview. Zhou unpacks the interplay among Internet buzzwords, public opinions, and social changes, arguing that Internet catchwords represent grassroots citizens’ opinions and demonstrate the collective wisdom of netizens. This section also provides a valuable analysis of the complex nexus of internet catchwords and mainstream media to illustrate the distinct features of network languages in the context of China. 

In chapter two, Zhou traces the development history of Chinese Internet buzzwords and highlights the vital role of technology in promoting the popularity of network language. The author sheds light on the application of wiki technology and the popularity of related websites such as Hudong Baike in China, discussing how they actively contribute to the generation and popularization of internet buzzwords. This segment details how localized encyclopedia websites encourage interpersonal communication, which in turn facilitates the generation of network words. Specifically, active users called “intelligent volunteers,” with the help of wiki technologies and related platforms, make the emergence of network language possible in Chinese cyberspace. The second chapter provides critical insights for understanding the development of internet catchphrases in Chinese cyberspace from a communication technologies studies perspective.  

Chapter three focuses on producers and production, as well as social and political impacts of network language. This chapter carefully traces the dynamics of consumerism, political power, and buzzwords. It illustrates how the consumption of network language follows the logic of consumerism and connects to people’s everyday activities. The political potentialities of network language are also discussed. In Zhou’s perspective, the language of the Internet can foster social transformation and social democracy in China. Buzzwords provide a space for ordinary residents to resist authority, generate subversive power, and advocate social activism by dynamically showing their creativity. She also argues that the network language indicates a new medium for news and communication, which can challenge the dominant role of traditional media in news production and communication by promoting the development of citizen journalism in China. This discussion of the political impact of internet catchphrases is enlightening, although more empirical data and cases studies would be welcomed. It would have been helpful to further analyze how and to what extent buzzwords contribute to the development of citizen journalism and change the monopoly of official media in news production and communication. 

The last two chapters explore how Internet slogans outline contemporary China’s complex media culture, social changes, and public opinions. Chapter four illustrates how the analysis of network language contributes to modern Chinese media/cultural studies and provides a thoughtful reflection on consumption culture. Zhou traces the production and communication processes of network language and argues that contemporary media culture can be regarded as a carnival of cultural consumption. Chapter four also examines two groups of representative Chinese Internet buzzwords to investigate gender relations, populism, and youth culture in Chinese society. Zhou analyses discourses of “leftover women” and “big heroines,” a pair of popular terms reflecting the marginalization of female discourse in media culture to reveal how male chauvinism, in collusion with populism, strengthens the unequal gender power structure in Chinese society. Then, an analysis of meanings and discourses of “diaosi” and “Buddhist-style” further elucidates Chinese youth’s cultural values and sentiments, introducing a movement of young people satisfied with the status quo and mediocrity, who proudly articulate lower-class and decadent identities. The author also examines how “slave culture,” “vulgar culture,” social inequality, and class solidification have influenced the younger generation in China. Young people influenced by what in China is known as “slave culture” advocate a mental state characterized by self-destruction and self-depreciation, possessing the decadence of modernity, but lacking its rebellious spirits. This chapter, with interdisciplinary reach and analysis of uniquely Chinese youth culture phenomena, provides insight into contemporary Chinese society’s gender structure and political polarization, successfully showing how internet buzzword studies can contribute to gender studies, cultural studies, and youth studies. 

Chapter five traces the evolution of the meaning of “whistleblower,” a term that accrued particular significance during the early stages of COVID-19 in China in 2020. In the semiotic analysis of “whistleblower,” Zhou intends to find a way to enhance the relationship between the Chinese government and the public. She argues that the discursive strategy employed by Chinese officials to respond to public anger and criticism related to Li Wenliang’s death not only comforts people but also successfully maintains the trust in the government. Although the final chapter provides constructive suggestions for official sectors in enhancing risk communication ability, this section does not further explore how other forces have engaged in the meaning war of “whistleblower.” A rich analysis of how platform governance, emotions, and social media affordances engage in this discursive struggle could have been added to further elucidate the complex micropower operations behind semiotic practices. 

Overall, this book provides a comprehensive and interdisciplinary analysis of Chinese internet buzzwords and media culture. It successfully illustrates the complicated development and changes of network language, and demonstrates how they are shaped by media technology, Web 2.0, netizens, and social, cultural, and political transformation in contemporary China. As an easy and friendly reference, this book is accessible to a wide range of audiences, including scholars and students interested in Internet memes, social media, public sentiment, and social change in contemporary China.  

Xuanxuan Tan, the Chinese University of Hong Kong