Words of the Week: Xi’s Obscure Nicknames, from ↗↘↗ to “2-4-2” to “N” to “n-butane” 

With hundreds of documented (and censored) online sobriquets, Xi Jinping is arguably the most nicknamed leader in recent Chinese history. To stay ahead of the censors, online Chinese have long resorted to using homophones, variant characters, intentional typos, and a range of typographical tricks when referring to China’s “core” leader.

Over time, as evading online censorship has become more difficult, the nicknames have trended toward the abstruse. When a recent “Soviet-style” joke about a man asking a genie to “make blah-blah-blah blah-blah-blah” went viral, the first string of three nonsense syllables were interpreted by many to mean “Xi Jinping,” and the second was thought to mean something like “hurry up and die” or “step down soon.” Despite the vagueness of the joke, references to it were quickly censored on social media and the original poster (@怪以德服人猫) had their account summarily deleted from Weibo for allegedly violating platform policy.

Even the tonal marks used in Xi Jinping’s name (习近平, Xí Jìnpíng) have become a roundabout way to refer to him online. In May of 2023, Chinese Twitter and social media was abuzz about a sequence of three arrows ↗↘↗ said to represent the three tones (second/rising tone, fourth/falling tone, and second/rising tone, respectively) in Xi Jinping’s name. This usage had originated with a screenshot, purportedly from QQ, showing a post that read: “You know what’s depressing? When random netizens who do your job as a hobby are smarter and more competent than you.” Someone in the comments section had responded, “Those keyboard warriors are more competent than ↗↘↗.” Many who read the comment were shocked and amused that they managed to correctly interpret the three arrows as a reference to Xi Jinping, although others had to ask, “Can anyone explain this?” Among the comments of those in the know: “I understood that!” “How was I able to read that? Someone save me,” “God, I’ve been pronouncing it →↘→ all this time, guess my Mandarin isn’t that good,” and “I got it at first glance. Does this mean I’m going to hell?”

Image shows the tonal marks for the three Chinese characters in Xi Jinping’s name. The order of the tones is rising (2nd tone), falling (4th tone), and rising (2nd tone). 

That particular combination of tones, of course, can correspond to many other names, including Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛, Péng Lìyuán), the Chinese soprano and wife of Xi Jinping; Wang Huning (王沪宁, Wáng Hùníng), political theorist and current chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; or even Voldemort (伏地魔, Fúdìmó), the antagonist in the Harry Potter novels. But the general consensus is that ↗↘↗ and its variants “2-4-2” (meaning “second tone, fourth tone, second tone”) and “N” (whose three lines are thought to look similar to ↗↘↗) all refer to China’s top leader. Another emerging Xi nickname is “n-butane,” whose chemical line-angle formula somewhat resembles the three tonal marks or an elongated “N.”

A diagram showing the chemical structure of n-butane, composed of four methylene (CH2) molecules connected by three lines, which resembles an elongated “N.”

As the creatively piquant online nicknames of yesteryear—including such classics as Winnie the Pooh, Steamed Bun Xi, Foreskin Xi, and Xissolini—are censored and fall into disuse, they are replaced by ever more abstruse symbols and esoteric references. Xi nicknames continue to proliferate, with new incarnations (literally “new skin,” 新皮肤, xīn pífū) appearing constantly. Some joke that eventually these monikers will be reduced to blank spaces, much like the eloquently blank pieces of paper displayed by protesters during the 2022 White Paper Protests. That said, it seems likely that for as long as Xi Jinping remains in power, the busy trade in variant Xi nicknames will continue to boom.

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