Spiritually Finnish

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Article in The Guardian (8/5/18) by Verna Yu:

"Why do millions of Chinese people want to be 'spiritually Finnish'?:  A Finnish cartoon about a socially awkward stickman has become a hit in China – even inspiring a new word in Mandarin. Why has it struck such a chord?"

The new word is jīngfēn 精芬 ("spiritually Finnish").

What does this mean, and why would Chinese want to be that way?

As Yu explains:

Privacy is something of a luxury in China, a land with a population of 1.4 billion. Personal space is not a concept that ordinary Chinese are familiar with. Pushing and shoving is a basic survival skill in cities. If you fail to push with fellow commuters to get on a packed underground train, you’ll be met with impatient stares.

Privacy is also political: the concept of “private property” or “private space” was castigated in the Mao era as an evil of the bourgeois class – and this communist ideal is very much alive today. Throughout China, people are happy to lie down for a nap just about anywhere: in an office pantry, on a park bench, even in a museum or concert hall foyer, looking as comfortable as if the public space were their own living room.

So it is a surprise to see Matti, a socially awkward Finnish cartoon character in the Finnish Nightmares comic series become something of a celebrity in China’s cyberspace. A new term in Mandarin has even been coined to describe people who are like the hero: jingfen, or “spiritually Finnish”. According to a widely distributed definition on social media, jingfen broadly refers to people who dislike socialising – like the Finns, apparently – and take their personal space “extremely seriously”.

It may be comforting for socially inept Chinese to have a term and a stickman who exemplifies it for them to identify with, but I'm not so sure that all Finns would be happy to be thought of that way.


  1. James-Henry Holland said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 11:52 am


  2. m said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

    Q: How can you tell if a Finn is extroverted?
    A: He looks at your shoes when he talks with you.

    Sorry, there are so many Minnesota jokes along these lines.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 7:27 pm

    Thie news story covers a very important Finnish cultural concept/practice, described by the adjective "päntsdrunk," that cries out for the coinage of a Mandarin word accurately translating it: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/embracing-p-ntsdrunk-finnish-way-drinking-alone-your-underwear-ncna896516

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:29 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:

    Great find!

    Just thought of this:

    dú kù yǐnjiǔ 獨褲飲酒 (lit., "alone pants drinking alcohol") — and it sounds pretty good too

  5. Thomas Rees said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 2:59 am

    I get “kalsarikännit”, it’s just “underwear/pants drunk”, but what is “päntsdrunk”? It’s not Swedish – is it just English with a heavy-metal umlaut?

  6. Alex said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 3:09 am

    I wonder if Li Bai was pantsdrunk under the moon?

  7. David Morris said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

    The first comic on the Matti website shows him 'community singing', which is apparently a Finnish nightmare. Yet many Finnish choirs are seriously good.

  8. Ellen K. said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 7:41 pm

    @Thomas Rees

    ä is the Finnish way to write the sound of the vowel in pants. So not a heavy metal umlaut. Apparently to indicate it's not pronounced with the Finnish a vowel, but rather the Finnish ä vowel.

  9. dainichi said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 3:06 am

    >ä is the Finnish way to write the sound of the vowel in pants.

    So Finns map TRAP to /æ/, completely reasonable, but does that mean they map STRUT to /u/? That seems unlikely.

  10. 번하드 said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 7:25 am

    Finland and choirs?
    There is, unforgettable for me, the Helsinki Complaints Choir:

  11. rur said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the link to the Helsinki Complaints Choir.

    (also noted that the captions are a priceless example of found poetry)

  12. ipa said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 7:13 pm

    > So Finns map TRAP to /æ/, completely reasonable, but
    > does that mean they map STRUT to /u/? That seems unlikely.

    It indeed should be written as "päntsdrank" to be more accurate in Finnish ortography. This English "translation" of the well-known term "kalsarikännit" however is probably some newly coined word specifically for marketing purposes, as I have never heard it before.

  13. Kristian said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 5:08 am

    I am from Finland, and I am intrigued by how the Chinese reaction to the cartoon.
    Personally, however, even though it's mildly amusing, I find the cartoon irritating, because it displays the belief that some Finnish people have that they are somehow uniquely socially inhibited among all the peoples of the world.

    The word "päntsdrunk" is complete nonsense to me, by the way. Probably it's been invented for marketing purposes, as ipa says, by someone who doesn't know English very well.

  14. P.B. said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 8:19 pm

    "Having a glass of wine or beer and reading a book" (from the "Päntsdrunk" article) doesn't seem to be particularly Finnish to me, that's just part of normal European culture.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

    I suspect whoever came up with the term päntsdrunk left the u as in English so that the match to the English word "drunk" would be clear. Using ä in the pants part doesn't interfere with seeing the English word pants.

    Which still leaves us to wonder who created it and why.

  16. Wei said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 10:17 am

    I can't believe no one has pointed out that "jingfen" is also the abbreviation of schizophrenia in Chinese. It can't be a coincidence…or can it?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 8:54 am

    From Anu Niemi:

    "Spiritually Finnish" is an amazing new concept! It is apparently the opposite side of being Chinese. The "pushing and shoving" of the Chinese, vs. the amazingly large personal space of the Finnish. There is a certain measure between the people in Finland, in e.g. while standing in a queue, that must not be crossed. People in Finland say that this large personal space is due to the fact that Finland has a lot of space but a few people. We are used to having much space around us.

    And the other concept: kalsarikännit. When I was younger, this is what we did. If there was nobody that could go out to a bar with you and you wanted to get drunk, you did "kalsarikännit". "Kalsari" is more than pants, it refers to the warm underpants one wears while in one's own home. (In cold Finnnish winter, men wear kalsari under the pants.) Wearing "kalsarit" means that one stays in and does not care how one looks. That the usually social event of getting drunk in bars, has turned into a private event of singularly getting drunk alone. It refers mostly to men, but women can do kalsarikännit as well. The state of mind of kalsarikännit is moody and nostalgic, it entails phoning to ex-boyfriends, ordering in pizza and listening to melancholy music. The word "kännit" is one of the MANY words refering to being drunk.

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