Word of the Week: Zhao Family Member
The Word of the Week comes from the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon, a glossary of terms created by Chinese netizens and encountered in online political discussions. These are the words of China’s online “resistance discourse,” used to mock and subvert the official language around censorship and political correctness.
Government official or other powerful figure. Based on the landlord Mr. Zhao in Lu Xun’s novella “The True Story of Ah Q,” this term gained currency as a subversive internet term in late 2015. One who aspires to hold membership in the Zhao clan is said to be “Zhao in spirit” (jīng Zhào 精赵).
In July 2018, following a police crackdown on a mass demonstration of PLA veterans against paltry welfare and pension packages and the recent official use of violence against other similar demonstrations, historian Zhang Lifan referred to the “Zhao family army” (Zhào jīa jūn 赵家军) in a Twitter thread analyzing the standoff between formerly active soldiers and currently active ones. At SupChina, Jeremy Goldkorn summarized and translated the thread:
[…] Those who yesterday maintained stability have become today’s cause of instability. The Zhao family army (赵家军 zhào jiājūn — i.e., the army of the ruling classes) of yesterday has become the enemy of today’s Zhao family. [Source]
In “The True Story of Ah Q,” the lowly Ah Q tries to improve his own social standing by association with Mr. Zhao (“Mr. Chao” below):
The second difficulty confronting me was that a biography of this type should start off something like this: “So-and-so, whose other name was so-and-so, was a native of such-and-such a place”; but I don’t really know what Ah Q’s surname was. Once, he seemed to be named Chao, but the next day there was some confusion about the matter again. This was after Mr. Chao’s son had passed the county examination, and, to the sound of gongs, his success was announced in the village. Ah Q, who had just drunk two bowls of yellow wine, began to prance about declaring that this reflected credit on him too, since he belonged to the same clan as Mr. Chao, and by an exact reckoning was three generations senior to the successful candidate. At the time several bystanders even began to stand slightly in awe of Ah Q. But the next day the bailiff summoned him to Mr. Chao’s house. When the old gentleman set eyes on him his face turned crimson with fury and he roared:
“Ah Q, you miserable wretch! Did you say I belonged to the same clan as you?”
Ah Q made no reply.
The more he looked at him the angrier Mr. Chao became, and advancing menacingly a few steps he said, “How dare you talk such nonsense! How could I have such a relative as you? Is your surname Chao?”
Ah Q made no reply, and was planning a retreat, when Mr. Chao darted forward and gave him a slap on the face.
“How could you be named Chao!—Do you think you are worthy of the name Chao?”
Ah Q made no attempt to defend his right to the name Chao, but rubbing his left cheek went out with the bailiff. Once outside, he had to listen to another torrent of abuse from the bailiff, and thank him to the tune of two hundred cash. All who heard this said Ah Q was a great fool to ask for a beating like that. Even if his surname were Chao—which wasn’t likely—he should have known better than to boast like that when there was a Mr. Chao living in the village. After this no further mention was made of Ah Q’s ancestry, so that I still don’t know what his surname really was. [Source]
A “Zhao family member” is someone enmeshed in China’s power structure, while a “Zhao in spirit” is an imposter hoping to gain credibility or status by association. The term “Zhao family” gained currency as a subversive reference to a power figure following the circulation of an anonymously written WeChat essay titled “The Debate Between Vanke and Baoneng: Barbarians at the Gate, Zhao Family Inside” (《万科宝能之争：门口的野蛮人，背后的赵家人》), which covered the then recent attempt by real estate development company China Vanke to resist a takeover by the Baoneng Group. The article, published in December 2015, divided the Chinese capital market into a four-tiered hierarchy, with the Zhao family dignitaries sitting at the top.
A user on the question-and-answer site Zhihu offers a good summary of the terms as they apply to “volunteer fifty centers“, unremunerated pro-government online commentators:
In short: A “Zhao family member” is someone with a vested interest, someone who holds actual power, while a “Zhao in spirit” is someone who thinks they can benefit by association with those in power. “Zhao in spirit” in particular pokes fun at those who get excited about the military, who gaze at the flag and into the headwinds with tears in their eyes.
Ever since “volunteer fifty centers” became associated with the “fifty centers” in official language, and went from an insult to a term of praise, there’s been this linguistic counterattack: “Are you also worthy of the surname Zhao?”
自从“自干五”连带着“五毛”在官方语境影响下，从贬义成为中性乃至褒义后，“你也配姓赵？”是一个语言上的反击。” (June 24, 2015) [Chinese]
See also King Zhao’s enter key.