Surfer-inflected official Chinese Twitter talk

« previous post | next post »

Emily Rauhala has an entertaining, enlightening article about a startlingly improbable new kind of PRC officialese:

"‘Ever been to Tibet bro?’ A nationalistic Chinese Twitter account goes rogue" (WP, 6/1/16)

The article is so well written that I wouldn't want to try to steal Rauhala's thunder, so I will just quote the first part, and encourage you to read the rest, including clicking on the embedded links, some of which are hilarious (bear in mind that the funniest links go directly to official Chinese government posts).

Is this for real?

When it comes to social media in China, it can be hard to tell. The ruling Communist Party blocks Facebook and Twitter, but also uses both platforms in a bid to bolster the country's soft power abroad.

Between party-controlled media and government accounts, the tone of their English-language offerings ranges from earnest to awkward to oddly sexual. And this week, things took a turn for the surreal — and surfer.

On May 28, a Twitter account purporting to represent China's State Council Information Office, a real government body, went off-script, asking an account called @Tibetans, "Have u ever been to Tibet bro?"

The tone of the tweet is so strikingly at odds with the Communist Party's turgid pronouncements that China-watchers were at a loss. When scholar Tricia Kehoe asked the State Council Information Office if the Twitter account (@chinascio) was real, the office replied that it was just "trying to fit in," adding an "LOL" for good measure.

The replies to its tweets kept coming, prompting heated — and seemingly earnest — responses from @chinascio, which vigorously defended China's Tibet policy using words such as "dude" and "love" to the point that, a group that fights Chinese government censorship, tweeted, "go home State Council Information Office, you're drunk."

What kind of person did they hire to compose these pseudo-trendy responses?  Where did they find such a person?  Or is it a person at all?  Could it be a machine that is programmed to spew out these goofy translations?

There's no doubt that the SCIO tweets have suddenly gotten all chummy and informal, though I wouldn't have thought of "bro", "dude", "LOL", and "love" as belonging particularly to surfer slang.  So I  looked up these four terms on surfer slang sites and discovered that three of these expressions are indeed listed among them:

"Surf Terms"

"Even More Surfer Talk"

"Surfin' Slang"

Here's a 27 second video of a surfer talkin' the talk — I only understand about half of it (comes with dramatic sound effects).

This new trend in PRC bureaucratese was brought to light when, as we have seen, China-watcher Tricia Kehoe asked SCIO about it.  Kehoe is the author of this blog post:

"Naked in Tibet: The Yamdrok Lake Incident and the Violence of Han Hegemony" (4/17/16)

In this blog I discuss a series of images that have sparked uproar and debate among Tibetan and Han netizens over the past few days. The images feature a women posing semi-naked and naked along the shores of Yamdrok Lake, one of Tibet’s four holy lakes. Cyberspace has been ablaze with heated commentary over whether or not this constitutes an act of disrespect to Tibetan culture.

While the story has picked up widespread coverage in both Chinese and Western media, I want to use this blog to reflect on the necessity of situating this particular incident in a long series of state-sponsored practices of ethnic commodification, cultural appropriation, and violent defilement of Tibetan culture for Han desire.

The contrast between that sort of rhetoric and "Ever been to Tibet bro?" is stark.


  1. Graeme said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 12:12 am

    Years since I body surfed where I grew up (Queensland's Sunshine Coast). So surfer or 'skeg' argot is not my strong suit.

    But 'bro' is quintessential Māori-Polynesian English. Akin to 'mate' This popular you tube meme gently teasing Kiwi English uses it incessantly:

    (Some Kiwis see racial denigration in any mocking of 'bro'. Of course a lot of antipodean argot has cockney or Yankee roots. But Routledge's American slang dictionary only references 'bro' in the blokey saying "bros before hos").

    'Bro' doesn't appear in the Aussie Surfing stand lists above. But it does in the third, Hawa'ian (so?) flavoured list. Perhaps a case of a linguistic equatorial current?

    Dude, love and lol are not especially salty either.

    Still, none of this explains where or why a Chinese writer or tweeter would acquire such terms!

  2. Graeme said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 12:15 am

    '(so?)' above was '(sp?)' Before I was spell-chucked.

  3. Pete said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 1:49 am

    "Do you even X, bro?" is a snowclone, seems adapted here.
    (Canonically from "do you even lift, bro?" making fun of gym dude talk, not surfer talk)

  4. Ralph J Hickok said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 6:51 am

    When she was 7 or 8 years old, my granddaughter Annika suggested to a friend that they should play "Surfer Princess."

    "How do we play that?" her friend asked.

    Annika replied, "We dress up like princesses and say 'Dude' a lot."

  5. Chau said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    Self-inflicted or surfer-inflected?

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    Graeme: The OED says that meaning of "bro" is from the Caribbean and the southern U.S., where it started among African-Americans. There are citations back to 1832 when preceding a name, especially in the names of animals in folk tales (the first one is "bro' rabbit", who I imagine is more or less the same as Brer Rabbit in the Uncle Remus stories), 1893 meaning a literal brother, 1918 as a vocative, and 1922 to mean a man, especially a black man.

    I wonder whether all the early examples were pronounced in the modern way. Maybe some were somebody's way of indicating the vowel of "brother".

  7. WSM said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

    Between this and the "Wanton Navigation" Incident (, an unfortunate attempt to get a pun between 横行 and 航行 into English), my money's on a secret society of translators on the inside, trying to undermine China's international image with ridiculous-sounding English.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

    The usual official pronouncements don't fit into 140 characters. Adapting to the general tone of Twitter makes pragmatic sense.

    From the article:

    The person fielding interview requests at @chinascio seemed resigned to the fact that people will wonder whether the office is trolling. "We understand the skepticism, and we will not try to convince people," the person wrote.

    "The believers will believe."

    Haters gonna hate?

    (But I digress. Plosives gonna stop, as someone wise once said on Facebook.)

  9. Sean M said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 2:21 am

    The use of a word meaning "brother" in the vocative to mean "you are a male of equal status" is found in a variety of languages … its used in Northwest Semitic say, and entered Greek and Latin in Egypt and the other European language thanks to Christianity and Judaism. Guessing why someone in the Chinese government chose this register of English, with its form of this device, is beyond my powers! (serious) After all, I have never been in Tibet … (end serious)

  10. David Morris said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 3:41 am

    Korean women commonly call each other 'sister' (specifically eon-ni, the older sister of a woman) – both friends and, for example, a waitress at a restaurant. I don't know if men call each other 'brother' because I've spent more time with Korean women (my wife and her friends here and in Australia).
    Korean women also sometimes call their husbands 'brother' (o-ppa, the older brother of a woman). My wife very occasionally says this to me, but then can't cope when I reply 'yeo-dong-saeng' (the younger sister of a man).

  11. David Morris said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    Ah yes, one of the men at my wife's church in Australia has become my hyeong-nim. But my general impression remains that men do this less than women.

  12. Rob said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 2:51 am

    When I arrived at Cambridge University in 1969 I met a neighbouring fellow student. He informed me he was waiting for a surfer to be delivered.
    Eventually it dawned on me that he meant "sofa". Different worlds …

  13. Graeme said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 7:55 am

    Thanks Jerry and Sean, especially. I'm personally aware, through Aboriginal English, of how different ways of perceiving kinship and relationality leads to greetings like 'brother', even to a passing or acquaintance white fella like me.

    Still interested to know whether 'bro' is used commonly anywhere outside NZ.

  14. AntC said,

    June 8, 2016 @ 2:06 am

    @Graeme [NZ'er here] Yes I hear 'bro' a-plenty.

    But I presumed it's an import from Afro-American rap/reggae or some such. (Probably well superseded there by now.)

  15. Smith said,

    June 8, 2016 @ 2:06 am

    @Graeme: "Still interested to know whether 'bro' is used commonly anywhere outside NZ."
    It appears to be universal. I have never been to NZ, but have had 'bro' as part of my regular vocabulary for about 30 years, having first encountered it among immersion expats in Taiwan in the 80s (admittedly, one of these was a Hawaiian surfer). Since then, and raising three kids, I have heard it in use in Canada, the States and among anglo teens in Europe, where it appears to be the only possible option to 'dude' (though with a different usage pattern, expressing greater intimacy, cf.: "'S'up, dude?" vs. "You ok, bro?"). And while one of said kids is an avid skateboarder and thus Central-European urban equivalent of a surfer, another is an engineer in Silicon Valley, and the term is ubiquitous in both of their otherwise highly disparate circles. So it appears Kiwis can safely venture out into the wider world and still expect to be understood, no sweat, mate, no worries.

RSS feed for comments on this post