The classed practice of self-mockery: comparing urban and rural youths’ engagement with online wordplay in China


A noticeable component of the online satirical culture in China, which comprises memes, buzzwords, sayings and other forms of parodies, is self-mockery, known as 自嘲 (zichao) in Chinese. This discursive practice was exemplified by the diaosi wordplay, a scatological term which denotes “dick strings” and connotes “loser” in English. Emerging in late 2011, it became a buzzword widely circulated in Chinese cyberspace and embraced by hundreds of thousands of internet users in both online and offline interactions, particularly among the younger generation. Most researchers, despite the different concepts and analytical frameworks they adopt, view the diaosi phenomenon as symbolising the widespread frustration of the “grassroots”, the “marginalised” or the “subaltern” who face mounting life pressure and improbability of moving up the social ladder in a country which has become increasingly unequal and polarised. Drawing on the in-depth interviews I conducted with a cross section of urban and rural youth in 2016, the presentation aims to complicate the extent to which the diaosi wordplay can be seen as a “grassroots” discursive practice. I will demonstrate its de facto orientation towards and identification by young urbanites and the distinct ways in which my rural (migrant) respondents engage with or disengage from the diaosi wordplay.

Though no longer popular, the diaosi wordplay is a valuable case for examining the class ambivalence of self-mockery which continues to be embodied in new buzzwords and memes in Chinese cyberspace. My key contention is: instead of taking for granted that online satire is “grassroots” or belongs to “marginalised” social groups, the social stratification of internet users and the power dynamics between them have to be analysed in a more critical and nuanced manner. As exemplified by the diaosi phenomenon, the apparently “grassroots” practice of self-mockery may conceal class conflicts and further compartmentalise white-collar workers and manual labourers who are similarly situated in the relationship of social production. Therefore, concepts such as “digital divide”, which entails a normative understanding of digital connection and culture, cannot fully capture the divergence between urban and rural youths’ engagement with online wordplay in China. The latter’s sense of disengagement should be related to their lived experiences and agency to distance themselves from the urban middle-class imaginary that oftentimes underlies online wordplay in China.