Say What? Unraveling Chinese Internet Memes

What do “prehistoric powers,” “skinny blue mushroom,” “melon-eating masses,” and “chuanpu” have in common?

All made their debut as popular phrases on the Chinese internet in 2016. As the BBC’s Tessa Wong tells it, some initially appeared as gaffs and later took on a life of their own, while others were cleverly devised to get around the vigilant censors who stand ready to scrub Chinese cyberspace of anything that might be deemed politically sensitive.

A few have parallels to popular sayings in English. For most, however, any attempts at meaningful translation would be tortuous at best. Like the popular idioms, or cheng yu, that pepper much of Chinese everyday conversation, the only way to make sense of the phrase is knowing the story behind it.

The adorable Fu Yaunhai, who became China’s Olympic sweetheart last summer, coined the phrase “prehistoric powers” after she qualified for the swimming finals. In the days following she became as well known for her comical expressions during interviews as for her swimming ability, and was a favorite among netizens throughout China.

The second phrase mentioned above came from a video uploaded by a forlorn lover in Guangxi, whose accent rendered his words, “I want to cry” unintelligible to online viewers. They heard instead, “skinny blue mushroom,” a phrase that took off even as the man who uttered it became an online celebrity. 

A loose English equivalent of “melon-eating masses,” according to the BBC story, might be “popcorn gallery” (or perhaps “peanut gallery”), referring to the faceless multitudes who show up at public spectacles but who are clueless as to what is taking place.

The BBC article goes on to explain other memes, including “setting a small target,” “Uncle Toad,” and “Zhao” (a common surname used to criticize China’s rich and powerful).

Like Fu Yuanhai’s memorable phrase, many that were popular in 2016 will likely fade from the internet as others come into vogue. For the foreseeable future, however, we can expect to hear quite a bit about “chuanpu”, who has just become the 45th President of the United States. His name’s apparent connection to Sichuan province has spawned an online rumor that he was actually born there in 1946. So far no one has produced a birth certificate to disprove it.

Image credit: Entoloma hochstetteri by Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr.