Chinese characters and words of the year for 2015

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China Daily has published "Top 10 shortlist of Chinese character of the year announced" (12/17/15).

Since this is only the short list, I will not describe it in detail, but will wait till December 21 (tomorrow) for the the winner to be announced.  For the moment, however, I'll just note that — after some years of confusion about the difference between a word and a character — China now seems to have settled on a clear division between Character of the Year and Word of the Year, so that they are running two contests simultaneously.

Another difference with the American Word of the Year contest is that the latter almost always features new, clever inventions that reflect changing social, cultural, and political values, trends, and phenomena, whereas candidates for both the Chinese character and word of the year tend to read like compilations of terms from the approved news media.

Bear in mind that the Chinese contest is sponsored and administered by government agencies and official organizations.  If the contest were based on actual usage on microblogs, messaging, and so forth, the picture would be quite different.  Instead of the bland gathering of the most frequent terms in government media, we would find lively and interesting vocabulary such as that collected in "Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics", "Blocked on Weibo", and the like.  There you will find creative, progressive use of language that truly deserves to be considered as China's word of the year.

It seems that everybody and his brother in the Sinosphere wants to get in on the character of the year act:

The Chinese character of the year in Malaysia

This year they picked kǔ 苦 ("bitter"), which indicates an intensification of the pessimism felt during the last two years:

2013 zhǎng 涨 ("rise" [in cost of living])

2014 háng 航 ("aero-) — referring to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 which disappeared on March 8, 2014 with loss of all on board

In the two years before that, hope for improvement was expressed by:

2011 zhuǎn 转 ("turn; revolve")

2012 gǎi 改 ("change")

It should be noted that all the other top nine candidates for this year's character of the year had negative connotations, so the situation looks bleak indeed.

The Chinese character of the year in Singapore

Here they picked the second character of the given name of Lee Kuan Yew 李 光耀, who died on March 23 of this year.  It is composed of 20 strokes and conveys the following meanings:  "shine, sparkle, dazzle; boast; glory".  Given its difficulty and relative infrequency, outside of the Prime Minister's given name, this character would not be an obvious choice for character of the year.  Furthermore, it is ironic in light of:

a. the Prime Minister's limited literacy in Chinese

b. His emphasis on the importance of English

See, for example, here and here.

Until the Chinese word of the year contests become more sensitive to vox populi, they will continue to lack the fervor and excitement of WOTY contest sponsored by the American Dialect Society.

[h.t. Fangdan Li]


  1. Michael Rank said,

    December 21, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    I see one of the official Chinese words of the year listed by China Daily is 雾霾 (wùmái, smog). The character 霾 is new to me, I wonder if 雾霾 is the usual word for smog these days or is reserved for People’s Daily editorials and the like. Dictionaries give 烟雾 which seems more likely….

  2. Michael Watts said,

    December 21, 2015 @ 3:13 pm

    雾霾 is in common vernacular use (in Shanghai) to refer to the air pollution.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    Here's a roundup of Chinese-language WOTYs…

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

    There's also this video:

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