“Meng? It Just Means Cute”: A Chinese Online Vernacular Term in Context

Gabriele de Seta


fig. 1:

Fig. 1: "Xiao Ming (little Ming) and xiao meng (little sprout/cutie)", satirical take on a popular Chinese textbook character. Shared online

Introduction: Cuteness, Online Vernaculars, and Digital Folklore

This short essay presents some preliminary materials for a discussion of the social circulation of contemporary Chinese vernacular terms among digital media users. In particular, I present the word meng (萌, literally "sprout", recently adopted as a slang term for "cute") as a case in point for a contextual analysis of elements of digital folklore in their transcultural flows, local appropriations, and social practices of signification. One among many other neologisms that enter Mandarin Chinese from seemingly nowhere and gain a widespread popularity in everyday online and offline linguistic practices, meng belongs to a specific genealogy of Japanese animation fansubbing communities, and owes its rapid popularisation to its adaptation to local contexts in different syntactic forms. The resulting inclusion of meng in the changing repertoire of wangluo liuxing ciyu ("words popular on the Internet")—the online vernacular common among Chinese Internet users which is often the target of semantic or structural analyses—is in fact just the last step of processes of networked production and social signification happening across digital media and online platforms.

As an anthropologist of media use, I aim to advance the thesis that, in the context of widespread access to digital media, vernacular terms popularised across online platforms and making their way into everyday linguistic interactions are not necessarily the epiphenomena of subcultural formations, nor can they be simply seen as imported aesthetics, or understood through semantic analyses. Rather, “words popular on the Internet” must be understood as part of a local digital folklore, the open repertoire of vernacular content resulting from the daily interaction of users and digital technologies (Lialina & Espenschied 9) in a complex and situated media ecology (Fuller). I argue that the difference between these two approaches is the same passing between a classical structural understanding of signification proposed by Lévi-Strauss and the counter-Copernican revolution proposed by Latour’s quasi-objects proliferating in collectives of actors. Are incredibly pervasive terms like meng actually devoid of meaning, floating signifiers enabling the very possibility of signification? Or are they rather more useful when understood as both signifiers and signifieds, quasi-objects tracing networks and leading to collectives of other hybrids and practices?

The materials and observations presented in this essay are part of the data collected for my PhD research on Chinese digital folklore, a study grounded on both ethnographic and archaeological methods. The ethnographic part of my project consists of in-depth interviews, small talk and participant observation of users on several Chinese online platforms such as AcFun, Baidu Tieba, Douban, Sina Weibo and WeChat (Hine). The archaeological part, on the other hand, focuses on the sampling of user-generated content from individual feeds and histories of these online platforms, an approach closer to the user-focused Internet archaeology of Nicholson than to the media archaeology of Parikka. My choice of discussing the term meng as an example is motivated by its pervasiveness in everyday interactions in China, and is supported by my informants identifying it as one of the most popular vernacular terms originating in online interaction. Moreover, as a rather new term jostling its way through the crowded semantic spectrum of cuteness, meng is a good example of the minor aesthetic concepts identified by Ngai as pivotal for judgments of taste in contemporary consumer societies (812).

If, as in the words of one of my informants, meng "just means 'cute'," why did it end up on Coca-Cola bottle labels which were then featured in humorous self-portraits with perplexed cats?

fig. 2:

Fig. 2: "Meng zhu" (Cute leader, play on word on homophone “alliance leader”) special edition Coca-Cola bottle with cat, uploaded on Douban image gallery. Screenshot by the author

Cuteness after Japan

Contemporary Japan is often portrayed as the land of cuteness. Academic explanations of the Japanese fascination with the cute, neotenic and miniaturised abound, tackling the topic from the origins of cute aesthetics in Japanese folkloric characters (Occhi) and their reappearance in commercial phenomena such as Pokémon (Allison), to the role of cuteness as gender performance and normativity (Burdelski & Mitsuhashi) and the "spectacle of kawaii" (Yano 681) as a trans-national strategy of cultural soft power (683). Although the export and localisation of Japanese cultural products across and beyond Asia has been widely documented (Iwabuchi), the discussion has often remained at the level of specific products (comics, TV series, games). Less frequently explored are the repertoires of recontextualised samples, snippets and terms that local audiences piece together after the localisation and consumption of these transnational cultural products. In light of this, is it the case that "the very aesthetic and sensibility that seems to dwell in the playful, the girlish, the infantilized, and the inevitably sexualized" are inevitably adopted after the "widespread distribution and consumption of Japanese cute goods and aesthetics to other parts of the industrial world" (Yano 683)? Or is it rather the case that language precedes aesthetics, and that terms end up reconfigured according to the local discursive contexts in ongoing dialogic and situated negotiations?

