By Qinan Li
NANJING, CHINA — Two Chinese idioms, yang chun bai xue and xia li ba ren, can be used to distinguish between different types of art. The former refers to high-class art, meaning art which can only be created, mastered, and appreciated by people who have received high levels of education. The latter means popular works, or mass art. There is no strict definition of art, so pinning down its origins is difficult, but the origination of language can be more closely tracked. Language is one of the most universal art forms, used every day by almost everyone.
中国，南京 — 中文里有两个成语，即“阳春白雪”与“下里巴人”。它们可用以指代两种不同类型的艺术。前者指的是不通俗的艺术，暗指少数的且受过高等教育或者精英教育的人可以创造、掌握与欣赏的艺术。后者指的是通俗的艺术作品，意指大众艺术。由于人们对艺术的定义百家纷说，其具体诞日我们难以确定。但我们所使用的种种语言和文字都具有更强的可溯源性。而且语言是最普世的艺术之一，几乎所有人每天都在运用着它。
It may be said that productivity is the troika of civilization, both accelerating and being accelerated by industrial revolutions. Yet even as China has become more economically productive in recent decades, Chinese yang chun bai xue – elegant language – has been fading. The wane of elegant language has occurred in several countries, but the Chinese case is notable because language is one of the most profound links between the present day and China’s ancient cultural heritage. Chinese society should protect elegant language and seek to reverse its decline, especially among young people.
Elegant language is an expressive type of language to which people must dedicate time, resources and effort in order to master. Contrary to popular misconceptions, elegant language is not necessarily an abstruse, wordy, or convoluted dialect.
Technology is fueling the decline of elegant language in China. Abbreviations of pinyin have become more and more popular. For instance, YYDS, XSWL, PYQ, and ZQSG – acronyms representing the pinyin version of the Chinese phrases yongyuan de shen (someone performs almost perfect every time), xiao si wo le (really funny), pengyou quan (Wechat Moments), and zhen qing shi gan (genuine) – have become common parlance in Chinese-language cyberspace. These abbreviations resemble acronyms like LOL and ROFL in English-language social media but actually go a step further. Chinese is a logographic language, and pinyin – the Romanized version of Chinese characters – is already a digression from the original language. The most efficient computer typing systems are based on pinyin, so young people today who were born into the digital world are alienated from their language to an unparalleled degree.
Sometimes, entire sentences are abbreviated into groupings of four syllables. Four-character phrases cannot be equated with idioms. The biggest and indispensable feature of the former is that all four characters are selected from the original sentence. For example, lei jue bu ai is composed of four characters, which comes from hen lei, gan jue bu hui ai le. However, the four characters in traditional sayings are often not selected and combined from the Chinese characters in the sentences they express. It’s reasonable and inevitable that the digital age tends to produce more concise and efficient communication methods, but many of these have digressed into stereotyped expressions. We should eschew these stereotyped expressions, not thoughtful and orderly expressions of language.
Both popular trendsetters and typical social media users perpetuate these changes in language, the former through star power and the latter through replication. On Chinese media platofrms such as Weibo, Red Book, and Tik Tok, the vast majority of young people follow at least one “Big V” – a high-profile online celebrity or account. The way these “Big V”s express themselves on platforms is often imitated by their fans, who collectively spread this language across the internet. For example, YYDS reached ultra-high exposure when some ‘Big V’s used it in their evaluations of popular Chinese reality shows.
This phenomenon prompts several questions: What does the rise of internet celebrities mean for the future of media? Will internet celebrities influence the opions and attitudes of people outside of social media in the same way they influence how people express themselves? If social media users are participating in a form of media which can influence public life, should we standardize our content (i.e., decrease the prevalence of harmful content such as of pornography and violence ) and their expression (i.e., our language)?
Fast-paced society promotes fast-paced language. The popularity of living life in a more individualistic and utilitarian way – that is, only doing things that benefit oneself – makes people meaner and meaner vis-à-vis their language. Some view elegant language as a high-cost, low-reward luxury which requires too much time, resources, and energy to master. Other critics view elegant language as a privilege reserved for aristocrats, and thus as a manifestation of class divisions. In this view, elegant language is a tool of oppression, and the aspiration to master elegant language is class betrayal.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, elegant language still has special value in modern society. It is diversified language expression which reflects the humanistic spirit. Elegant language contains order and rationality; it can show the level of a community’s civility, as the degree of a society’s sophistication is often reflected by the language expression of its residents. The memory of social history also hides between the lines of elegant language, especially in places like China with rich literary histories. On an individual level, individuals can improve their communication skills by learning elegant language.
Critics of elegant language argue that times have changed and the will of the majority is best, so we should let elegant language extinguish by itself. This is not a wise choice. As cybserspace permeates our lives more and more every day, our written expressions on the internet have extended to the non-cyber world. This trend is deeply impactful because language and thought influence each other in subtle yet profound ways. The widespread use of abbreviations and simplifications is making it more and more difficult for people to remember the original words, phrases, and historical memory underpinning their language. Just as the Newspeak Dictionary in George Orwell’s 1984 decreases the richness of expression, helping a governing group to control people’s thoughts, the simplification of complex expression in modern society will inevitably lead to the decline of our thinking and public discourse. Although science and technology are advancing, human thinking could regress to pre-Enlightenment levels. Thus, the most fundamental reason to give elegant language spaces to flourish on the internet is to protect the freedom of human thought in the internet age.
Imagine standing on the bank of the Yellow River, and you can only conjure the words “big river.” Imagine leaning on the bank and looking at the sea, but only the words “big sea” arise in your mind. Wouldn’t it feel a bit unsatisfactory? We should take joy in elegant language, recognizing its romantic and descriptive beauty. Whenever you see magnificent mountains and rivers, and whenever you meet the people you love, may you vividly and charmingly express the endless, surging fluctuations of abstract emotions in your heart, even if you can’t express them out loud.
Qinan Li is reporting from Nanjing, China.