After a month of online voting, expert judging and online squabbling, China’s “Character of the Year” was finally selected, and, ironically enough, it was a character with no concrete meaning at all: 被 (bèi). On its own, it’s a boring, functional word—a particle for passive voice sentences; it can also mean “blanket.” Yet events this year made it surprisingly popular.
Voters and judges sifted through 1519 nominees to select China’s “Word of the Year,” “民生” (mínshēng, “people’s livelihood”).
The prize for “International Character of 2009” was awarded to “浮” (fú, to float); not surprisingly, “金融危机” (jīnróng wēijī, or “financial crisis”) walked away with the honor of “International Word of 2009.” For the past four years, the annual “Word of the Year” competition has been held by The Commercial Press, along with the education arm of sina.com and the Online Sub-center of the State Language Commission. The public are urged to submit words and characters that they feel best represent the past year. This year, from Jan. 4 to Feb. 6, 942 characters and 359 words were nominated to represent China, and 84 characters and 149 words were nominated to represent the globe.
So why did 被 get the top honors? On its own, this little guy is used to indicate the passive voice, like the “be” in “be attacked,” or the “-ed” in “scolded”. Bei can be used to create sentences like “wo bei da le” (“我被打了,” or “I was beaten up”). From these two examples you can see—it didn’t always have good connotations. Also, traditionally it was considered taboo to use 被 when writing.
But in 2009, bei got a lot of use. It was a year in which China felt like it had been repeatedly affected by outside forces and made a passive actor. Thus, the term “被时代” (bèi shídài), or “the era of being something-ed”) was born. In 2009, a lot of people had been “bei-ed,” and there was lots of “bei-ing” going around.
For example, this year China was grouped with the USA as one half of the G2. The prevailing Chinese sentiment was that this was unfair—China is still developing, they argued, and isn’t really on par with the USA. China felt that it had no say in whether it was to be a part of the G2 or not. In other words, they felt that they have “被G2,” or, literally, “been G2-ed.”
“民生” (mínshēng, “People’s livelihood”,) is actually a two-time winner, having also taken “Word of the Year” in 2007, and then losing out to “和” (hé, harmony) in 2008. Experts explained that “民生” has a warm ring to it, and evokes strong emotions. This last year, the country put a lot of time and energy into building rural infrastructure, increasing employment, developing a rural and urban welfare system, giving support to seniors, continuing post-disaster reconstruction and protecting the environment. So it’s not hard to see why a concept like “people’s livelihood” is on would be a favorite word.
The International Character winner “浮” (fú, “to float”) was chosen because it reflects China’s online reaction to global affairs this year. World issues were constantly changing and unavoidable—it felt like they were floating in the air. So the word, 浮, stuck. The International “Word of the Year” was “金融危机” jīnróng wēijī, “financial crisis”)—it should be clear why.
Other prominent new words included popular Internet slang. There was 牛 (niú), literally meaning “cow,” but popularly used as “awesome.” “哥” (gē) once meant “big brother”, but now is frequently heard in place of “me” or “I.” 蜗居 (wōjū) is a popular new word which means “humble abode.” It’s from a hit TV show of the same name, about young people struggling to deal with the price of accommodation in China’s cities, became a popular term.
And finally, if you’ve read our “Jia Junpeng” article, you won’t be surprised about the final two words that were highlights: “杯具” (bēijù, cups—a homophone for “tragedy”) and “寂寞” (jìmò, loneliness).