In other words, what happens when the Japanese word moe (萌え), a slang term "originally referring to the fictional desire for characters of comics, anime, and games or for pop idols” (Azuma 48) is read in its Mandarin Chinese pronunciation meng by amateur translators of anime and manga, picked up by audiences of video streaming websites, and popularised on discussion boards and other online platforms? On a broader level, this is a question of how the vocabularies of specialised fan cultures mutate when they move across language barriers on the vectors of digital media and amateur translations. While in Japanese otaku culture moe indicates a very specific, physically arousing form of aesthetic appreciation that is proper to a devote fan (Azuma 57), the appropriation of the (originally Chinese) logograph by the audiences of dongman (animation and comics) products in Mainland China results in the general propagation of meng as a way of saying 'cute' slightly more fashionable and hip than the regular Mandarin word ke'ai. Does this impact on the semantics or the aesthetics of cuteness in China?

These questions have not been ignored by researchers; Chinese academics in particular, who have a first-hand experience of the unpredictable moods of vernacular terms circulating from digital media user cultures to everyday life interactions, appear concerned with finding linguistic explanations or establishing predictors for these rogue terms that seem to ignore lexical rules and traditional etymologies. Liu, for example, tries to explain the popularity of this particular term through Dawkins' neo-Darwinian theorisation of memes as units of cultural transmission, identifying in meng the evolutionary advantages of shortness and memorisability. As simplistic treatments of language, this sort of explanations does not account for the persistence of various other ways of describing general and specific kinds of cuteness in Mandarin Chinese, such as ke'ai, dia or sajiao, as described by Zhang & Kramarae (767).

On the other hand, most of the Chinese language research about meng at least acknowledges how the word appears under the sign of a specific media ecology: Japanese comics and animation (dongman) translated and shared online by fan communities, Japanese videogames and movies widely consumed by Chinese young audiences, and the popularisation of Internet access and media literacy across China. It is in this context that this and other neologisms "continuously end up in the latest years' charts of most popular words" (Bai 28, translation by the author), as vernacular Mandarin integrates words from digital media user cultures and online platforms.

Similar comparative analyses also recognise that "words move faster than culture" (Huang 15, translation by the author), and that it is now young Chinese digital media users who negotiate their understanding of meng, regardless of the implications of the Japanese moe culture and its aesthetic canons (16). According to Huang, this process indicates on the one hand the openness and curiosity of Chinese youth for Japanese culture, and on the other "the 'borrowist' tendency of the language of Internet culture" (18). It is precisely the speed and the carefree ‘borrowist’ attitude with which these terms are adopted, negotiated and transformed across online platforms which makes it questionable to inscribe them in the classic relationship of generational resistance such as the one that Moore proposes in his treatment of ku, the Chinese word for 'cool' described as the "verbal icon of a youth rebellion that promises to transform some of the older generation's most enduring cultural values" (357).

As argued in the following section, meng is definitely not the evolutionary winner in a neo-Darwinian lexical competition between Chinese words, nor occupies a clear role in the semantics of cuteness, nor is it simply deployed as an iconic and rebellious signifier against the cultural values of a previous generation. Rather, after reaching Chinese digital media audiences along the "global wink of pink globalization" (Yano 684) of Japanese animation, comics, movies and videogames, this specific subcultural term diffracts along the vectors of the local media ecology. Specialised communities of translators, larger audiences of Japanese animation streaming websites, larger populations of digital media users and ultimately the public at large all negotiate meng’s meaning and usage in their everyday interactions, while the term quickly becomes just another "word popular on the Internet” listed in end-of-the-year charts, ready to be appropriated by marketing as a local wink to Chinese youth culture.

