Anti-social and Anti-government Fighters: Chinese Cybercultures


In western countries, the deployment of the internet and online sharing platforms enables citizens to share opinions and facilitate the cultural transmission. With the development of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, the nature of cyberspace enhances its capacity in fostering common identities in difference subculture groups, which causes the widespread of user-generated contents emerging on social media channels. Recent, impacts of cyberculture have been demonstrated through the Arab Spring Revolution. Thousands of user generated contents are posted on Facebook and Twitter, which support protests and uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. These user generated contents, referring to text, images, videos and sound clips, serve to unify cyber users and create common consensus rather for enjoyment or entertainment. Social media, including Facebook and Twitter has played an important role in disseminating these contents and spreading messages to cyber citizens, and thus cyber politics and cyber culture may become an important factor in arousing the Arab Spring Revolution. Unlike western countries, Chinese social media channels have just established for a few years, of which nature is less mature than the westerns. However, user generated contents is booming with the increasing number of users. Cyberculture and cyberpolitic is inevitable for Chinese cyberspace. The emergent of the Chinese grassroots’ cyberculture is one of the most noticeable phenomena in Chinese cyberspace.

Background of Chinese Cyberspace and Social Media Channels

The Invention of World Wide World is a major development of immense historical significance. As Pippa (2001) pointed out, with the increasing number of online communities, the internet strengthened its capacity in transforming the way people live, work, and play, and more importantly, the internet shaped a networked world between industrialized countries and developing countries. The internet was introduced to China in the early of 1990s. Qiu (2004) stated China had its fully functional internet in 1994, which indicated that China had plans to build “Information Superhighway”. At that time, the Internet and computers were far more expensive than ordinary people could pay. Qiu (2004) pointed out the first BBS (Bulletin Board System) was launched and it was the first generation of online communities in China cyberspace. The internet and cyberspace in China play an important role in sharing information and delivering western values and cultures to mainland China even the firewall of China blocks tons of information. Especially, information about politics, human rights, and freedom are extremely popular and sensitive in Chinese cyberspace. Pippa (2001) indicated a force of human rights provided by the internet via global platforms was strictly controlled by Chinese government, which challenged autocratic regimes.

Social media channels reinforce the nature of Chinese cyberspace and offer Chinese users more opportunities to speak out their voice heard by more people. The first Chinese social media platform was called QQ, introduced in 1998. The earlier products of QQ focused on online chatting. With the new concept of social media introduce in late 2004, the Chinese government took actions on banning western social media websites and encouraged domestic IT companies to innovatively create or imitate existing western successfully products. Caizheng News (2012) gave the following examples: As a result, Renren, of which major users are college students, has been introduced in 2005, which has been named Chinese Facebook. Sinaweibo, the biggest and the most popular social media channel in China, was launched in August 2009, of which functions and appearance were similar to Twitter. Qzones, imitating Myspace, has been improved since 1995 with more than 4.7 million users. Foreign social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube have been blocked in mainland China.


Cyberculture and cyber language are largely determined by its internet and mobile net users. For instance, Susser (2008) pointed out the in the Arab Spring, younger generation who was born 20-30 years ago, with a degree from college and university, became active users in cyberspace and aroused people to fight against hopeless society by sharing common identity and transmitting new subgroup cultures on the internet. Similarly, Chinese cyberspace users have characteristics determining their subcultures and reflecting social issues.

First, Chinese cyberspace users are young adults. For example, DCCI (Data Center of China Internet) (2007) conducted a survey and pointed out that the majority of Chinese cyberspace users were between ages 19 to 25 and most of them have at least 8 years experiences in using internet.

Second, these users are active individuals in spreading messages and concerning about social and political issues. For instance, DCCI (2007) found that the two most important incentives for users to using the internet were news and blogging.

Third, most of these active users are living at the bottom in Chinese society, which are called the group young grassroots. DCCI (2012) pointed out that about 72% of Chinese cyber users did not receive a higher education and more than 60% of Chinese cyber users’ monthly incomes were less than 200 dollars


The emergent Chinese cyber culture changes and evolves in accordance with Chinese politics and economy. Yu (2007) pointed out, the nature of Chinese cyberspace, as a tool of political activism and a platform for democratization, effected on both macro and micro levels on Chinese cyber cultures. At the macro levels, Chinese freedom of speech is criticized by western countries because of composing strict censorship to media contents. Under such circumstance, cyberspace provides users comparatively private space for to make anonymous free speech commenting on recent domestic issues, sensitive topics, and blocked international information. At the micro levels, Chinese grassroots creates and disseminate their values and opinions to other subculture groups and user generated contents created by the group of grassroots are embedded with Chinese contemporary cultures. For instance, Yu (2007) indicated users of Chinese cyberspace intensively integrated their daily life into the Chinese cyberculture, which reinforced transmission of cybercultures.

Cyber Language

The key successful element of the prospering Chinese cyber culture underlies on cyber language used by the group of grassroots, which enables users to keep away from Chinese strict censorship. Consequently, one of the most important aspects of Chinese cyber language is to avoid censorship. For instance, as Yu (2007) indicated that Chinese cyber language is “a process of re-subjectification via mediated expression, social interaction, and circulation of their own media stories”, which reflected Chinese civilization. On the other hand, cyber language serves to facilitate the process of the hybridization of contemporary Chinese cultures. The process not only includes a hybridization of traditional Chinese language and modern Chinese language but also a hybridization of traditional Chinese rhetoric and English expressed forms. For instance, Bloch (2004) argued that cultural synchronization would force periphery cultures and local cultures creativity to evolve in accordance with centre cultural products. In the context of globalization, English and American cultural products can be viewed as centre cultural products around the world, which have great influences on Chinese cyber language.

As a tool to express social concerns and to enjoy the freedom of speech, Chinese grassroots cyber cultures, especially cyber language, have an anti-social and anti-politics inclination. Jordan (2001) summarized the relationships between language and politics in the cyberspace as the following: “Language and libertarianism are the structure and action of cyberspace”. The convergent point of language, libertarianism, and cyberspace is individual user in cyberspace. More than that, Susser (2008) illustrated that language and territory combing with nationalism became a vehicle of politics. In Chinese cyberspace, cyber language, embedded in cyber technology and constrained by firewalls, becomes a vehicle for Chinese politics in some extent.

Theoretical Frameworks

Hybridization of Language

Bakhtin (1981) first introduce “hybridization” through a model of language interaction. He described hybridization as “an utterance that belongs, by its grammatical and compositional markers to a single speaker, but that actually contains mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two ‘languages’, two semantic and axiological belief systems (pp. 304).”

And bring in to a new word by the head and shoulders, they leave out the old one.--Montaigne

Fromkin, Roman and Hugms (2002) introduced that addition of new words and borrowing or loaning words from other language would be two major methods to add new words for a certain language. In a language system, Fromkin, Roman and Hugms (2002) pointed out compounding and word coinage were used to create new words in order to describe new changes in technology, society, and humanity, etc…

Borrowing new words from other languages is a major causation of hybridization of language. Fromkin, Roman and Hugms (2002) stated:
“Borrowing occurs when one language adds a new word or morpheme from another language. The pronunciation of the borrowed item is often altered to fit the phonological rules of the borrowing language (pp.512).”
The remixed Chinese cyber language provides users more opportunities in expressing their opinions without being censored.

Rebus style

In linguistic study, Preston (1982) explained that the English literal rebus referred to using symbols such as pictures, to express the new phrase of word by using their sounds regardless of their meaning. He illustrated the literal rebus by using the following example: Can You see Well?

Preston (1982) indicated that “the linguistic definition of the rebus-principle which requires one symbol for each syllable; the example would fit that definition (pp. 110).”

With the development of information technology, the rebus principle of linguistic has been modified. In the realm of information technology, Prochasson, Viard-Gaudin, and Morin (2009) introduced the model of short message services (SMS) focused on how language developed and changed in order to fit the need of instant sharing and there were four composing styles for SMS including rebus style, consonant skeleton style, phonetic style, and mixed styles. In Chinese language system, rebus style is used the most. Prochasson, Viard-Gaudin, and Morin (2009) explained that rebus style was used to sprung up for time saving and fashion by using a single letter or digit to replace a whole word or a phrase. For instance, talk to you later can be expressed as ttyl.

Code, Private Language & Network

Castells (2004) introduced that codes of translation and inter-operability between the networks enabled groups and individuals to exchange information and break barriers between networks in a networked society powered by communication technology and he explained in the function of code in the realm of the network theory and communication theory.

In the network theory, Castells (2004) inserted that codes, rather than instructions, were object of genetic recombination strategies, which became common identity in networks. In the Chinese cyberspace, codes for being a network or a subculture group are important for users. The group of grassroots has an inclination to make sarcasm for the upper levels in society. Codes for these sub fans are well recognized. For instance, as Yu (2007) pointed out, the Chinese grassroots had shared common characteristics in a certain way to write their blogs and post comments.

In the realm of communication theory, Castells (2004) codes and ephemeral symbolic communications worked together to characterize the pattern of networking. The way that users encode information and language reflect symbolic meaning of cultures. Sitkin and Sutcliffe (1992) further explained the codes and their symbolic meaning in computer mediated communications and they pointed out that encoding and patterns of hypertext carried non verbal cues to delivery symbolic data from senders to receivers. Fulk (1993) introduced social construction of communication technology in order to demonstrate how social influences, especially work-groups influences in workplace, to alter individuals’ use of technology. Similarly, the way Chinese grassroots encode language has capacity to delivery Chinese contemporary cultures and sub culture, which is based on living experience of the grassroots.

Chinese cyberspace has two domains of users. For instance, as Yu (2007) pointed out the ordinary people and the government censorship office were two major players in Chinese cyberspace. One of the most important functions for Chinese users to encode language and patterns of expression is to escape the media censorship and to generate public private language. Ayer and Rhees defined private language as “a language may be said to be private when it is devised to enable a limited number of persons to communicate with one another in a way that is not intelligible to anyone outside the group” and he also argued that private language was only private when individuals did not take it into account – not meaning them.


Julia Kristeva (1986) introduced “intertextuality” that suggested any single text is a node in a networked of relationships to other texts, genres, and discourses. Understanding of meanings of words and texts requires previous experience and former relevant texts as precondition, and the future interpretation of texts are shaped by other texts as well.

In terms of cultural texts, Chinese cyber language and cyber cultures are also the secondary cultural products. The primary cultural products are original classic Chinese story, English words, news, etc. Given the nature of Chinese cyberspace, the secondary cultural products enable users to embed new meaning into existing cultural products such as main stream stories because the cyberspace private language assists users to escape the media censorships. On the other hand, users who receive Chinese cyber cultural products require understandings of original resources as well.


Niubility & Gelivable

Chinese buzzword has been invented by Chinese cyberspace sub fans, which has been used widely in the Chinese cyberspace. One of the major categories of Chinese buzzword is called Chinglish. Chinglish is a combination of two words: Chinese and English, which stands for a hybrid word influenced by both Chinese and English. Although Chinese official language is Mandarin, English influences Chinese contemporary cultures in the context of globalization. The diffusion of learning English facilitates the localization of English in China. The emergent of Chinglish is a phenomenon of the hybridization of language.

