Fu Yuanhui, an ordinary Chinese female swimmer, was catapulted to fame during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. However, she won great success for exaggerated facial expressions rather than her performance in the competition.
Chinese Internet users combined her photos with suitable words and distilled them down into icons thick with meaning.
Fu’s icons gained popularity immediately. Even Tencent, the company that launched WeChat and QQ, released its own version of Fu’s icons. The swimmer’s splash reflected the popularity among young people in China for “biaoqing”, a phenomenon similar to memes abroad.
Biaoqing, literally, means “facial expression” in Chinese. In the mobile Internet era, biaoqing has become part of popular culture. The public recreate images of celebrities, animals or cartoon characters by adding sentences or by exaggerating the original images. A representative biaoqing is a melodramatic and funny picture, accompanied by a short but humorous sentence. In rare cases, one sentence alone can be a biaoqing.
Hyperbole is the most common strategy in biaoqings. Overblown words, theatrical gestures and exaggerated facial expressions are used to create comic effects. Funnily enough, the exaggerated, frantic images are in marked contrast to the stereotype of Chinese in real life. To some extent, biaoqing is a window to understand the Chinese recessive gene; a rich inner world is hidden behind the serious facial expressions.
Homophones are a common strategy as well. “Come on! You are the fattest”, is one of the most famous. The real meaning of the sentence is “Come on! You are the greatest”, but, as the pronunciation of “great” (“bang” in Chinese) is similar to that of “fat” (“pang”), Internet users play with them to create effects.
Yet, the most attractive feature of biaoqing is that its literal meaning can be quite different from the real meaning. If somebody wants to get the point, he or she must be familiar with the allusions and context. This duality creates irony and drama. “You are so smart”, sounds like praise but is actually an irony in the language of biaoqing. The real meaning of the sentence is, “stop showing off and don’t pretend to be smart anymore”. Through sending a biaoqing like this, you can express your thought through euphemism.
In most cases, incompatibility comes from context. However, in some cases, the same biaoqing can have different meaning to young people or their parents. These are so-called “biaoqings for the old”. Such biaoqings often use colourful glistening text such as those popular among older generations. If somebody sends you a biaoqing with such an image, the sender may be saying that you are boring and out-of-date. If you want to laugh at somebody, it would be appropriate to send him or her “a biaoqing for the old”.
The majority of biaoqings are home-made, with their originators lacking image processing skills. As a result, biaoqings are of poor quality. But the poor-quality pictures work well with the chatting atmosphere of the Internet and the corresponding sentences on the pictures. Gradually, high-quality pictures are deliberately being to made to appear of poor quality instead.
Not all words in biaoqing are elegant. By contrast, some of them are even curse words. One reason to explain this phenomenon is that the bulk go biaoqing users are young people, such as students. On one hand, users themselves are still in the process of learning languages, while on the other, rejecting official language can be viewed as a defiance of school and teachers.
Biaoqing is both a cultural and practical product. Above all, it is helpful and even necessary to use them for a pleasant conversation. Sending biaoqings is a good way to release one’s feelings, especially when when feeling low. Education teaches us not to express hot-blooded emotions, but if they can be vented through biaoqings, they will be accepted.
At present, biaoqing has become an indispensable tool for young Chinese netizens. Through their understanding, there is a new world waiting to be discovered.