Fig. 3: Baidu image search for 萌 (meng), as of 28 February 2014: the term ‘cute’ elicits neotenic puppies, babies, young girls, teen models, and eroticised Japanese comic characters. Screenshot by the author

 Fig. 3: Baidu image search for 萌 (meng), as of 28 February 2014: the term ‘cute’ elicits neotenic puppies, babies, young girls, teen models, and eroticised Japanese comic characters. Screenshot by the author

Everything Meng: Localising and Appropriating Cuteness

In the few years since it entered the Chinese vernacular, first as a specialised term adopted by dongman fans and then as a general exclamation for "cute!", meng has been repurposed and adapted to local usages in many different ways, starting from its syntactic function: while in Japanese moe is usually a verb (the action of arousing feelings of passion in the cultivated fan), meng is more frequently used in Chinese as an adjective (cute) and has been quickly compounded in new expressions such as maimeng (literally "to sell cuteness", to act cute), mengwu (cute thing), mengdian (cute selling point), widening the possibilities for its actual usage beyond the specific aesthetic appreciation of female pre-teen anime characters that the word originally refers to.

This generalisation of a culturally specific term to the general domain of aesthetic judgments follows local linguistic patterns: for example maimeng (to act cute) is clearly modelled on pre-existing expressions like zhuang ke'ai (acting cute) or sajiao (acting like a spoiled child) which, as Zhang & Kramarae (762) show, are common Mandarin Chinese terms to describe infantilised gender performativity. This connection between being meng and setting up a performance is confirmed by the commentative practices and negotiations around the cuteness of things: as one of my informants quipped regarding a recently popular Internet celebrity: "Some people think that he is meng. But I don't think he's meng, I think he's just posing." Hence, while Japanese moe characters belong to a specific aesthetic canon in the realm of 2D animation, the cuteness that meng indicates in Chinese refers to a much broader scope of content and interactions, in which the semantic distinctions from other descriptors of cuteness are quite blurred, and negotiated in individual use. As another informant put it, commenting on the new WeChat avatar of one of her contacts: "so meng! This is not just ke'ai, this is more ke'ai than ke'ai, it's meng!"

Other informants explained meng variably as a more or less performed and faked cuteness, as regular non-specified cuteness, as a higher degree or as a different form of it, evidencing how the term is deployed in both online and offline everyday life interactions according to imitation, personal invention, context and situation, dialogic negotiations, shared literacies, and involvements in specific communities. Moreover, besides using it without the sexual overtones of its Japanese counterpart, my research participants were generally not aware of the process of cross-linguistic borrowing and specialised aesthetic meaning of meng—for most of them, it just meant 'cute', although it did so in very personal ways.

These observations do not exclude, however, that meng maintains its linkages to Japanese cultural products and otaku fandom: on the same online platforms where meng was originally borrowed from the lines of fansubbed Japanese anime series, its definition continues to be discussed and compared to its original meaning. The extremely detailed entries on Mengniang Baike (MoeGirl Wiki, http://zh.moegirl.org) testify a devoted effort in collecting and rationalising the Japanese moe aesthetics for an audience of specialised Chinese zhainan (literally 'shut-in guy", the Chinese word for otaku), while Weimeng (Micro-Moe, http://www.weimoe.com) provides a microblogging platform specifically dedicated to sharing dongman content and discuss all things meng.

The recent popularity of the word is not lost on the users of these more specialised online platforms, who often voice their discontent with the casual and naive appropriations of uncultured outsiders. A simple search query of the discussion board archives of AcFun, a popular zhainan culture video streaming website, reveals the taste politics at play around these vernacular terms. Here are some complaints, voiced directly by anonymous users of the board, regarding meng:

"Now I really detest this meng word, day and night everywhere is meng meng meng and maimeng but do you really understand what do these words mean?"

"Don't tell me, alternative people think that watching anime is fashionable; they watch it, learn some new word and use it everywhere. Last time I was playing videogames I heard a girl saying
Girl: 'Do you know what does meng mean?'
Guy: 'I don't know'
Girl: 'You don't even know this! Meng means beautiful, lovely'
Fuck your mom's cunt hearing this I wanted to punch through the screen"

"Anyway these 'popular words' are all leftovers from our playing around, then a bunch of boons start using them and feel pleased of 'having caught up with fashion', hehe"

 Fig. 4:

Fig. 4: "Don't tell me, alternative people think that watching anime is fashionable…", anonymous post commenting on the use of meng on the AcFun message board. Screenshot by the author

Conclusion: Do Signifiers Float in Media Ecologies?

