Xinhua Dictionary Reflects Social Change

With over 400 million copies printed since its first edition was issued in 1953, The Xinhua Dictionary (新华字典, literally “New China Dictionary”) is mainland China’s authoritative lexicon and the world’s most popular reference work. China Daily reports on the 11th edition, released earlier this month, and how its contents have been modified to reflect society. While a surplus of newly-coined terms can now be found in its pages, many sensitive words have also disappeared, displaying the social and political spirit of of the times:

The latest edition, unveiled Monday after eight years of compilation, “unprecedentedly” increased its content by about one third, “highlighting social changes over the past decade,” he said.

“Nu” or “slave” is also added with a new meaning in words such as “Fang Nu”, or “house slave,” referring to people striving to earn money in order to buy an apartment at a time when housing prices soar. The case is the same with words such as “car slaves” and “credit-card slaves.”

“The inclusion of these various types of ‘slaves’ in the dictionary shows that these new disadvantaged social groups have garnered great attention,” Zhou said.

[…]The dictionary’s 10th edition, published eight years ago, already deleted a few of such terms that contradicted social norms and other pervasive concepts. “In this new edition, we’ve deleted all improper content,” Zhou said.

The 3,000 new words come from slang spoken on the streets of China, and from the collection of Internet terms that swells along with China’s ever-growing netizen population (which reportedly just hit 538 million). The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore explains a few more of the newly added terms, and why some have recently disappeared:

[…O]ne word to fall out of the dictionary, as China jettisons its colonial past, was Baixiangren, literally “white-faced person”, an old Shanghainese term for a rich layabout, or playboy.

“The words have to be current, widely used by the masses, and likely to be around for a long time, but there are no specific rules for inclusion,” said an editor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the compilers of the volume, who declined to be named.

In a piece for Foreign Policy, Eveline Chao explains the social significance of some of these new additions:

So what does the new edition, compiled over seven years and featuring more than 3,000 new words and expressions, include? Many of the new entries are deeply vernacular, originating from Internet memes, tabloid scandals, and other informal sources. Some, like boke [博客](blog), and tuangou [团购] (online group shopping, along the lines of Groupon) reflect today’s new, digital world. Others, like fenqing [愤青] (nationalists, literally “angry youth”) and xiangjiao ren [香蕉人] (banana person, which usually refers to Chinese-Americans — yellow on the outside, white on the inside — though unlike in the United States this is not pejorative), are names for new social categories and subcultures that have emerged. The seven words below offer insights into the movements and preoccupations of today’s China.[…]

Other new entries that made it onto Foreign Policy’s list reflect topics long covered by CDT: fangnu (房奴), those “house slaves” bound to their mortgages; PM 2.5, an addition that speaks to a growing concern about the environment; NBA, reflecting China’s obsession with the American basketball league; and zhainan/nv (宅男/女), describing China’s “Internet freaks”. For more on China’s linguistic zeitgeist, browse CDT’s entire Grass Mud Horse Lexicon, or see our Sensitive Words series.


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