Last week saw the release of the eleventh edition of the mammoth Xinhua Dictionary, China's official compendium of the Mandarin language. Available in hardcover and softcover, with an e-version in the works, the 711-page tome is the world's best-selling reference book, with over 400 million copies printed since it launched in 1953.
This edition includes slang and online terminology for the first time -- remarkable for an official Chinese publication for which informal language has long been prohibited. Indeed, the Xinhua Dictionary has always been a guide to what's new and modern in China, but a few steps behind, aimed more at the masses less aware of the cutting edge. In the early days, it was like the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary rolled into one, teaching a mostly illiterate country about everything from umbrellas to fertilizer to how to write the word "pigeon." A 1971 edition, published at the height of the Cultural Revolution, contained 46 of Mao's proclamations, which many readers already knew by heart. Today, competing publishers release numerous alternative dictionaries, but the Xinhua edition remains a staple of most schools.
In many languages, there are disagreements about whether dictionaries should standardize how language should be used, or reflect how language is used. The Xinhua Dictionary contains far more words that actually reflect how language is used than in previous editions, yet it still omits sensitive entries. There is unsurprisingly no entry for the Tiananmen Massacre, but it also leaves out shengnv ("Leftover Ladies" a common term which refers to ageing, unmarried women) and the reappropriation of the word "comrade" to mean gay. "We abandoned these words because it's kind of rude to label this group," Jiang Lansheng, a linguistics expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was responsible for the revisions, told Chinese Central Television.
So what does the new edition, compiled over seven years and featuring more than 3,000 new words and expressions, include? Many of the new entries are deeply vernacular, originating from Internet memes, tabloid scandals, and other informal sources. Some, like boke (blog), and tuangou (online group shopping, along the lines of Groupon) reflect today's new, digital world. Others, like fenqing (nationalists, literally "angry youth") and xiangjiao ren (banana person, which usually refers to Chinese-Americans -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside -- though unlike in the United States this is not pejorative), are names for new social categories and subcultures that have emerged. The seven words below offer insights into the movements and preoccupations of today's China.