How the “yin-yang tone” of Chinese netizens turns praise into criticism and sincerity into satire
Long gone are the days when netizens would say, “Wow, you are so awesome (哇，你好厉害 Wā, nǐ hǎo lìhai)!” and actually mean it, or when an emoji of a smiling face would truly convey a sense of joy. Now, those expressions that are supposed to share kindness may indicate the exact opposite.
This new viral rhetorical technique is called the “yin-yang tone (阴阳怪气 yīnyáng guàiqì),” or “yygq,” an abbreviation of its pinyin spelling, by netizens.
The “yygq” style always looks positive and kind, but often conveys a contradictory meaning, such as satire, discontent, despisement, or even anger. Much akin to passive aggressiveness, it leaves the reader to decode the ambiguous attitude.
The origin of the chengyu 阴阳怪气 is difficult to track, but some say it comes from the 1940 play ”Peking Man (《北京人》)” written by Cao Yu (曹禺): “Which one of them wants to please me? Which one is not being hypocritical? (他们哪一个是想顺我的心？ 哪一个不是阴阳怪气？ Tāmen nǎ yí gè shì xiǎng shùn wǒ de xīn? Nǎ yí gè bú shì yīnyáng guàiqì).”
Becoming a “yin-yang person (阴阳人 yīnyángrén),” one who is adept at speaking the ”yygq” tone, is pretty easy. The simplest way is to add modal particles such as 呢 (ne), 呀 (ya), and 啊 (a) to each sentence, like 是的呀 (Shì de ya, Yes), which may mean “isn’t that obvious?” or 好的呢 (Hǎo de ne, Sure) and 可以呀 (Kěyǐ ya, Okay, I can), indicating “I really don’t want to, but given you’ve asked, fine.” 再见呢 (Zàijiàn ne, See you) implies “I don’t want to see you again,” and 这你都知道呢 (Zhè nǐ dōu zhīdào ne, You know this) means “It is really a simple question that doesn’t require any thought.”
If the personal pronoun 你 (nǐ) in the sentence is replaced by the more respectful 您 (nín) or its homophone 宁 (níng), the language will be more ironic: “对对对，您说的都对 (Duì duì duì, nín shuō de dōu duì, Sure, sure, sure, you are right about everything),” or “You are so great (宁好棒棒哦 Níng hǎo bàngbàng o)!” may indicate: “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to argue.”
In many circumstances, “yygq” is used to “openly (and exaggeratedly) praise, but privately criticize (明夸暗贬 míngkuā ànbiǎn).” Another method is to post rhetorical questions (反问 fǎnwèn). For example, 不会吧不会吧 (Bú huì ba bú huì ba, Really, really)?” or “就这 (Jiùzhè, That’s it)?” Just imagine if you tell a story enthusiastically to your friend, only to receive a reply like “Really? Really?” You may have nothing to say but: “You are truly an experienced yin-yang person (老阴阳人了, Lǎo yīnyángrén le).”
The novel usage of emojis adds more possibilities to “yygq.” Smiling emojis can now imply attitudes that are not so pleasant. Netizens call the simple smiling emoji the “dead smiling face (死亡微笑表情 sǐwáng wēixiào biǎoqíng),” shadowing other slang sentences: “Smiling on the outside, cursing on the inside (表面笑嘻嘻，心里妈卖批 Biǎomiàn xiàoxīxī, xīnli māmàipī).” 妈卖批 is a vulgar expression in Chinese originating from dialect of Sichuan.
Digging deeper into the literature, “yygq” speaking style was not solely invented by netizens. Lin Daiyu, the principal character in Cao Xueqin’s (曹雪芹) classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber (《红楼梦》), is the “master of yygq (阴阳怪气界的一把好手 yīnyáng guàiqì jiè de yì bǎ hǎoshǒu).” When complaining about the bond between her true love Jia Baoyu and rival Xue Baochai, the hyper-sensitive Lin says: “I can’t compare with Cousin Baochai and her gold and jade. I’m just as common as any plant or tree (比不得宝姑娘，什么金什么玉的，我们不过是个草木之人罢了 Bǐbudé Bǎo Gūniáng, shénme jīn shénme yù de, wǒmen búguò shì gè cǎomù zhī rén bàle).” Lu Xun (鲁迅), the 20th-century author renowned for his satire and irony, wrote many “yygq” sentences, including a sarcastic comment on the conventional appearance of students during the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911): “It really was a charming sight (实在标致极了 Shízài biāozhì jí le).” Today, netizens often use this phrase to describe anything unpleasant.
Able to spread their views far and wide online but still restricted by regulations in cyberspace, netizens want to ”dis (怼 duì)” annoying things they encounter, awful acquaintances, or comments they dislike, but still need to uphold basic manners. They are eager to learn: “How can educated people swear at others (有文化的人是怎么骂人的 Yǒu wénhuà de rén shì zěnme mà rén de)?”
With increasingly “yygq” comments burgeoning online, netizens ask each other: “An inquiry from deep within your soul: Have you spoken decently today (来自灵魂的拷问：你今天好好说话了吗 Láizì línghún de kǎowèn: Nǐ jīntiān hǎohǎo shuōhuà le ma)?”
Overwhelming “yygq” on the internet sometimes even leaves no room for genuine kindness, forcing netizens to add the following disclaimer statement after their praise to show their sincerity: “There is no hostility in my speech. I only convey the literal meaning without sarcasm or implication. It only represents my personal opinion and does not intend to cause controversy or occupy public resources. If this comment offends you, I sincerely apologize (并无敌意，仅表达字面含义无讽刺、暗示意味，仅代表个人观点并无意引发论战及占领公共资源，若本回复冒犯到您，我诚挚表示歉意 Bìng wú díyì, jǐn biǎodá zìmiàn hányì wú fěngcì, ànshì yìwèi, jǐn dàibiǎo gèrén guāndiǎn bìng wúyì yǐnfā lùnzhàn jí zhànlǐng gōnggòng zīyuán, ruò běn huífù màofàn dào nín, wǒ chéngzhì biǎoshì qiànyì).”
But even that convoluted phrase is often meant as satire. These days, there’s no escaping the yin-yang tone online.