Chengyu for Xi Jinping’s New Era (Part 2): Malice, Ducks, and Human Resources

Xi Jinping’s New Era has inspired the creation of a host of “new chengyu”: idiomatic, often four-character, literary expressions that are the kernel of a larger tale. New Era chengyu are references to infamous incidents that have taken place under Xi’s rule, either satirical twists on classic phrases or new coinages that fit the form. Two weeks ago, CDT published Part 1 of the series, introducing the phrases: “Yunhao Blocks the Plow (云浩止耕, Yúnhào zhǐ gēng),” a reference to the brash thuggery of some rural cadres; “Ji Doesn’t Know the Law (纪不懂法, Jì bù dǒng fǎ),” a lament about the lack of rule of law; “Repaying Debt With Prison Time (以刑化债, yǐ xíng huà zhài),” on fiscally distressed local governments’ novel debt repayment strategies; “Calculating Damages by Lantern-Light (提灯定损, tídēng dìng sǔn),” on nickel-and-diming landlords; and “Fishing the High Seas (远洋捕捞, yuǎnyáng bǔlāo),” about predatory “for-profit” policing. 

While the previous post’s chengyu focused primarily on economic pain, this week’s sampling references a diffuse range of complaints ranging from official “gaslighting,” to the natalist pressure campaign aimed at women, to draconian zero-COVID rhetoric:

Point at a Rat and Call it a Duck (指鼠为鸭, zhǐ shǔ wèi yā)

Reproduce, Reproduce—Without Rest (生生不息, shēngshēng bù xī)

Malicious Homecoming (恶意返乡, èyì fǎnxiāng)

Point at a Rat and Call it a Duck (指鼠为鸭, zhǐ shǔ wèi yā)

In 2023, a student at a Jiangxi university found a rat’s head in their cafeteria food. After a photo of the rat’s head went viral, a local official claimed—to widespread ridicule and mockery—that the “foreign object” in the student’s food was actually a duck’s neck, a local delicacy. That claim birthed the chengyu “point at a rat and call it a duck,” a criticism of official willingness to blatantly lie to, or “gaslight,” the public. The phrase is a play on the traditional chengyu “point at a deer and call it a horse” (指鹿为马, zhǐ lù wéi mǎ), which dates back to the Qin Dynasty and means to deliberately misrepresent something. The original chengyu has also become newly relevant due to a recent burst in cases of nationalists rousing anti-Japanese sentiment by inventing evidence of Japanese infiltration. In a recent example, a nationalist deceptively cropped an advertisement that featured a traditional Chinese fan to make it appear to be the “rising sun” flag of the Imperial Japanese Army. 

“Point at a rat and call it a duck” is a sensitive phrase in China. When the phrase first went viral, some Taobao vendors attempted to capitalize on it by creating cute toys featuring a rat-duck hybrid creature. Taobao took the toys off shelves, a sign of their political salience. While the officials responsible for the incident were eventually punished, the phrase lives on in netizen slang as an allusion to the mendacity of officials.  

Reproduce, Reproduce—Without Rest (生生不息, shēngshēng bù xī)

In response to China’s population decline, the Chinese Communist Party has launched a natalist campaign aimed at pressuring women to have more children. To-date, the campaign has used a mix of shaming tactics against childless couples, incentivizing marriage, and relentless propaganda to encourage more births. The reasons for China’s demographic decline are complicated. Although births began decreasing before the institution of the One Child Policy in the late 1970s, it clearly had a profound impact on the decision to have children or not. Economic factors matter too: China has the world’s second highest cost of raising children. Contemporary politics cannot be discounted either: “We are the last generation,” a quote from an infamous incident during the 2022 Shanghai lockdown, has become a slogan for China’s disenchanted—framing the choice not to have children as an expression of political dissatisfaction. 

Enter this latest chengyu, “reproduce, reproduce—without rest,” a dark reframing of a classic that literally means something akin to “be fruitful and multiply” but is often used to praise resilience in the face of adversity. The WeChat account “Encyclopedia of Tasteless Chinese Jokes” (中式没品笑话百科, zhōngshì méi pǐn xiàohuà bǎikē) gave the chengyu’s new definition as: “A description of determined youth who proactively respond to the strategic imperatives of an aging country by maintaining China’s population resources.” The clunky language mimics the often jargony propaganda around increasing the birth rate. The heart of the anger over the government’s pronatalist campaign stems from this last line “population resources.” Many view the population push as an effort to have more humans to exploit for economic and political power, an anger captured in the viral term “humineral,” a portmanteau of a portmanteau of “person” and “ore/mineral” in the original Chinese. 

Malicious Homecoming (恶意返乡, èyì fǎnxiāng)

A particularly infamous chengyu is “malicious homecoming,” a legacy of China’s zero-COVID policy. In 2022, a county official in Henan lambasted migrant laborers hoping to head home for the Spring Festival holidays, warning them: “First you’ll be put into quarantine, and then you’ll be arrested,” without regard to their vaccination status or test results. The county also issued a press release accusing such travelers of partaking in “malicious homecomings.” Spring Festival is often the only time migrant laborers are able to return home to see family and friends. The use of “malicious” instantly went viral. One Weibo user joked, “After maliciously demanding our unpaid wages, we maliciously return to our hometowns.” 

The government’s pandemic usage of “malicious” to characterize previously innocuous activities as somehow nefarious sparked outrage. In August 2022, it again went viral after police arrested four Jiangxi men for “malicious mourning” after they evaded lockdown to attend an elderly family member’s funeral. In November 2022, Xinjiang’s cyberspace regulator announced an investigation into three men for “maliciously commenting” on a COVID-related press conference without detailing the nature of the comments, which were likely aimed at raising awareness of the harsh Urumqi lockdown. (In September 2022, a leaked censorship directive revealed that authorities were fighting a “smokeless war” against online discussion of the lockdowns in Xinjiang.)

The phrase has been appropriated as a stock attack on government rhetoric. After China’s botched evacuation of its citizens from Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, one Weibo user expressed their frustration with censorship of criticism of the evacuation effort by turning around the government’s favorite phrase: “Malicious screenshots, malicious compilation, malicious satire. Malicious exposure of past humiliations, malicious Weibo posting. No screenshots! No compilation! No satire! No exposing past humiliations! No Weibo posting! No malice at all!!! No breathing! No resistance!”


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