The choice of examining the networks traced by a slang term signifying cuteness was determined by the conviction that the "minor aesthetics" described by Ngai (812) play an important role in the social construction of taste and judgment in contemporary consumer societies. This is especially significant when discussing digital folklore as the content produced by the everyday interactions of users and digital media: cuteness and the negotiations around its deployment are in fact important features of the repertoires of user-generated content shared and consumed on online platforms. In the case of this essay, the strange collective included green sprouts, textbook illustrations, cats, Japanese anime characters, selfies, and Coke bottle label designs. 

Summing up the overview of the word meng presented above, and attempting a critical response to Ngai's linkage of the minor aesthetics of cuteness to national contexts which make them "ideologically meaningful" (819), I suggest the recuperation of Lévi-Strauss’ concept of floating signifier as developed in his analysis of Melanesians’ fuzzy notion of mana. This theoretical choice comes almost naturally when dealing with pervasive terms: as Holbraad explains, “part of the original attraction of mana-terms to anthropologists was their peculiarly double universality – their semantic breadth (‘mana is everywhere’, said the native) coupled with their geographical diffusion (‘mana-terms are everywhere’, replied the anthropologist)” (189). Meng seems to be everywhere in China as both a term (in everyday, online and offline interactions) and as cuteness (in popular culture and media), thus making it an apparently perfect candidate for the role of floating signifier.

Lévi-Strauss deployed Mauss’ concept as a reinforcement of his structuralist conception of meaning against a surfeit of signifiers (Holbraad 196-197), "a symbol in its pure state, therefore liable to take on any symbolic content whatever [...] a zero symbolic value […] a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains" (Lévi-Strauss 63-64). Moore’s framing of the Chinese ku and the American cool as “basic slang terms” (360) follows the same structuralist logic: extremely pervasive terms lose in meaning and specificity what they gain in supplementary symbolic content (in his case, generational distinction). Yet, as shown through the examples presented in the essay, meng does in no case reach a zero symbolic value—rather, it is “signifier and signified (and more)” (Holbraad 197), meaning different kinds of cuteness and aesthetic judgement across more or less specialised usages, situated contexts, individual understandings and dialogic negotiations.

This oversimplified rebuttal to Lévi-Strauss' concept is my attempt to counter several arguments that I believe to be grounded in the structuralist theorisation of series of signifiers and signified: the linkage between aesthetic categories and national contexts (Ngai); the correlation between language and cultural practices or aesthetics (Yano); the semantic analyses of slang terms (Moore, Bai); the memetic explanations of digital folklore (Liu). As briefly illustrated, meng’s popularity does not necessarily convey a specific Japanese aesthetic culture, nor does its adaptation mirror a peculiarly Chinese one; the term does not necessarily define a different form of cuteness, nor does it confront generational values. It could be more useful to conceptualise meng, and other elements of digital folklore, as what Latour calls quasi-objects, strange hybrids existing in different versions and variations across different domains. Understood in this way, meng traces a network leading to: the specialised knowledge of fansubbing communities, the large audiences of video streaming websites, the echo chambers of social networking platforms and participatory media, and the ebbs and flows of popular culture consumption.

To conclude, I agree with Yano that "it remains useful for Asia analysts to observe these ebbs and flows as they intersect with political frameworks, economic trends, and cultural values" (687-88). Meng, as scores of other Chinese slang terms that crowd the yearly charts of ‘words popular on the Internet’ might not be here to stay. But digital folklore is, as long as there will be users interacting and negotiating the minor aesthetics of their everyday life on online platforms. The general theoretical aim of this brief discussion of one vernacular term is evidencing how the very idea of a "Internet culture", when understood through the concepts of media ecology, online vernaculars and quasi-objects becomes hard to grasp through simple surveying, encyclopaedic compilations, statistical analyses or linguistic mapping. Even in a brief contextualisation of one simple slang term, what is revealed is in fact a lively bundle of practices: the cross-linguistic borrowing of a specialised aesthetic, its definition on crowdsourced wikis and anonymous discussion boards, the dialogic negotiations regarding its actual usage in situated contexts of everyday life, and the sectorial dynamics of distinction and taste. Yet, meng just means 'cute'.


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China; digital folklore; online vernacular; Internet culture; cuteness; meng; moe; Japan

Copyright (c) 2014 Gabriele de Seta

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