Chinese cyber users, especially the group of grassroots, create two categories for Chinglish. One is the unofficial English influenced by Chinese. This type of English is composed of English words but it doesn’t have valid sentence structures or English grammars. For instance, Chinese cyber users always say “Good Good Study, Day Day up (好好学习,天天向上)”, which means “learn harder and thus have a greater grade”. The Chinglish phrase is consisted of valid English words but lacks valid grammars. This type of Chinglish phrase is to translate Chinese to English by translating every single word without sentence structures. For instance, Good means “好” and study means “学习”. The other is the unofficial Chinese influenced by English and “Niubility” and “Gelivable” are examples of this type of Chinglish. “Niu” is an adjective Chinese word, which means extraordinary or excellent. “ility” can be seen at the end of English noun words, such as ability, utility, etc. Consequently, “Niubility” is a hybrid word combining both Chinese and English elements; however, it is neither a valid Chinese word nor a valid English word. Similarly "Gelivable" means cool, and thus "ungelivable" means not cheerful. "Geili" is Chinese pinyin that is regional dialect meaning cool or supportive.
Hybridization of language occurs when Chinese cyber users bring up new expression of reality. In the context of Chinese Shanzhai cultures, Chinese cybercultures has been influenced by the remixed pop cultures and symbolic meaning texts. Rather than high cultures, cybercultures focuses on the grassroots and their demands of low cultures. Instead of using well elaborated poetic words, cyber language invented by the grassroots is easy to understand in the context of Chinese Shanzhai cultures. The nature of cyberspace enables the hybrid cyber language to be well known by most Chinese people via the internet and mobile net. Although elite cultures argue such cyber language is not an appropriate use of language, that the mainstream media adopts cyber language in news reports demonstrates the value of the Chinese cyberculture. As Hao (2010), an editor of a linguistic magazine, said "We used to learn new words from TV shows in the old days, but now we read them first online and then see them on TV."

Private Center

Symbolic meaning pictogram and rebus style of message are booming in the Chinese cyberspace. In 2011, China has encountered several national social issues including “Guo Meimei-Red Cross Controversy Pissing Off Chinese Netizens”, “Chinese High-Speed Rail Disaster”, and so on. These national social issues arouse the grassroots awareness of their interests. More importantly, cyberspace, especially social media channels, becomes the major channels for the grassroots to express their anti-government and anti-social anger, which leads to a stricter media censorship in Chinese cyberspace. Under such circumstance, private language and symbolic pictogram are adopted by creative users. These private language include gunvernment(gun+government),Private center (community party),Ma De In China(Shit China),Shamehai (shame Shanghai),Antizen(people without housing, etc.

One of the most understanding inventions is called “Private Center”. Like other private code of language, “Private Center” is also applied to satirize the Chinese contemporary politics and society. Chinese grassroots writer, Han Han, posted a picture of a naked boy with coverage of his sexual organ that was in the middle area of the picture. He used this picture to protest Chinese media censorship on his new book. This picture, rather than a digital image, becomes a metaphor of anti-politics symbol in the Chinese cyberspace, which can also be viewed as simulacra - a image without reference to an original but meaning with symbols and signs. Like pop culture, cultural products of Chinese cyberspace have been reproduced by Chinese contemporary artists. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese political artist, influenced by the pictogram of “private center”, reproduced “private center” through performance arts with a highly and highly and openly critics of the Chinese Government's stance on democracy and human rights.




Chinese cyberculture, relying on booming social media channels in China, develops from a grassroots subculture to a mainstream remixed culture. In the context of globalization, Chinese cyberculture represents and reflects Chinese grassroots’ demands and voices. Constrained by Chinese media censorships and domestic politics, Chinese cyberculture serves to arouse the grassroots to fight against hegemonism and power. Rather than use violence, cyberculture adopts user generated contents including private language, codes, and symbolic pictogram to fight against for human rights and freedom. Cyberculture is a cultural product in the context of the special phrase of Chinese political, social, and economic period.

Private language and language encoding are key successful aspects for cybercultures to spread widely in mainland China. Appropriation from English and symbolic signs, private Chinese cyber language has its unique meaning in relevant to Chinese political status quo. Sarcasm is the goal for Chinese cyber users to creatively generate private language and symbolic pictogram.

Although, Grassroots cybercultures has been remixed into mainstream cultures in China, problems associated with the future of grassroots cybercultures remains to be answers. The booming of social media channels and Chinese domestic status quo are the primary precondition for Chinese grassroots cyberculture. What will happen to Chinese cyberculture and private language if China tends to be more open and have less media censorship? In the current stage, what other genres will be developed associated with the grassroots’ Chinese cyberculture? Are these cyberculures affecting and altering Chinese politics?


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